Immigrants Make American Wine Great
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images.


This story is over 5 years old.


Immigrants Make American Wine Great

With the recent uptick in immigration raids, many people in the wine industry have begun fearing for their workers' safety, and the labor shortage that such raids could cause.

Do you like wine? What about American wine? If you enjoy drinking a nice, robust Napa Valley cabernet, or an earthy Oregon pinot, the fact is that immigrant labor played a significant role in producing those wines—starting in the vineyards, where workers who often hail from Latin America, primarily Mexico, are in charge of pruning and maintaining the vineyards, and harvesting the grapes by hand.

After a recent raid on immigrant communities in Oregon, the wine industry there is wondering whether it will have enough pickers come harvest season. Early in February, the organization Causa, which supports immigrants in Oregon, noticed an uptick in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity, according to executive director Andrea Williams. A worker in a plant nursery without any criminal history, and who is married with five children that were all born here, "was picked up for an outstanding deportation order, which is pretty typical for an undocumented person to have and is still a civil offense." Then, on February 24, a van full of farmworkers was detained by ICE at 6 AM as they headed to pick ornamental flowers. "They claimed they were looking for two individuals and then took in everybody to ICE detention," says Williams. Because the group as a whole was targeted "indiscriminately," she says, Causa considers the roundup a raid. (Several of the detainees were released, but four individuals now have pending court cases.)


The big hit came to Oregon between March 26 and 28, when ICE launched an official "operation" resulting 84 arrests across the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, Washington, and Oregon), including 23 from the Portland area. "Our phone were ringing off the hook," says Williams, as people called for advice on what to do about their detained family members. Two of the individuals detained in Oregon (and one in Washington) were "dreamers"—meaning that they were recipients of Obama's DACA program, which was launched in 2012 to protect immigrants who were brought to the US as children. The detainees, Francisco and Emmanuel both arrived here at the age of six, are now in their early twenties and in college.

"We have a 'safety preparedness plan' in case we have to relocate to Mexico—people who would care for our home while we are away," says a woman whose husband is an undocumented immigrant.

Dreamers are "vetted by the US government and given protection against deportation for a time," explains Williams—and they pay $495 every two years for this privilege. The ICE operation has left people feeling vulnerable and betrayed, Williams says, after they "had paid their fine and trusted that the US government would keep their information safe. Here's ICE knocking at their door, and they know where they live and they know everything about them, because they gave their info to the government."

Putting aside moral objections to these family-rending raids for a moment, a serious logistical question remains: Can our $38 billion wine industry even survive without immigrant labor? Donald Trump's son Eric seems to think not, which is why his Virginia winery, Trump Winery, has applied to bring in dozens of immigrant workers. Across the nation, there's a shortage of labor in agriculture, which stems from policies that tightened the border with Mexico under the Obama administration. The issue is, of course, that most Americans don't want these relatively low-paying ($10.72 per hour in Virginia) and physically demanding jobs.


Physical human labor is vital for producing great wine—partly because hand-harvesting grapes, rather than using a machine, is one thing that sets fine wine apart from mass-produced, two-buck-chuck.

"There's some mechanization here, but primarily a lot of the pinot noir that consumers drink across the country is hand-farmed, and hand-harvested throughout the year," says the general manager of a winery in Oregon, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity due to fear of harassment. "A lot of people move up and down the coast doing this kind of work," she explains. "Any change in the labor force would affect availability [of wine], which in turn would impact pricing—there would be an increase in labor costs." And the winery itself has not found a way to stand up for the welfare of their employees. "If we speak up for our employees, we might be targeted—and then it would be an unsafe work environment for our employees."

A perpetual sense of uncertainty increasingly characterizes daily life for immigrant communities in these prestigious wine regions. While the crackdown on illegal immigration began with the previous administration, ICE has become emboldened by anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies under Trump—and it's not only resulting in deportations, but also a general culture of fear among immigrants, even if they do have papers. The reality is, within an immigrant family, some but not all people might have legal status, and even then there's always some sort of a gray zone.


"We have a 'safety preparedness plan' in case we have to relocate to Mexico—people who would care for our home while we are away," says a woman whose husband is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She's been living in the US for 15 years and works for a company that does high-end paint jobs at top Napa Valley wineries like Harlan Estate and Charles Krug. The couple has also placed a "red card" by their door with their Fifth Amendment rights on it, "in case someone comes to the door and we get flustered and need a reminder," she says.

Napa Valley's wine industry would completely shut down if the area's undocumented workers were deported.

In Napa County, the main city in Napa Valley, about one-third of the county's population consists of immigrants from Latin America, mostly Mexico (and largely from the Michoacán and Jalisco regions). As much as half of those could be undocumented, which is also the estimate for immigrant agricultural workers in the country overall, according to Pew Research surveys. Shortly after Trump's election last fall, Puertas Abiertas, a Napa Valley non-profit focused on supporting immigrant populations, held a meeting of their members. People expressed feeling "really fearful about the future," and asked for information on how they could get on the fast-track to citizenship, recalls Melissa Patrino, the organization's executive director. Since then, there's been a regular stream of people requesting "notarized documents to give to friends or relatives in case they get deported, so those people can oversee their children."

Patrino recalls that in March, she learned of a man who had just dropped off his daughter at middle school when ICE officers approached him and put him in their car. They called his wife and told her where his truck was, but didn't say where they were taking her husband. She came to Puertas Abiertas, desperate for help, and they were able to find out that her husband was at an ICE detention center in San Francisco, to be shipped off first to San Bernardino, then likely back to Mexico.

Napa Valley's wine industry "would completely shut down" if the area's undocumented workers were deported, says Patrino. They aren't "just picking grapes—you're talking about restaurants and hotels, the entire industry."

While our 45th President's rhetoric suggests that he doesn't mind tearing families apart, and his teetotaling indicates he has little interest in wine, destroying domestic industry sure doesn't seem like a good way to Make America Great Again, does it?