Busy time of California wine grape season under social-distance rules

The annual wake-up of wine grapevines across the California North Coast after winter dormancy is just over a month old, but as crews are preparing to fan out among the rows this spring, they face a viral threat that has nothing to do with agriculture.

Meanwhile, just over a year after concerns started building of an oversupply of grapes and wine, there could be early indications that the societal response to the virus is kickstarting demand for wine to a certain degree.

Living with new restrictions

The wine business has been rapidly readjusting its marketing tactics since mid-March, when county and state shelter-at-home orders intended to slow the spread forced closure or scaling back of major sales channels for fine wine - tasting rooms, restaurants, cruise ships and airlines.

However, winery production and vineyard operations are deemed to be among the “essential” elements of the economy allowed to continue during the lockdown, just extended in much of the San Francisco Bay Area to May 3.

Atlas Vineyard Management has offices in Napa and Windsor for farming operations across 3,900 acres in the North Coast, Oregon and Central Coast, but mostly centered around Napa and Sonoma counties.

After a number of frosty nights in the past two months, daily temperatures are rising and vine buds are starting to emerge across the North Coast properties, according to Barry Belli, CEO and co-founder. The company's workforce is set to swell by 150-200 to start on Monday trimming vine root shoots, called suckers, and applying agricultural sprays.

“Suckering is going to hit hard and heavy in the next two to three weeks,” he said.

But hiring so many so quickly is a challenge under social-distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus behind the potentially deadly COVID-19 respiratory condition. Instead of the typical practice of hiring in groups of 20-30, now the limit is 10, all sitting at least 6 feet apart.

Centralized practices such as handing out paychecks from inside the offices and having crews meet before heading out to the vineyards of the day are now decentralized.

Certain compounds used for spraying require respirator masks under state licenses, but masks are being made available for workers who want to wear them on the job for other tasks, all while managing the inventory to make sure enough are available for when they're required, according to Belli.

Guidelines coming in from agricultural trade groups such as the California Association of Winegrape Growers are adapting the social-distance guidelines for the row-based standard layout of the vines, in addition to adding more portable toilets, cleaning them multiple times a week, setting up hand-washing stations at the toilets, teaching workers proper technique and having them stay home if they feel sick.

Atlas uses the alternating-row practice, putting an empty one between workers at any given time as the crew moves down the row and across the vineyard blocks.

At Bettinelli Vineyard in Napa Valley, the roughly 100 workers in the vineyards now are spaced four or five rows (about 40-50 feet) apart, according to partner Paul Goldberg.

“We've taken the current situation extremely seriously,” Goldberg said.

Peak labor demand for Napa Valley vineyards is May through July for taming the vine canopy to achieve the client winemaker's desired balance of shade, sun and wind, he said.

Bevill Vineyard Management farms about 1,200 acres centered on Sonoma County's Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. The two-person crews that were spraying for mildew in the vineyards up to a week and a half ago were separated by distance and the tractor cab enclosure, according to owner Duff Bevill.

Rather than oral instructions, vineyard workers get written directions and arrive in the evening. The three workers in the farm shop work in separate areas and are responsible for multiple times daily sanitizing door knobs there and nozzles at the fuel depot used by a number of other employees.

In the company office, the staff alternate work days to avoid close contact, and visitors must use sanitation supplies on a chair outside before entering and after leaving.

But the two farmworker dormitories at separate company sites took careful planning, Bevill said.

“Four guys are living in a bedroom less than 6 feet apart, so we're trying to isolate them as a group,” he said. That means no guests are allowed until further notice, and they must stay on the property. Two workers are designated to buy food and other supplies for them, and those two have to wash their hands and sanitize before they enter the dormitory after the trip.

Two decades ago, Bevill worked with the state winegrape trade group to develop best practices for worker injury prevention that were rolled into the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance third-party certification program.

The alternating-row approach is also being applied to meetings between grape and bulk-wine brokers and their winery and vineyard clients, according to Brian Clements, partner of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

“We're not doing a lot of vineyard visits,” Clements said. “But when we do, we have three or four rows between us, and we yell at each other.”

Taking a pause in buying

But the market for more grapes and excess wine already was slow going into 2020, with wine sales growth overall down last year.

“We thought the first and second quarter would be slow for pinot noir and chardonnay,” Clements said. “The coronavirus added a dimension we had not anticipated at the first of this year.”

Wineries that had sales targeted to restaurants, airlines and cruise ships are taking a pause in buying activity until the virus crisis eases, he said.

For Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley, two-thirds of sales roughly are in sold in retail and direct-to-consumer channels, according to CEO Bob Knebel.

“We're grateful for where we are at the moment,” he said. “But I don't now what will happen if this is protacted.”

He's pleased with government efforts at various levels to shore up the economy, but he expects demand for wine to soften a bit leading up to harvest this fall. That makes planning for grape and wine supply tricky at the moment.

But Knebel noted that Rombauer has a number of new customers coming to it because of the shipping promotions being offered, a tactic many wineries are taking to try to replace sales in the temporarily closed restaurants and tasting rooms. Some of the new online orderers have become club members, he said.

“I'm watching hour by hour that it is conceivable that as a consequence of these efforts to dramatically stop the spread of the virus that people are shifting even faster to buying direct and not worrying about shopping,” Knebel said. “I don't believe it will be a complete shift that would put in jeopardy restaurants down the road.”

Staff Writer Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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