Sonoma County wineries grapple with keeping workers safe as annual harvest nears
With about two months before the first wine grapes will be picked on the North Coast, wineries and vineyards are gearing up for an annual harvest that will be unlike any other, given the coronavirus.
Winemakers are running checks on cluster counts on the grapevines that will determine yields. And vineyard farmworkers are removing leaves from vines to get the right amount of sun on the fruit to make it most favorable.
All the preparation for regional harvest, which was valued at $1.7 billion last year, is being done with greatly enhanced safety measures to try to keep the virus away. Workers are having their temperatures checked and being spaced at least 6 feet along vineyard rows. Cellar crews in wineries are grappling with how they will process the fruit and they realize they will have to take in far fewer grapes each day.
“You’re seeing a lot of face masks. You’re seeing a lot of protection so that people are really not jumping in contact with each other much,” said Adam Lee, owner of Clarice Wine Co., who also assists with Siduri Wines, which he started and later sold to Jackson Family Wines.
Earlier this spring, Lee conducted wine blending for Siduri with its winemaker Matt Revelette, while social distancing in different rooms. “By and large it has been working,” Lee said.
Despite careful planning and preparation, the elusive highly contagious new coronavirus already has infiltrated the area wine sector. That’s raising concerns inside and outside the industry in Sonoma County - with its more than 450 wineries - as final work is being done for harvest set to begin in late August.
Public details are scant on two viral outbreaks involving vineyard and production workers at separate local wineries that county Health Officer ?Dr. Sundari Mase has revealed. The first outbreak, disclosed May 29, infected 14 vineyard workers who were residing in communal living, said Mase, declining repeated requests from The Press Democrat for the name and location of the winery, among other details.
Then during a Monday press briefing the health officer said three winery employees working in production also had contracted the virus. Even with the second outbreak, the wine industry being the premier business sector in the county and annual harvest around the corner, local health officials have remained silent on details about either cluster of wine business infections.
Sources inside and outside wine circles said last week they did not know at which companies the outbreaks are centered. Susan Gorin, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said the winery with the 14 infected vineyard workers is located in her district in the Sonoma Valley, though she doesn’t know the name of the business. She acknowledged she has a suspicion about who it is but no confirmation.
“From my perspective, it is immaterial the name of the winery. What’s most important is to use this as a learning experience for all wineries and vineyards owners,” Gorin said. “OK, this happened and here’s how the (viral) transmission happens. What are you doing to do to prevent or mitigate that from being repeated in your own winery?”
The Press Democrat did speak with at least one prominent local winery executive after reporting indicated the operation might be affected by the virus, but the person insisted the business had no workers infected by COVID-19. (With no confirmation from county health officials or other corroborative reporting on the wineries connected with the two local outbreaks, the newspaper is not disclosing the names of the winery executive or the winery the person operates.)
Luis Davila, a vineyard crew supervisor for Enterprise Vineyards, said the crew he manages at a vineyard in Napa County has instituted many protocols to protect the 18 workers. That includes social distancing techniques such as working every other vineyard row and eating lunch at least 6 feet away from other workers. Most of the crew comes daily from Yuba City, so he typically has those workers in one section so they don’t mingle with other workers. “No one has gotten sick and we have been cautious with everything,” Davila said.
Balletto winery in Santa Rosa had a scare earlier in spring when one vineyard worker became ill. After a trip to the doctor, the worker was placed in quarantine for seven days even though he started feeling better a few days after his visit, company founder John Balletto said. Other workers were moved to another house.
“It was a big task but we were very proactive on all that kind of stuff,” he said. “That’s important, and I’m sure a lot of my colleagues and friends who are in the same business, you know they’re doing the same thing.”