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Sonoma County vintner offers farmworkers ‘hazard pay’ during smoky days

A Sonoma County wine and food venture has committed to paying farmworkers more for going out into smoky or other potentially hazardous conditions to pick grapes or other make-or-break tasks.

This follows a similar move by a large California winery earlier this year.

Sonoma Valley-based Eco Terreno Wines & Vineyards, owned by former longtime Sebastiani Vineyards winemaker Mark Lyon, in late October finalized an agreement to pay its dozen field workers time-and-a-half for outside work when the air-quality index, or AQI, goes above 150 — a level considered unhealthy for most people — near the north county vineyard property.

Field crews working in smoky air has been a growing concern during the string of widespread North Bay wildfires at harvest time in 2017—2020.

“It was already in our ethos to be able to take care of our team members,” said Rob Izzo, general manager.

Lyon started Eco Terreno in 2012 while he was still at Sebastiani, where he had been making wines since 1985. It has two properties, with 103 of the 163 total acres planted with vines, are on River Road near Cloverdale in the Alexander Valley appellation.

The vineyards were certified Biodynamic by the Demeter Association and organic by CCOF in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

With that focus on holistic agriculture, it made sense for Eco Terreno to pay according to cost of living, Izzo said.

“My goal is trying to get everybody at the vineyard up to $25 (an hour) and have that be a minimum wage for full-time employees,” Izzo said. The company already covers 100% of health care premiums for full-time vineyard workers and spouses.

The current minimum wage in California is $14 an hour for companies with 25 or fewer employees, going up on Jan. 1, 2023, to $15 to match the wage floor for larger firms.

Izzo said his intent is to match the “living wage” for Cloverdale. Per-capita annual income in Cloverdale was $41,400 and in Sonoma County $44,000, according to the 2020 Census. That works out to about $20 and $21 an hour, respectively.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator estimates Sonoma County’s living wage minimum ranges from $21.67 an hour for a single worker with no kids up to $75.82 for a single-parent household with three children. That wage needed to support three children with one or two parents working is figured to be $54.82 or $38.49 an hour, respectively.

Eco Terreno is a small-scale, ultra-premium winery. Last year it produced 5,000 cases, sold half to wholesale and half directly to consumers. The wines retail from $22–56 a bottle on store shelves and $60–$140 for wines tailored to direct sales.

Production is going up to 8,300 cases annually this year, with more wholesale demand, Izzo said.

On Thursday, Lyon is opening its tasting room and restaurant in San Francisco, called Lyon & Swan Food and Debauchery. Five years in the works because of city permitting and pandemic delays, the three-story, 5,500-square-foot facility includes a live entertainment and a 2,200-square-foot restaurant with small-plate fare in the $20 range.

It will be hard for Lyon & Swan to match living wages in San Francisco, Izzo said. Single workers there would have to make $30.81 an hour with no kids, up to $99.53 for three children, according to MIT’s metrics.

Such wages for one- or two-parent households with three children would have to be $50.34 and $68.99 an hour, respectively.

Izzo would not disclose the San Francisco restaurant wage scales. But he did point to as a target the $22-an-hour minimum goal for fast-food workers in a newly signed state law on reforming pay and working conditions for such employees.

Izzo came to the idea of hazard pay while participating in a Aug. 12 panel discussion on farmworker issues hosted by nonprofit Los Cien. He was talking before the event with panelist Max Bell Alper, executive director of advocacy group North Bay Jobs With Justice.

Izzo committed to hazard pay for his company publicly at the event and later worked with the group on language that later became part of the employee handbook.

The labor advocacy organization has been pursuing agricultural labor reforms, including tightening requirements for vineyard operators to access their properties during wildfire evacuations. The group staged protests outside the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chambers in Santa Rosa earlier this summer during hearings on the matter.

Supervisors in August approved new rules for such access, called “ag passes.” But after strong pushback from the ag industry, they rejected to include the requirement for hazard pay when the air quality worsened in the smoke, The Press Democrat reported.

The board earlier in the summer had set aside up to $3 million toward wildfire disaster relief for farmworkers.

Hazard pay did become part of a new five-year contract inked in March between Madera-based E. & J. Gallo Winery, the world’s largest vintner, and United Farmworkers, according to union regional director Antonio Cortes. Gallo, which has several North Coast wineries and hundreds of acres of local vines, declined to comment on the contract.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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