Labor crisis in the vineyard
Vintage 2013 grapes, though still small and green, are abundant in the vineyard. There is a lot of vineyard work that should have been done three or four weeks ago, work like suckering and deleafing. These actions make sure the small grape bunches receive just the right balance of air and sunshine for optimal ripening and flavor development.
But there’s a problem this year. Vineyard manager Chuy is short about 40 percent of his typical vineyard work force and new vineyard workers cannot be found. And the same is happening all over the county. Most crews are working overtime and weekends. Our border with our neighbors to the south is now so tight that enough men just cannot get through. “Coyotes” (people smugglers) are now charging $5,000 to $7,000 per person. Some workers have returned to Mexico as the economy there has been improving, and others have found new jobs in expanding construction industries and other areas and have not been replaced.
We are expecting Congress to pass a new immigration bill that will authorize temporary agricultural workers and define a path for workers already here to become legal. Maybe that will solve the problem, maybe not. For now, the labor shortage is affecting crops all over our state, and will begin to cause price increases for many types of foods.
This poses is a real threat for harvest time when we need even larger crews. Mechanical picking units use only a small three- or four-man crew. These giant machines work fine for grapes grown in the Central Valley where the land is flat and the straight rows go as far as you can see. They don’t work on hillside vineyards like ours. Besides, machine picking doesn’t fit our philosophy of terroir.
And now a word from our vineyard spokesvines Marie and Javier.
All is going well with vintage 2013, although we did have a tough time settling down after hearing that the wine from our grapes had been chosen The “Governor’s Selection” in the Stanford Alumni wine program. Mon Dieu! the first time in the history of the program that a white wine has been so selected.
Grapes for Vintage 2013 are clearly now big enough to look like real bunches. The individual berries are now big enough to achieve what Chuy calls ‘Bunch closure’ – when the individual berries grow big enough to touch each other.
In spite of low rain this spring, the growth of our foliage is impressive. We really need Chuy and his men to get out here and remove some of this extra growth so that our young bunches can get the right amount of air and sunshine.
More important, we have just received our nutrition analysis, called Petiole Analysis by the professionals. Leaf stems, called petioles, are collected at bloom time throughout the vineyard and chemically analyzed – like a blood test for you humans. Turns out we could use some potassium…who knew! This is important since potassium plays a major role in grape maturity. But we cannot add this nutrient until we have had deleafing and suckering to open up our vines for proper penetration of the potassium nutrient.
When Chuy and his depleted army finally come back, he will inject liquid potassium in our irrigation water.
What happened to our bees?
In the early years at our ranch we not only had wild bee hives but guest hives placed in our orchard by professional beekeepers. Over the last 10 years the wild hives have disappeared, as well as the commercial guest hives. We have tried to establish new bee hives for the last four years with little success. Each year, the new hives seem to get started for one or two seasons, then the bees just disappear. This is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Studies suggest that CCD may be caused by widespread use of a family of nicotine-like sprays called ‘neonics,’ a family of systemic agricultural sprays used on some 75 percent of agricultural farmlands. Because the toxin is taken up by the plant’s whole system, whenever the bee comes in contact with any part of the plant it can be contaminated. All of this is under intense research.
This spring is the first time in our some 40 years here on the ranch we had no beehives. Grapes are self-pollinating, but there would really be trouble if we were depending on our fruit trees to generate revenue. The disappearing bees remain a major issue for us all.
The Patron’s Report
I can report that this month I turned 92. By any standard, at this age I must admit that I am growing old. But what does “old” mean anyway? I still wake to the dawn, fascinated by the search for new agricultural practices for turning grapes into wine. Besides, there is still so much to do.
Owner, Indian Springs Ranch and Vineyards