By Bill Swindell
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Under a clear blue sky, Cecilia Méndez is the model of efficiency as she picks grapes and supervises her crew at the Oat Valley Vineyard at Cooley Ranch just north of Cloverdale.
In her hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans, she swiftly cuts away clusters of carignane grapes that will ultimately go into a red blend made by Windsor Vineyards. And as a forewoman, Méndez keeps her eyes on her 10-person crew, made up mostly of women, while they work through the 10-acre plot.
The 44-year-old Santa Rosa mother of three is part air-traffic controller as she rises at 4 a.m. to make sure her crew will be at the vineyard and coordinate their rides; part maternal figure as she helps recruit other women for the work and shows them the ropes, and part no-nonsense referee as she recently had to break up chest-puffing between two men over a dispute if one crew should be paid more for helping out another.
Most of all, she is an indispensable link who ensures that her employer, Redwood Empire Vineyard Management Inc., provides quality service in the competitive North Coast wine industry.
“We love her,” gushes Linda Barr, the Geyserville company’s owner and vice president, who has 10 forewomen working for her this harvest along with approximately 60 other women as crew members. “The growers, our clients, saw them and saw what a great job they did and they have complimented them quite frequently over the years.”
Méndez also represents a trend in the local grape industry as wineries and grape growers hire more women for their harvest crews.
It comes amid a tight farmworker market that shows no sign of abating and an increasing realization that women are just as capable as men in the job, which requires them to handle trays that can weigh as much as 40 pounds and work in temperatures that can shoot past 90 degrees.
“I have seen a definite increase (in female vineyard workers) in the last couple of years,” said Amelia Morán Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards, who herself worked in Napa Valley vineyards at the age of 12 in 1967. “It was pretty well even, maybe 50-50 this year.”
The gender breakdown in the local industry is difficult to obtain, but the National Agricultural Workers Survey continues to show that farm work is still a male-dominated profession.
In the 2000 survey, 80 percent of the workers were male and 20 percent were women. A decade later, 76 percent of the workers were men and 24 percent were women.
But local vineyard managers say the path is tilting toward more women in the vineyards.
Many are recruited by family members who are already working in the fields. Barr said her company began hiring female pickers about 10 years ago and it has grown since, especially as the women build up camaraderie together.
“You repeat year over year over year. It’s the same crew. It’s the same leaders. It makes it so easy,” Barr said. “We know we can pick the grapes; provide the service we say we can.”
Enzenauer Vineyard Management out of Healdsburg hired its first full female crew this year, at the behest of foreman Roberto Vega, who went to management this spring and asked to bring in women as an option for the labor shortage, said Katie Sereni, who oversees crews for the company.
Of the original 10 women who started with Enzenauer this year, six have stayed through harvest.
“They have been great. … We hope they stay with us,” said Sereni, who said she can see making at least one woman a forewoman in the future.
Méndez said she enjoys her work for Redwood Empire, especially having another woman, Barr, as her supervisor.
Barr is attuned to the needs of her female workers, for example, always ensuring that there is a separate portable toilet for them on the job, which a male supervisor would likely not contemplate.
“I’ve always liked to work my way up. I’m happy,” Méndez said in Spanish via an interpreter. “I would like to take on more responsibility. Above all, I’m really responsible and like what I do.”
Unlike other women who come to work in the vineyards primarily through friends and family connections, Méndez said she found her job on her own when she came to Redwood Empire two years ago. She has worked in the industry for a total of 10 years. “I’ve always found my own jobs,” she said. “I’ve always liked the field.”
She also helps to recruit additional women, even those without previous farmworker experience. “I like to teach and share the craft,” Méndez said.
Fellow forewoman Martina Alvarez of Windsor also recruits more female workers, noting she has brought 10 women into her crew this year.
“It’s not hard work (by itself). What’s hard is managing the elements, the heat and the cold,” said Alvarez, a mother of four whose husband works for a winery.
She also has to help out new workers, making sure they have their shears — and small stone for sharpening them — along with gloves and safety glasses. She also assists them with picking techniques.
“There’s a learning curve. It’s hard when you are just learning,” Alvarez said in Spanish.
Juggling family life makes it more difficult for Alvarez during harvest as opposed to the offseason, when hours are more manageable, running from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. She has one child at the University of San Francisco, another at Santa Rosa Junior College and two in grade school.
“Everyone is up at 4 a.m.,” Alvarez said. “They go to after-school program until 6 p.m., and then we pick them up.”
Barr said that, physically, the women can do most of the same work as the men, although some may have difficulty lifting the trays into the bins, which are later stacked onto tractor-trailers.
But her crews work as a team, she said, noting that one male the other day took responsibility for shoveling all the grapes from the trays into the bins.
Barr said she will often help out as well, even cleaning the toilets if need be.
Méndez has no leeway for skeptics who think that such work is a man’s job. “The people who say that, with no offense, are probably not capable of doing the job themselves,” she said.
While women might not be as physically strong as men, they are just as fast, said Lise Asimont, director of grower relations for the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. They are very conscientious ensuring the fruit isn’t damaged as it goes into the bin, a prime concern for winemakers.
“They are not going to go in and try muscle them (the grapes) out,” Asimont said. “They’re more careful about doing it.”
Asimont said she first learned about the quality work performed by female pickers in her first job out of college in 2000 as an assistant vineyard manager at Cambria Estate Winery in Santa Barbara County.
She thought she would be the only woman out in the field, but was pleasantly surprised to see that 14 out of the 25 crew leaders were women.
Enzenauer crews are paid per ton. On a six-day week, a worker could net as much as $1,000 a week, Sereni said, though most average around $600 to $700.
The average annual salary for an employee in the Sonoma County vineyard industry was $31,269 in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ten years ago, it was $21,888.
The agricultural workforce has become less migrant and older in recent years, said Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, as the industry goes toward more mechanization.
“People are doing what they can do to keep their current workers,” Martin said. “The whole vineyard (industry) has gone from seasonal to pretty much year-round.”
The competition for labor is fierce, Sereni said, and companies are under pressure to provide year-round work in the offseason through such chores as replanting, pruning, tying vines and removing leaves. That will allow crew members to stay and work the next harvest.
“When you got good ones, you got to hold onto them,” she said.