Winery Hires Jobless for Harvest

Salisbury recruits newbies for temp work in the vineyard

by Jane Firstenfeld
Salisbury vineyards san luis obispo
John Salisbury will dip into a new labor pool to harvest grapes in his SLO County vineyards this season. Photo: salisburyvineyards.com.

San Luis Obispo, Calif.—Taking a page from the United Farm Workers Union, John Salisbury, president of Salisbury Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County, opened his picking crews to anyone interested and capable of performing the labor. He was happily surprised at the response to his “call to arms.” By yesterday, he’d signed on 16 pickers, and calls keep flooding into the 12,000-case winery, many from people who’ve never before performed physical labor.

In June 2010, the UFW issued a challenge to those hoping to curtail the use of migrant labor in United States agriculture: “Take Our Jobs,” famously publicized on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” didn’t draw many takers last year.

Offering $12.50 per hour with a guarantee of $80 per day for six-to-seven hours’ work, Salisbury announced his plan on a local TV station and, he told Wines & Vines, “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing.” Citing California’s current 12% unemployment rate, the lifelong farmer said he wants to do the right thing by hiring struggling locals to supplement experienced crews that normally come in after the strawberry harvest in Santa Maria Valley.

Who can do it?
Harvesting grapes is physically taxing, as most in the industry know, but the requirements are few: Ability to lift a 35-pound lug, keep up with the crew and, of course, “necessary documentation.” The winery will provide the cotton gloves and shears. Salisbury and his professional vineyard staff will supervise the labor.

Salisbury farms 35 acres of vines in coastal Avila Valley and another 10 acres inland in Paso Robles. Currently, daytime temperatures are holding around a comfortable 72ºF near the coast, although they’ll likely approach 100ºF inland. Originally, Salisbury planned to start picking Pinot Noir and Albariño this week in Avila, move east to Paso for Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, then back to the coast for Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and cool-climate Syrah. Crush was on schedule this year, he said, and should be complete in about six weeks. A sudden cool spell postponed start of harvest until next week.

Expecting a normal yield of 2.5 to 3 tons per acre, Salisbury said, “We never have a short crop here.” Smaller vineyards across the continent often rely on volunteer fans, friends and families to harvest an acre or two of grapes, rewarded with wine and pizza; Salisbury is considering a similar program for those who’d like to try their hands without a full-time commitment—or paycheck.

Prior to an orientation/training session scheduled for next Monday, Salisbury said, “I can’t wait to see what they look like. Some women called to offer their husbands,” and some mothers nominated their sons.

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