Almost all of the vineyard workers in California are Mexican. Tending vines pays well compared to other types of agriculture, so they're far from destitute. But the men who harvest the grapes that go into your Napa and Sonoma County wines generally have no hope of buying a home in the area.
It's a common misconception that many of these guys are illegal aliens. There are some migrant workers on harvest crews, who may not have their papers checked carefully for a few days' work. But the majority of established wineries keep fulltime, legal vineyard crews.
Housing them is always a problem, though. If you work in St. Helena, where even small houses cost more than $700,000, it's inconceivable to live close by while making $12 an hour. Vineyard workers are forced to look for cheap accommodation up to an hour's drive away, in Lake County, Vallejo and the other outskirts of wine country.
Some wineries own dormitories where the guys live. One of the great experiences of my career was spending a night with the Seghesio crew. The dorms aren't uncomfortable, but it's hardly the American or Mexican dream to work hard yet spend one's adult life living in an all-men's dorm.
I had a distressing conversation with a VP for a large Napa Valley winery last week, who told me that at his company, many vineyard workers had been taken advantage of by predatory lenders.
The lenders speak Spanish, and they assure the workers that the lease will work out. Most US natives can't read and understand a mortgage agreement without legal help, so what hope does a Mexican worker with poor language skills have? The VP told me a lot of his employees trusted the suit-wearing compadre with the official title who told them, you too can live the American dream.
I chewed on this tidbit for a few days. Frankly, it deserves better treatment than this one-off blog post. A newspaper could do it more justice, with some interviews of workers who have lost everything and now have bad credit to boot, and some examples of the unpayable mortgages they signed. Unfortunately, I also have to try to make a living and can't devote that kind of time to this story.
So I'm throwing it out there for the wider world. Anybody who wants to write about this story -- predatory Spanish-speaking lenders hoodwinking vineyard workers -- please do so.