Wednesday, August 11, 2010

USA to foreign winemaker: We don't need you

This weekend you might want to drop by the Finger Lakes Riesling Festival to say goodbye to the region's best winemaker.

He's not leaving tomorrow, but unless some unknown bureaucrat at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changes positions, Johannes Reinhardt could be booted out of this country next summer.

The reason is that winemaking isn't considered a valuable skill by the USCIS. We have plenty of domestic winemakers, so why would we need some German guy?

Except we do.

"Johannes is unique and extremely important to the Finger Lakes wine industry," says Jim Tresize, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. "His expertise is unparalleled in the industry. He's irreplaceable. We have other good winemakers but we have only one Johannes."

Johannes Reinhardt, 43, has been in the Finger Lakes for 11 years, and at Anthony Road Wine Company for the last 10. He arrived on a student visa and went to work at Dr. Konstantin Frank winery.

The following year, he was hired by Anthony Road as winemaker. He upgraded to the H-1B professional visa, which he could renew for as long as six years.

While the H-1B visa was still running, Reinhardt applied for a green card, to become a legal resident. But he was denied.

You, the German guy who makes the sweet wines -- we don't need you.

"This application went to Nebraska," Reinhardt said. "They don't see New York as a major wine region. They don't see a winemaker as somebody who contributes to society."

Do I have to tell my readers that a winemaker is a craftsman, somewhere between an artist and a scientist, and that good ones are unique? That even though Americans can do the job, and do it superbly, our wine culture benefits by having non-Americans bring in their own styles?

Do I have to make the point that making better wine improves the economy?

I guess I do, just in case the USCIS reads this.

I could blather about how good his wines are, but instead I'll just show you the hardware.

At this year's Riesling du Monde in Strasbourg, France, Anthony Road was the only non-European winery to win one of the 7 Trophies of Excellence. That's sure to get attention among international Riesling fans, and could help US exports.

At last year's New York Wine & Food Classic, Anthony Road won the Governor's Cup for the single best wine out of 805 entered.

And Reinhardt's not just making good wine for Anthony Road -- he's sharing information with his neighbors.

"Johannes has taken dessert wines up to a world class level," says Peter Bell (right), winemaker for Fox Run Vineyards. "They're no longer just sugary and unctuous. He's picking individual berries off the vine, a classic German technique. He has some groundbreaking fermentation techniques too. There's nothing written down about this. It's not codified in any book. And he shares those techniques with winemakers in the region. He pioneered winemakers getting together and tasting each other's wines and discussing what we're doing."

I have quotes from other winemakers saying similar things about Reinhardt. So why isn't this important to the USCIS?

Why isn't winemaking classified as a job category we need?

The savvy reader might be thinking, "Why not just marry an American and get a spouse visa?" Inconveniently, Reinhardt fell in love with an Indonesian student of food science, Imelda, and they married in June 2008. She's still at Cornell University on a student visa studying bell peppers; their tastes converge at Cabernet Franc rose. Imelda may also have difficulty getting a green card when she graduates and that's one more reason we're likely to lose this talented couple to Germany.

I asked Reinhardt why he wanted to come here from Franconia in the first place, and stay when legally he's not all that welcome.

"My family had a winery for 600 years," he said. "For me, tradition was a bit too much. To come here was great freedom. For me it's great as a German winemaker to be here and to have the freedom to make the best wine I can. My dream is to own a vineyard in New York and make a couple thousand cases."

Reinhardt is not giving up on his dream. He has hired an immigration attorney and will keep pressing for a green card.

"The best things in my life I needed a lot of fight and patience for," Reinhardt said. "I have to keep fighting for the green card and not give up."

Reinhardt was leery of being interviewed, and as the husband of a woman with a US green card, I understand. Most Americans born here don't realize that the USCIS has absolute power over immigrants -- even if they're married to an American -- and can deny a residence visa if you don't know the type of toothpaste your spouse prefers. I'm not kidding.

I also know how the USCIS thinks, because I had a good friend abroad whose job for two years was to give or deny work visas. We hiked together and often debated the issue. His point was always that if he gave a visa to a chef, that chef was taking a job that an American could do. It didn't matter if he was a good chef; an American could be trained to be a good chef as well.

OK, my friend. Finger Lakes winemakers need Johannes Reinhardt to give them that training.

"This guy's never going to go on unemployment," Bell said. "He's going to pay taxes. He'll never take government welfare.

"The No. 1 reason to visit the Finger Lakes is wineries," Bell said. "There are bed and breakfasts and restaurants that depend on the industry. Without people like Johannes, those people will suffer."

"If we lose Johannes, it will eviscerate our industry."


  1. Shameful. The folks in the Nebraska office need to get their co-worker with the best palate to try Anthony Road wine -- one of, if not the premiere, winery in the region. Plus, he's a gem of a guy, too.

    Good article!

  2. Thanks for giving some alternative press to the plight of those battling with US immigration. USCIS is only the tip of the iceberg.

    It's important that voting Americans realise that immigration reform need not just be about border control in the south.

  3. Holy crap!

    That's terrible on too many levels to fully contemplate!

  4. This is such a shame. I have met Johannes and tasted his wines. Beautiful wines from a beautiful guy.

    Obviously these people at immigration don't know their US history because Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave right about now!


  5. Have a question,

    If you get a contract sign by a company, you get a work permit until the contract expires? right? This if the company does the paper work...

  6. Is there anything we who appreciate the value of good wines to our lives can do to influence this bizarre finding?

  7. Anon: No, the contract can help you get a visa, but does not guarantee a visa. The USCIS can end your visa as it likes, regardless of the length of your contract.

    Malinda: That's a very good question, but I don't have a good answer. My own plan was to put the issue out there and hope somebody who can help might read it. As for a specific person to write to, perhaps New York's congressional representatives?