Roundtable Wine Discussion
By Hannah Hoffman
Immigration issues dominated the conversation Tuesday when U.S. Rep. David Wu, D-1st District, paid a visit to Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee to discuss issues important to Oregon’s wine industry.
Representatives from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association and the Oregon Wine Board gathered to discuss a variety of topics that ranged from transportation to research to interstate commerce, but what floated to the top of the discussion was labor.
Or, as Soléna Estate owner Laurent Montalieu pointed out, when we talk about labor, we’re really talking about immigration.
Most winery owners said the current guest worker program, called the H-2A visa program, isn’t serving workers’ or employers’ needs.
Among other requirements, the program mandates that employers provide housing and transportation to the workers, most of whom come from Mexico to Oregon. Many vintners present compared the housing situation to a Southern plantation with slave quarters and a big house.
Most told Wu a disconnect exists between lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and farmers in Oregon.
Alex Sokol Blosser, who co-owns the event’s host winery, said immigrant workers from Mexico aren’t cheap labor. Rather, he said, they’re highly specialized laborers who know how to harvest delicate Pinot Noir grapes and are vital to the Oregon wine industry. They are usually paid between $10 and $20 per hour and generally receive benefits.
Sokol Blosser noted that his workers used to return to Mexico to see their families in the winter, but with more security along the Mexico-U.S. border, they aren’t able anymore.
Sokol Blosser and his industry mates told Wu they’d like to see an immigration program that is simple, clear and streamlined enough for all immigrants to understand how to obtain a visa.
What’s more, they said they wanted a program that treated immigrant workers as valuable, skilled employees.
Some suggested intense border security wouldn’t be as necessary under such a system because fewer people would feel the need to come into the United States illegally.
Wu said he thought it was time for a new comprehensive immigration package in Congress, but he expressed doubts about the amount of support he would receive. He said Democrats from other areas of the country view immigration very differently from Oregonians, and he said most Republicans have an even more divergent view.
Wu said the focus in Congress is border security but said he appreciated the wine industry’s concrete suggestions and direct input.
Hannah Hoffman is a reporter for the News-Register in McMinnville.