A great opportunity for Oregon's vineyard stewards

AHIVOY 2021 cohort graduation photo

21 December 2023 To celebrate their award of a Gérard Basset Foundation grant earlier this month, we're republishing Sam's profile of AHIVOY, an organisation dedicated to providing education and professional development opportunities to the people who look after Oregon's vineyards.

31 May 2022 The people who tend the vines should at least know what they're producing – right?

I was sitting in the crowd at the Oregon Wine Symposium this year, having just attended a lecture on our current labour shortage, when Sofia Torres of AHIVOY (Asociación Hispana de la Industria del Vino en Oregon y Comunidad; also, ahí voy is Spanish for ‘here I go’) joined a panel to discuss diversity. In the middle of answering a question she said, ‘there are people who have been working in the same vineyard for 30 years who have never tasted the wine from that vineyard’.

Torres continued to answer whatever the question was that she had been asked, but for me the world paused.

If we wine professionals are to be believed, wine IS viticulture. But if a vineyard steward (AHIVOY’s preferred term, instead of vineyard ‘worker’ or ‘labourer’, as they believe language matters when valuing a profession) is never given the opportunity to taste the end product, they may never understand their own importance in its creation. People who feel their job isn’t important will take the next available job in construction or on a restaurant line, provided it pays more. They’re unlikely to inspire the next generation to go into their profession.

There is surely a need for more ownership potential, growth opportunities and routes into other areas of the wine industry for those who are currently vineyard stewards. Some wineries have proven adept at this, but for the most part, business as usual doesn’t include a plan to provide growth opportunities for vineyard stewards. Further, the educational systems in place for opportunities like scholarships rarely target those who don’t speak English and have little to no formal education. AHIVOY overcomes both obstacles, offering vineyard stewards a targeted curriculum with full scholarships.

The organisation was founded in 2018 by Jesús Guillén, owner of Guillén Family Wines; Miguel Lopez, co-owner of Red Dirt Vineyard Managment; and Sofia Torres, mentioned above and owner of Cramoisi Vineyard and Winery. When Jesús Guillén died unexpectedly in late 2018, his wife Yuliana Cisneros-Guillén stepped into his place. In 2019, AHIVOY was approved as a non-profit and began fundraising for the first cohort of students.

DeAnna Ornelas, the current president of AHIVOY, tells me that the organisation approached Chemeketa Community College early on and that Jessica Sandrock, who at the time was the Director of Agricultural Sciences and Wine Studies for the college, helped them to modify foundational wine studies courses to AHIVOY’s needs. ‘We needed something that allowed for people with full-time jobs’, Ornelas says.

What they were able to achieve was a curriculum spanning the breadth of the wine industry in 16 weeks, but they still needed students to take one day a week off. Unwilling to put vineyard stewards at a financial disadvantage or ask wineries to pay vineyard stewards for time that they weren’t at work, AHIVOY made the decision to compensate students for the time that they were in class. Ornelas says that some wineries choose to sponsor their vineyard steward, ‘but we never expect it. We set this up with the intention of paying all costs for every student.’

As far as the curriculum goes, the entire programme is run in English with bilingual support. ‘It makes some students uncomfortable, but the language spoken in positions of power is English so it’s an important aspect.’ Ornelas says that if there’s interest from students who don’t feel their English is adequate, AHIVOY will connect them with ESL (English as a second language) courses before the start of the year. It helps that all students in this programme are Latinx and so feel comfortable asking for translation help without feeling that they will be judged for it.

During the programme, students learn about anatomy of the grapevine, vineyard management, winery sanitation and safety, winemaking, wine service and sales. They learn the systematic approach to tasting and complete WSET level 1. They also earn their Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission licence, which is required for serving alcohol in the state of Oregon. If students choose to, credits they earn in this programme can be applied to wine studies at Chemeketa Community College and can be transferred to Oregon State University for a Bachelor’s degree.

I asked Ornelas how they fundraise and how employees are compensated. ‘We host events throughout the year, write grants, have private donors and dollar donors. The Erath Family Foundation sponsored the first cohort of students, and the Foley Family Charitable Foundation has funded the entire 2022 cohort. We also have zero administrative fees, we are all volunteers with full-time jobs in addition to this.’ This means that the number of students is necessarily limited and they had a wait-list of five students when I spoke to Ornelas.

Considering that the programme takes only 10–15 people per cohort (their third cohort graduated at the end of April), I’m surprised by how short the wait-list is. I asked if students opt to take the programme or if employers want it. ‘Both, but we really enjoy when students are the ones spreading the word and getting other students to apply.’ As graduates unanimously agree that the programme is worthwhile, with many deciding to continue with their education, and some having been promoted or given wage increases, I can only assume that the programme will dramatically increase in popularity. I asked Ornelas if they have plans for expansion: ‘Yes, but we believe that communities know best what their community members need, so it should be a family of community-led organisations rather than just one.’

The inaugural (2019) cohort of AHIVOY vineyard stewards
The inaugural (2019) cohort of AHIVOY vineyard stewards

I highly encourage any winery or vineyard management company in the state of Oregon to spread word of this great programme to their vineyard stewards and let them know that they would be supported in pursuing the AHIVOY programme.

Other opportunities to support AHIVOY

  • There is a direct donation page here.
  • It is possible to purchase a four-pack of wine from Latinx-owned wineries here. A portion of proceeds go to AHIVOY.
  • Upcoming events for AHIVOY can be found here.
  • If you are a Latinx wine professional looking to start a similar organisation in your own community, DeAnna Ornelas of AHIVOY can be reached at dkornelas@gmail.com.

Photo of the 2021 AHIVOY graduation cohort (those holding diplomas) at the top of this article is by Sean Carr.