Jose Aceves, a 54-year veteran of Dutton Ranch, claimed the Sonoma County vineyard workforce’s highest honor over the weekend.

Jose Aceves was just 19 when he began working at Dutton Ranch, a sixth-generation family farm, apple orchard and vineyard in Santa Rosa.

That was 1969.

Fifty-four years later, Aceves still works at Dutton Ranch, where he’s gone from field worker, to tractor driver, truck driver, foreman and supervisor. Those years of hard and successful work paid off Feb. 25 when Aceves received his most prestigious title yet: Sonoma County’s Vineyard Employee of the Year.

“There is no doubt we wouldn’t be as successful without Jose’s dedication and expertise all these years,” said Steve Dutton, president and co-owner of Dutton Ranch.

“Vineyard workers are the backbone of the wine industry, so It’s fantastic to see him receive this honor.”

Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Aceves came to Dutton Ranch with his childhood best friend, Juan Sanchez, and the pair worked alongside each other until Sanchez’ death in 2021.

“My mother, Gail, often talks about the time she spent with Jose and Juan in the early years of our business,” Dutton said. “They would be in the packing shed boxing apples and fulfilling orders, and even though they didn’t speak the same language, they always got it done.”

Aceves, who taught Dutton and his brother, Joe Dutton, how to farm and drive a tractor when they were kids, has always been willing to help others and put in the work when needed, Steve Dutton said.

Over 17 years ago, Aceves’ son, Jose De Jesus “Chuy” Aceves, began working at Dutton Ranch and today serves as vineyard manager and human resources director.

“I know how hard my dad has worked all these years, so my family is really proud he won Vineyard Employee of the Year,” Chuy Aceves said. “My dad’s family has been farming for generations in Mexico, and he has a real passion for agriculture. Vineyard work is often an overlooked job, so it’s great to be appreciated.”

Best of the best

The Vineyard Employee of the Year award was established in 2018 by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, a nonprofit that provides vital resources, support and professional development to vineyard employees and their families in Sonoma County.

Created to recognize long-tenured vineyard employees at their pinnacle of expertise, performance and dedication, the award is part of the foundation’s broader commitment to acknowledge the vital role agriculture workers play in the wine industry.

Five years ago, the foundation launched an Employee Recognition Program, which honors four to eight Employees of the Month who have demonstrated expertise in a particular area, like leadership, canopy management or sustainability.

Anyone who works in agriculture for a vineyard owner, vineyard management company or winery in Sonoma County can be nominated by their employer.

Since the program’s inception, 232 vineyard employees have been named Employee of the Month, and its from this select group of exceptional talent that the Vineyard Employee of the Year is chosen.

“Employee recognition is incredibly valuable because it shows people how they’re much they’re appreciated — not just in the vineyard, but in the community,” said Karisa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation.

“Sonoma County would not be a successful, vibrant wine community or a leader in sustainability without our agriculture workforce. Without them, we are nothing.”

The Employee Recognition Celebration

This year’s awards celebration was held in the Saralee and Richard Kunde barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where nearly 400 vineyard employees, their families and industry members gathered for food, mariachi music and appreciation.

“The nominees often invite their extended family to attend and there is such incredible energy in the air,” Karisa said. “There is a real sense of pride and camaraderie among everyone there.”

The foundation also awarded a runner-up: Jose Guadalupe “Don Gualo” Nuñez, a vineyard foreman who’s worked at Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg for 35 years.

Duff Bevill, founder and owner of Bevill Vineyard Management, which farms and manages 1200 acres of sustainable vineyards in California, said Jose Guadalupe Nuñez is “an idyllic employee.”

As runner-up for Vineyard Employee of the Year, Nuñez was recognized for his initiative, integrity and dedication at Bevill.

“Jose is the type of employee you can rely on and a colleague you can always ask for a helping hand,” Bevill said. “He is truly passionate about his career and willing to share his experience and wisdom with other employees so they can become better grape growers. His dedication is an inspiration to us all.”

Investing in social sustainability

When the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation was established in 2002, its primary goal was to help fund safety training in Spanish for agriculture employees. But by 2014, it was clear more investment and support was needed for the region’s essential vineyard workforce and their employees.

While the organization had been heavily involved in managing Sonoma County’s annual pruning competition, foundation leaders and board members decided to shift their time and efforts toward social sustainability in 2016.

“Pruning is an incredible skill and demonstrates true talent,” Kruse said. “But we believe it’s important to recognize the whole person, not just the pruner. We wanted to find a way to honor these individuals in a more profound way.”

After seeking input from vineyard employees on what resources would provide the most value, the foundation organized a communitywide brainstorm to identify how it could help. Instead of the 15 people Kruse expected to attend, 81 people from 59 organizations across the federal, state and local level showed up.

Clearly, supporting Sonoma County’s vineyard workforce is a priority shared by many.

The result was a strategic plan that focused on providing resources for affordable housing, health care, child care, education and workforce development. The Employee Recognition Program was added in 2018, while the Leadership Academy — an specialized program that provides leadership training, education and networking opportunities to vineyard employees — was launched in 2022.

The voice of the vineyards

To cap off the Employee Recognition Celebration, Kruse joined the stage for a final, yet significant announcement. The Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation is changing its name.

“After 20 years, we began to feel our name didn’t recognize the contribution of our vineyard workers or the foundation’s evolving mission,” she said. “So we decided to ask the graduates of our Leadership Academy for ideas.”

Jose Cervantes, a vineyard employee from Cornerstone Certified Vineyard and 2009 Vineyard Employee of the Year, came up with the idea for the winning name: Sonoma County Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos, or Sonoma County Voice of the Vineyards Foundation.

It was a name that represented all vineyard employees and their desire to be a voice for the wine a agriculture community.

“It was an honor to be included in the renaming process and be able to give our recommendations,” Cervantes said. “The new name represents what we do — we have a voice.”

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