“I tell people that women have a special intuition that translates into the vineyard,” said Redwood Empire Vineyard Management’s co-owner.

When one of the few women on Linda Barr’s vineyard team expressed interest in becoming a forewoman and leading a women-only crew, Barr was thrilled with the idea.

It was 1997, and Barr, along with her husband, Kevin Barr, had begun to see an emergence of women interested in vineyard work — a first since they’d launched Redwood Empire Vineyard Management in 1980. Today, the company custom farms about 1,500 vineyard acres in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties and owns another 700 acres, which they lease out.

“I asked Kevin what he thought and he said, ‘Go for it!’” Barr said. “Now we have between five and eight vineyard crews of just women, with up to 20 people in each crew. I’m still very protective of them, to make sure they’re treated with respect. At (Redwood Empire Vineyard Management), equality is 100% of what we stand for. I won’t have it any other way.”

Barr is a fourth-generation Sonoma County farmer and winemaker. Raised on a prune and pear farm in Geyserville, Barr said her parents taught her the importance of treating others with kindness, respect and generosity. It was a lesson illustrated by their support for the migrant workers on their family farm.

“When I was little, my mom would buy them dishes, sheets, blankets — anything they needed,” Barr said. “When it was time to pick prunes and pears, I would pick right next to them. They weren’t better than me, and I certainly wasn’t better than them. I learned not to judge anyone and help the people you can.”

Barr said she’s received racist and sexist backlash in the past — especially on social media — for supporting immigrants of both sexes. But she is steadfast in her commitment to helping others, not out of duty, but because it makes her heart feel full.

The gender divide

Farm work has long been a male-dominated profession, according to years of data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey. But the balance has shifted — albeit slowly — over the past 20 years.

In the 2000 survey, 80% of California’s crop labor force were men and 20% were women. By 2019, 69% were men and 31% were women. (The 2023 survey is currently underway.)

The gender divide among the wine industry’s vineyard workforce, however, has been slower to shift. Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, believes this may be a result of the other job opportunities that exist for women in most wine regions: in restaurants, hotels, spas, tasting rooms and more.

In 2021, an employee survey by Sonoma County Winegrowers estimated 15% of Sonoma County’s vineyard workforce were women. But Kruse said she’s definitely seeing more women being recognized for their exceptional skills and more women vying for professional development opportunities.

“Through Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos (formerly the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation,) we’ve seen increased emphasis placed on recruiting and retaining women in Sonoma County’s vineyard workforce,” Kruse said. “In 2018, only two women were nominated for the Employee Recognition Program and in 2022, there were six. The first Leadership Academy in 2022 didn’t have any women, but the new class in 2023 has three. We believe this trend will continue as more women see value and a place for themselves working in agriculture.”

Through its employee recognition and leadership programs, the nonprofit Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos offers vineyard employees professional development, networking and education.

Intuition in the vineyard

Guadalupe “Lupe” Cespedes, a vineyard forewoman who has worked at Redwood Empire Vineyard Management for 26 years, said joining the company was the best decision she ever made. Her husband, Claudio Ruiz, has been with the company even longer — 36 years.

“Before, people believed agricultural work was exclusively for men, but women have shown we can perform at the same level if we are given the same opportunities,” said Cespedes, who supervises her own crew of women. “We’ve shown we’re hardworking and responsible, and our focus and attention to detail makes us very productive.”

“Before, people believed agricultural work was exclusively for men, but women have shown we can perform at the same level if we are given the same opportunities.” Guadalupe “Lupe” Cespedes, vineyard forewoman at Redwood Empire Vineyard Management

Cespedes said there is a special camaraderie among the women vineyard crew members. They support each other and have the confidence to ask for help when they don’t know the answer.

“I’ve been doing my job for so long it no longer feels like a job,” she said. “I always have an excellent relationship with all the ladies in my crew, and my aim is to make them enjoy work as much as I do. We all support each other and share the same goal: work hard to support our families.”

Kevin Barr, who has been a fervent supporter of women vineyard workers since Day One, said Cespedes’ attention to detail and work ethic are “phenomenal.” He makes sure she works on the high-end ranches with the most premium wine grapes.

“I tell people that women have a special intuition that translates into the vineyard,” he said.

“They’re nurturing, meticulous and precise — like a mother raising a child,” he added. “Oftentimes, we have specialized pruning, tying and training tasks we assign the women because we know they’ll do a phenomenal job.”

Given the traditional machismo sometimes inherent in Latino cultures, some male workers were against allowing women to join Redwood Empire Vineyard Management’s vineyard crew in the late 1990s. But Linda Barr, who faced obstacles of her own tied to gender stereotypes as she grew up, said she has no tolerance for sexism or disrespect.

“I was treated very differently growing up as a woman, and I don’t want to have that in our workplace,” she said. “The men on our vineyard crews have always held me to the highest regard, and I want that for the women who work here, too. I have no problem demanding respect for everyone.”

But Linda is quick to add that she and Kevin deeply value all their employees.

“At the end of the day, we want everyone to feel appreciated,” Barr said. “We’re all a team. Without them, we would be nothing.”

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