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Boyes Hot Springs couple takes pride in being part of the wine industry

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

A portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs in the living room of the Boyes Hot Springs home where Ruomaldo Argota and his wife, Marta Maria Farias, live. Painted by their granddaughter, the serene resemblance of the patron saint of Mexico is set against a backdrop of three stripes – green, white and red, just like the national flag of Mexico.

It’s been 12 years since the couple moved north from Michoacán to Sonoma Valley, where they work in local vineyards to help assure a successful grape harvest each year. Their culture is important to them but they’ve adapted to life in California, grateful for the opportunity to work and better their lives.

“The motivation is to come and work, and move forward,” Farias said through a Spanish translator, Leonardo Lobato, executive director of La Luz Center, a Sonoma Valley nonprofit that assists immigrants and disadvantaged families through programs of community engagement, family services, education and economic development. The couple does not speak English.

“She’s very proud of moving forward and (tries) to overcome any difficulties to be successful,” Lobato said.

Farias tends to the grapevines for a few months each spring and devotes the rest of her time to her family, including caring for an adult daughter with physical disabilities. Her vineyard work includes thinning shoots and pruning vines and she also picks grapes during the harvest. Her husband, Argota, works in the vineyards as much as possible year-round. Oftentimes he’ll work on his days off if an unexpected opportunity comes up.

Faith and family, always

Faith and family are important parts of their lives. Along with the portrait of the Virgin Mary, family photos hang in their cozy home, shared by three generations, including a few of the couple’s 12 grandchildren. They have five adult children, one of whom lives in Mexico.

Argota, 69, and Farias, 57, attend Spanish Mass at St. Leo the Great Church in nearby Agua Caliente. They were part of a 4-mile pilgrimage on Dec. 12 from the parish to St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in downtown Sonoma. The walk, in frigid temperatures and with some light rain, was part of a procession celebrating the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a national holiday in Mexico.

The annual observance is one of several ways the couple remains connected to their Mexican culture and heritage. Farias shares that she’s a “very good cook” who is particularly skilled at preparing Mexican specialties like chili rellenos, taquitos and beef soup.

“Food is very important for all Latinos,” she said. Also, Lobado translated, “work and family for her is very important. In their family, traditions are very important and family gatherings are very important.”

Holidays are especially meaningful to the family, particularly gatherings for Christmas Eve and Easter.

During Eastertime in 2010, Farias said she and her husband moved to Sonoma Valley where four of their children were already living. One of their daughters had surgery and then when complications arose, the couple ended up staying in the community permanently to help provide care.

‘They’re the foundation of our society’

Farias said she feels welcome in Sonoma Valley and appreciated for her contributions to the wine industry. Her husband also has a sense of place working and living in the community, she said.

“She feels a sense of respect and responsibility coming here to work, and to the community as a whole,” Lobato said.

Argota works for Enterprise Vineyards, established in 1979 by Phil Coturri, a leading organic viticulturist. The company maintains and enhances vineyard properties and follows organic farming methods “in large part to protect workers,” said Mayacamas Olds, chief operating officer of Enterprise Vineyards and Coturri’s Winery Sixteen 600. The practices employed by vineyard workers like Argota help produce better wine, help the environment and preserve heritage vineyards and old vines, Olds said.

“They’re the ones doing the skilled work,” Olds said.

They assure that vines are free of disease and pests, with grapes growing in optimal conditions and ultimately made into the premium wines the region is known for throughout the world. Pruning alone, she said, requires an exacting skill set.

“They're at the forefront of making sure we make quality wines,” she said, noting their value is immense, whether working in local vineyards or tending to food crops across California and beyond. “They’re the foundation of our society.”

Argota and Farias are among the numerous vineyard workers in Sonoma Valley, where wineries date back to the Gold Rush. The first grapes were planted in 1824, with Sonoma Valley now boasting 13,000 vineyard acres, according to the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, a local trade organization.

Learning how to tend to the vineyards

It’s important for Latino vineyard workers to share their values and traditions, Lobato said, “in that way we’re creating a single community in Sonoma Valley.”

La Luz Center brings the community together for cultural events like Cinco de Mayo and Día de Muertos celebrations that engage Latino and non-Latino residents. The advocacy organization provides numerous opportunities for inclusion, often offered for free or at a low cost.

Argota and Farias were both raised on small ranches outside the city of Uruapan in Michoacán. They met 40 years ago and have been together ever since. Farias was a homemaker in Mexico and Argota worked in the sugar cane fields.

They found vineyard work in Sonoma Valley through word of mouth and from job postings on the internet. One of their daughters and a son-in-law also work in the vineyards.

Although Argota has considerable experience working with crops, he and his wife both have been trained in the specifics of wine grapes, from pruning and securing vines to picking the fruit. Spanish-speaking supervisors demonstrate techniques to teams of new workers.

“They have patience to teach her,” Lobato translated.

Pride in assisting local agriculture

Farias and Argota typically work eight-hour days, but earlier in their careers sometimes put in 10-hour days working in the fields. While the conditions for laborers can be tough — hot temperatures, cold days and physically demanding work – Farias said the couple has always been treated fairly.

Gloves protect their hands and broad hats offer protection from the glaring sun – “sombreros,” Farias said, motioning a wide circle around her head. She said she’s aware of her posture when she works, taking care to follow best practices to protect her back and joints.

The family enjoys their work in the wine industry.

“She feels welcomed and Sonoma is a very nice place to live,” Lobato related. “She feels secure.”

Through unprecedented wildfires and the global coronavirus pandemic, and at an age when others might consider retirement, Argota and Farias push through. They consider their work valuable to the local economy, including tourism, and to the pleasure wine lovers find from a favorite bottle of merlot, rosé, chardonnay or other varietals produced in the world-class wine region.

Although their faces are typically hidden as they stoop over working the fields and vines as passersby travel along the roadways with picturesque views of Sonoma Valley vineyards, essential workers like Argota and Farias are crucial to the wine industry.

“If the grape plants are not tended, there’s no wine industry,” Lobato translated for Farias. “If they’re hiring her for a job, then it means it must be an important job.”

Their journey from their homeland in Mexico is just one among the hundreds – thousands – that are part of the Sonoma Valley winemaking story.

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

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