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VITAL Wines Guest Winemaker Series benefits vineyard workers in Washington state

Walla Walla’s non-profit winery VITAL Wines recently launched a new Guest Winemaker Series aimed to fund vital healthcare schemes for migrant vineyard workers.

Hispanic vineyard workers harvesting grapes at Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla, Washington
Seven Hills Vineyard vineyard workers ©️ Richard Duval Images.

Dehumanising Situation

Founded in 2016 by winemaker Ashley Trout, VITAL Wines donates all net profits to area programmes that benefit grape tenders and their families.

The impetus for VITAL stems from Trout’s own experience growing up in a bilingual, bicultural household.

As a child who spoke more Spanish than English, she often translated for non-English speaking household adults. Medical visits proved the worst.

“It was dehumanising for people who don’t deserve to be dehumanised,” Trout recalled. “The second I started in the wine industry, it doesn’t take a genius to look around and recognise that a lot of these people are in our vineyards. I wanted to solve for that.”

Trout also personally understands US healthcare limitations. At age twenty, Trout suffered a severe climbing accident in Japan while teaching English there. Ultimately, the cost for 40 days of hospitalisation and five surgeries totaled US$5,000. “I didn’t have any health insurance, and just couldn’t fathom what would have happened to me if that accident had happened while I was in the United States,” she said.

Creating a New Model

Initially, Trout drew inspiration for VITAL from Oregon’s ¡Salud! vineyard worker healthcare programme. The non-profit raises funds through its annual ¡Salud! The Oregon Pinot Noir Auction.

Unfortunately, rural Walla Walla does not enjoy Willamette Valley’s proximity to urban Portland, a major city capable of raising over a million dollars in one weekend.

Instead, VITAL created a new model. Washington wine industry members donate fruit, goods, and labour to the winery. In return, VITAL makes and sells wine, then donates the proceeds.

Earnings underwrite free, open-door, bilingual healthcare screenings, paid Covid-19 sick days, and a bilingual healthcare advocate. To date, VITAL boasts over US$97,000 (£77,803) earned from the sale of more than 3,300 cases of wine.

Guest Winemaker Programme

Despite VITAL’s success, Trout wanted to do more. Subsequently,  she launched the Vital Guest Winemaker Programme in March 2023.

For the inaugural release, Trout collaborated with Devyani Isabel Gupta, winemaker and viticulturist at Valdemar Estates.

“VITAL’s mission is one that is close to my heart, and close to many of those in our winemaking community,” said Gupta. “As someone who has worked closely with vineyard workers and our Hispanic/Latino community, I am proud to see my community support VITAL’s mission of equity and access to health care for vineyard workers and their families.”

Additionally, Sadie Drury, vineyard manager and viticulturist at Seven Hills Vineyard, donated the fruit for the 2022 Vital x Valdemar Estates Rosé, a blend of 80% Mourvèdre and 20% Syrah.

Drury, who also serves as Chair of the Washington State Wine Commission, relished the opportunity to collaborate with VITAL. “From the day Vital Wines started, it has been improving the quality of life for the vineyard workers we employee in the Walla Walla Valley by providing access to healthcare,” she said. “The impact of this has been huge.”

Ironically, Drury’s involvement proved “a little bit of poetic justice,” said Trout. “Sadie was the first person who ever donated fruit to VITAL. She was also the first person we decided to help launch our guest winemaker programme.”

Sustainable Community

Ultimately, VITAL’s Guest Winemaker Series showcases regional winemaking talent, while underwriting worker wellness initiatives. Future collaborations include Canvasback, Gramercy Cellars, Rasa Vineyards, Reininger, The Walls, and Walla Walla Vintners, among others.

“There hasn’t been a winemaker that I’ve spoken with that didn’t want to be invited to be a volunteer winemaker for Vital, and make their own wine,” said Trout.

Furthermore, a partnership with Auction of Washington Wines has opened the door to generous local grants and angel donors. Angel donations will sponsor free prescription eyeglasses for children of vineyard workers, access to mental health care, and a bilingual healthcare worker in Yakima.“There’s really no blueprint for what we’re doing,” said Trout, “which is exactly the point.”

“It takes a community of people to make great wine,” underscored Gupta. “The only way to keep that community strong is to ensure the health and well-being of those who work hard every day in our vineyards and wineries, to make great wine possible.”

Drury concurred. “Personally and professionally, I can’t begin to describe how much VITAL Wines has done for the wine industry,” she concluded. “The work VITAL is doing is creating a truly sustainable wine growing region, where we don’t just take care of the land, but also the people who farm it.”

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