story and photos by Ree Slocum
Many could’ve predicted that Charlie Barra, son and grandson of Italian wine grape growers, would one day own his own 327 acres of vineyards and winery with tasting room. Born in 1926 with pruning shears in his hands, 19 years later Charlie made a whopping $10,000 his first year leasing a vineyard, while also managing to graduate from high school. He worked hard growing grapes, and in 1955 bought the current Redwood Valley Vineyards on East Road in Redwood Valley.
In 1980 Charlie made another wise decision and married his sweetheart, Martha. She happily jumped into the domestic and business partnership with Charlie, contributing organizational and legal skills while Charlie managed the day-to-day business of growing grapes. Organic grapes, as it turns out. Martha told me a favorite Charlieism: “I’ve grown organically for 50 years. The first 30 I didn’t know it!” He’d learned the age-old methods from his grandfather and father, who never used chemicals in the old country.
One of the earliest changes Charlie implemented in the early 1960s was hiring seasonal workers through the Bracero Program, a federal program whereby agriculturists in the states could legally bring in workers from other countries (in this case Mexico) if they anticipate a shortage of domestic workers. The Bracero program disappeared and has been replaced by the H-2A program. Among the most heavily regulated and monitored programs in the states, H-2A is expensive. The employer pays the going wage set by the Department of Labor and all of the worker’s expenses: transportation to and from their country, lawyer fees to do the paperwork, housing, food, transportation, and doctor appointments.
Martha not only continues the valuable H-2A program, but has also enlisted the help of Sheriff Tom Allman in brainstorming how to get more local workers who need and want jobs. The two came up with a very new program called the Inmate Picker Program. The minimum security inmates who are chosen for the program are highly vetted. They work in the vineyards during the day, earn a fair wage, go back to jail at night, and receive their paycheck every week during harvest from Redwood Valley Vineyards. Martha has hired a few who have returned to the vineyards seeking work after their release from jail.
Since 2003, Martha and her grown children, Shawn and Shelley, have become an integral part of running the winery, the custom crush facility, the brands, and the vineyards. At 90, Charlie is now retired. He still has that twinkle in his eye, especially for his lovely wife, and has the quick-witted mind his friends love.
Winemaking is a labor-intensive endeavor. Fortunately, the Barras have loyal employees that Martha considers family, including three Hispanic families who’ve been working in the vineyard since the early 1980s. Roberto Gonzales has been vineyard foreman since 2013 and has 35 years of experience growing wine grapes. Katrina Kessen is tasting room manager and events coordinator, whose southern hospitality is a charm. And wine maker Owen Smith, signed on in 2013 and is instrumental in producing the current award winning, organically grown and processed estate wines under the Barra and Girasole (jeer-ah-so-lay) labels.
I visited the winery and tasting room on a cloudy day after Martha took me on a tour of the Redwood Valley Vineyards. Barrels of Pinot Noir were out of storage and spread on the wide cement floor of the Redwood Valley Cellars facility. Owen Smith, Barra’s winemaker, was tasting the various barrels to see which ones would be included in this year’s Barra of Mendocino’s Pinot Noir. According to Owen, each barrel has a bar coded label telling him not just which Barra varietal and vineyard the grapes were from, but also the age and type of the barrel, where it was made, who the cooper was, the toast level, and the length of time the staves were aged before the barrel was assembled. Also included is how many times the barrel has been used and for what wine. All this information allows them to track what has worked in the past so they can apply that knowledge to next year’s production.
When you sit down and share your next bottle of Barra ofMendocino or Girasole wine, raise your glasses to toast Charlie and Martha. Their fine, well balanced, organic wines add a splash of old world style to our palate and meals.