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In the Vines is a five-part series exploring wine in Paso Robles. Through sound-rich feature reporting, KCBX's Benjamin Purper examines the positives and negatives of the city's transformation into a wine town, and what the future might hold for this emerging wine country.

In the Vines: The labor and housing challenges facing Paso Robles' wine-centric economy

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City of Paso Robles
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A 2020 rendering from the Beechwood Specific Plan, a major Paso Robles housing development plan.

The explosive growth of Paso Robles’ wine industry since the 1990’s is often touted as a major economic success story on the Central Coast. That has been true for many in the area, as vineyards, hotels and restaurants create jobs and tax revenue that have allowed the city to grow.

But some benefit from this more than others, as people with lower incomes struggle making enough to live in Paso Robles — if they can afford it at all.

Esteban Garcia comes from a family of farmworkers who have lived on the Central Coast for more than 20 years, after arriving in the U.S. from Mexico.

“I don't recall much of where I'm from so this is pretty much I could say home,” Garcia said.

His family settled in Santa Maria, a few hours south of Paso. The Central Coast’s farmworker community is largely concentrated in that area, as it’s one of the least expensive places to live in the region.

That means vineyards in Paso Robles often rely on workers who don’t live in the city, and instead drive long commutes like Garcia’s father did for years.

“Him and my uncle would drive from Santa Maria to Paso to work with grapes. It was a constant drive at that point,” Garcia said.

Garcia followed in his father’s footsteps in the industry as a field worker, but he now has greater ambitions. He received the nonprofit Vineyard Team's Juan Evarez Memorial Scholarship to study viticulture at Fresno State, and plans to get an MBA after that.

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Courtesy of People's Self-Help Housing
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A People's Self-Help Housing project called Missions Gardens.

He hopes to secure a good job in winemaking, to be able to buy a house and provide for his kids.

"I don't just need to worry about myself — I have to
think about school, think about putting food on the table," he said.

But for now, he too spends a lot of time on the road, driving from Fresno to Santa Maria twice a month to work at a local winery and see his daughter.

“I leave [on] Thursday nights usually, and then I work Fridays. Then I'll spend the weekend with [my] family and then drive back,” Garcia said.

Though it's been hard to afford housing on the Central Coast, Garcia said he loves the area and would like to work in the Paso Robles wine industry someday.

"That's a pretty area, there's a lot of vineyards out there. So hopefully I end up working in Paso down the line," he said.

This phenomenon of people driving long commutes to work in areas they can’t afford to live in is common in California.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo agribusiness professor Michael McCullough said driving is often the most affordable option for workers in areas without strong public transit, like the Central Coast. But with gas prices now at historic highs, driving is still very expensive.

“You've got to pay driving a pickup all of 50 miles, one way. That's a lot of money — it really really cuts your salary,” McCullough said.

The Central Coast now has some of the highest gas prices in the nation, with averages around $6 a gallon. According to a March analysis by home-buying advice website Porch, San Luis Obispo County ranked as the second least affordable small metropolitan area in the country, with a cost of living second only to Napa — another famous California wine country.

McCullough said with the expansion of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, those housing costs are only getting higher.

“We're seeing this influx of people come here on the Central Coast. It's a wonderful place to live, but it makes it difficult for people to live here in town,” McCullough said.

Those price hikes have led local governments and nonprofits to invest more in affordable housing, often for agricultural communities like vineyard workers.

Ken Triguiero is the president of People’s Self-Help Housing, one of the nonprofits building affordable housing units in places like Paso Robles and Santa Maria.

They have created what he calls a “sweat equity” program where low-income people help build their own houses, and buy them at a price they can afford.

“It's really impossible otherwise, were it not for a program like that,” Trigueiro said.

In Paso Robles, the nature of winemaking means that some seasons, like harvest, require a lot more labor than others. In the busy months, in the fall, farm workers maximize their income by picking grapes at multiple vineyards whenever they can.

With that in mind, Triguiero said People’s Self-Help Housing considers a worker’s annual rather than monthly income when they determine their eligibility for affordable housing units.

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Google Maps
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The Central Coast's farmworker community is largely concentrated in North Santa Barbara County, a major growing area for grapes, strawberries and other crops.

“So it's okay if they're not able to find the amount of work throughout the year, like in Paso Robles. We can still adjust the rent so that they're affordable,” Trigueiro said.

In addition to the work of affordable housing organizations, the city has added thousands of new housing units over the last few years and has plans for more, along with infrastructure improvements such as roads and water lines.

City leaders say all of this is necessary in order to support a growing wine industry and the tourism that comes along with it.

Alex Villicana agrees. He’s the president of Travel Paso, a nonprofit focusing on bringing more tourism to Paso Robles.

As a winemaker himself, he said he believes the city's development helps not just those who own the grapes but everyone in the area.

“A lot of what we do, you know, develops revenues that helps the infrastructure, hires police and fire, helps pave our streets,” Villicana said.

Still, Villicana said there are challenges ahead if the area wants to continue growing.

“It's important that it grows so we can hopefully afford, you know, water infrastructure and all these other things that we need to continue growing,” Villicana said.

Water infrastructure is an issue on many people’s minds in Paso Robles. The exponential growth in vineyards here hasn’t just created a tourism industry — it’s also created a groundwater problem.

Next week's episode of "In the Vines" will explore how the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin is in critical overdraft, and how looming water cutbacks could affect the town’s wine-focused economy.

This piece was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.