In Walla Walla, winemaking was a pretty small industry in 1999, when Ashley Trout started as an assistant winemaker at Reininger Winery. But since then, the valley has exploded with vineyards and wineries, and now boasts 140 wineries, tap rooms, tasting rooms, and vineyards. And alongside the economic growth for the region, Trout and others noticed a less savory trend: a lack of healthcare for employees in the area.
The intersection of seasonal employment and a lack of full-time work during the key months contribute to the issue, which is especially important because of the physical nature of the work, says Trout. So, the winemaker for Flying Trout Wines decided to do something about it, teaming up with winemakers, growers, and other industry pros from around the state to start a new winery called Vital Wines. The difference? Everything that went into it, from grapes to bottles, was donated, and all proceeds will go to fund healthcare for workers in the industry in Walla Walla.
The project has been in the works for years, but Trout will finally see the fruits of their pooled labor with the first release of the label in April. A combination of donated grapes, donated labor, and a space donated by Sean Boyd of Rotie and Proletariat went into Vital, which will kick off production with a 100% sangiovese rosé.
“We can’t solve the set-up, the lack of full-time, year-round work. I’ve worked in the industry for 17 years and I’ve never had healthcare from an employee. You can’t make winemaking less seasonal, or vineyards less seasonal,” Trout explains of one of the main cruxes in the industry. “But, you can start chipping away at answers to more preventative medicine.”
Raised by a grandmother who didn’t speak English, Trout sees the same issues she experienced in a vineyard workforce made up largely by Spanish-speaking employees. “A lot of what you see is immigrants who do hard, physical work, but who can’t communicate with healthcare professionals and don’t have health care anyway. And what happens,” Trout continues, “is that you have these little kids along for the ride on issues that should be only for adults.”
The winemaker relates a story from an ER doctor who described an interaction with a five-year-old during which he couldn’t translate the words for body parts he didn’t know, and shouldn’t have been in the position to do so anyway. “It’s a terrible, embarrassing situation, and intimidating for all involved to deal with such difficult interactions.”
The healthcare center they partnered with, SOS clinic, is an urgent care non-profit which employs doctors who are ready to retire and want to work part time to provide care for the community. All funds from wine sales help provide care for area workers, and fund fees for medical licenses to be maintained, among the costly details that go into healthcare.
“Washington State hasn’t seen anything like this,” Trout declares. “It’s a problem that’s being solved by auction weekends in places like Paso Robles and Napa, places throughout France… and yet we, in Walla Walla, are too far away from the city for auctions to make sense. We’re too far away, so we needed to cut this differently.” In Oregon, the ¡Salud! Program does amazing work to provide healthcare to seasonal workers and their families. But this is Walla Walla’s first comparable program.
The first rosé will be released at the inaugural launch and release party April 6th at Walla Walla restaurant Whitehouse-Crawford. Tickets are $120 and buy dinner for both the ticket holder and a harvest worker or Vital donor. “The Valley has never seen a dinner like this before,” Trout says of the upcoming festivities. “We’ve never gotten everyone in the same room like this.” In addition to purchasing tickets for themselves, Trout says many patrons have emailed to say they won’t be attending, allowing more harvest workers and donors to attend, which she encourages.
After the rosé release, a red blend will come out in late September, and Trout and her assistant winemaker Tim Doyle are currently doing blending trials on the wine. “It’s a fun project for me, from a purely selfish standpoint as a winemaker,” Trout says. “You’ve got the double chaos of not knowing what’s coming from the vintage, and really, not even knowing what fruit is headed your way. Since it’s all donated, we don’t want to lock ourselves into one blend. We could get last second donations and we’ve had consistent donations… it’s so exciting and so much fun.”