Grower hovers over ag issues

Julia Hollister/for Capital Press Monterey County winegrape grower and farmer Ray Franscioni relies on his Robinson-44 helicopter to circumvent highway traffic. He has row crops in the Salinas Valley and vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands and San Benito County.

Helicopter, labor essential to Salinas winegrape operation

By JULIA HOLLISTER

For the Capital Press

SALINAS, Calif. -- For third-generation Monterey County winegrape and row crop grower Ray Franscioni, flying is an integral part of taking care of daily business.

He pilots a tiny Robinson R-44 helicopter as he shuttles between his fields and appointments.

"I have vineyards in both the Salinas area and San Benito County so my helicopter eliminates the time-consuming driving time," he said. "I fly the helicopter every day, weather permitting."

In addition to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Gris, he also farms row crops -- leaf lettuces, asparagus, cauliflower, carrots, onions and broccoli -- in the Santa Lucia Highlands region.

Before launching his own winery, he grew grapes for Kendall Jackson, Mer Soleil, Cru, Morgan and Joullian. Franscioni's first vintage was 2006 and his wine labels include Puma Road, Lilia and Pedregal.

Friend and winemaker Steve Pessagno provides insight into Franscioni's passion for flying and the terroir of the region.

"I have known Ray for over 20 years and he is never afraid to ask questions," he said. "He farms a lot of property and is a real dynamo and certainly typifies the phrase, 'mover and shaker.'"

Franscioni has another reason for his success:

"I always believed in the phrase, 'If work is fun, it's not work' and I'm having a lot of fun," Franscioni said.

However, winemaking is not the only issue on his mind. Franscioni is outspoken about challenges facing growers in California and -- as he describes it -- the state's "ultra liberal philosophy."

"We have to address current (farm) labor issues," he said. "Without Mexican labor, California would not exist."

In relation to grape harvesting, he said that if there were no Mexican labor force the day-to-day work and harvesting would be so expensive it would impossible to grow grapes economically.

"You are not going to get Americans to do the work -- tying, wire placement, shoot thinning, leaf pulling, hand harvesting and more essential vineyard practices -- of the laborer who comes from Mexico," Franscioni said. "Everyone who is in the grape business will say the same."

He values the loyalty of his permanent work force and notes that most have been with him for as long as 30 years.

However, he is not optimistic about California's next four Democratic "blue" years.

"We definitely need to have a logical guestworker program," he said. "This does not apply only to those in vineyard work. You can go into any business in the state that requires hand labor to see they all rely heavily on the Mexican labor force."

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