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A day with the North Fork’s vine keepers

Tending grapes with the skilled and tireless workers who make Long Island wine possible.

The Latin dictum in vino veritas, or “in wine, there is truth,” means one thing for most of us and something else for Ramon Gonzalez, 36, foreman at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. To him those chartreuse green sauvignon blanc and deep purple cabernet franc grapes contain a different truth from the ones often revealed after imbibing one too many glasses of wine. Each cluster he nurtures is the culmination of a 3,295-mile-long road that took him from Guatemala to New York in 2007 — one that was paved with dirt, danger and dreams.

Gonzalez was barely 20 years old and spoke no English when he blazed a solo path to the North Fork, with a few contacts in his cellphone and the promise of a better life. Like many who brace for the perilous trip from Central America through Mexico and to our southern border, he knew of the risks that lay ahead, but was undaunted.

“There’s no guarantee you’ll make it out alive. I think of that journey every day,” Gonzalez said, his wide-brim hat shading his face on an impossibly sunny Friday morning. Though he bears scars from that arduous trip, he said they have a way of dissipating when he’s out in the field, particularly during harvest season when he can reap the fruits of his labor.

“Out here, everything is amazing and beautiful,” Gonzalez said, cradling a cluster of plum-hued berries almost ripe for the picking. “I feel excited starting from early spring, when things start coming up and the vines don’t look so barren, and you get this nice canopy of leaves and grapes. In the middle of April, the vines start showing off their tiny shoots. Some are orange and red. For me, it’s beautiful every season.”

Like parenting, field work is equal parts nature and nurture.

“Everything we do in the field is dependent on nature and the weather,” he said, adding that the large amount of rain over the summer will yield a particularly juicy, delicious crop. “But the grapes can’t thrive without love and constant care.”

The job — technically called a vinedresser — involves far morethan simply picking grapes. The field workers prune, set the vines, make sure the shoots grow vertically, wrap them in nets to keep them from the birds, trim leaves and young grapes, fertilize, spray and tend to the grapes before they pick them.

Ramon Gonzalez in the vineyards at Paumanok.

To see Gonzalez in action, surveying a row of vines with eagleeye focus, a shy smile lighting up his face as he samples fruit he finds almost sweet enough, is to understand that tending to grapes is more than a job for him: It’s a passion and a pathway to a future for him and his family. That includes not only the retired parents he helps support or the siblings he put through architecture and law school back in Guatemala, but also his Paumanok family.

“We are building something here together,” he said, introducing one of his better vinedressers, William Jacobo, 22, another Guatemalan native who has been at Paumanok for 14 months. “Even though my family provided me with what I needed growing up, I could never strive for more there,” Jacobo said, smiling as he showed me his first car, which he was able to afford after a year at Paumanok, while also sending money back home to his mother. His father recently joined him in the North Fork, also working in agriculture but for a different company.

A row over, a young woman in a pink hoodie, named Olivia, clipped away young grapes from the large, older clusters with a sharp pair of shears.

“This way, they don’t take water from the roots away from the fruit that’s nearly ripe,” she explained in Spanish, speaking to Gonzalez, who learned to speak, read and write English after completing courses at Suffolk County Community College. “This will help accelerate the sweetening of the grapes.”

Though this is the Guatemalan native’s first summer at Paumanok, she’s acclimated to the work, which she said was a huge improvement over the Chinese-owned factory where she worked in Guatemala, logging in long hours in an overcrowded environment. Olivia usually works in the fields along with two cousins, but they were busy with back-to-school paperwork for their kids and took the morning off. Olivia is single, but said she hopes to marry and plant her own roots on the North Fork someday. For now, this field is family for her and her colleagues.

“I compare working with plants to kids. Both need attention, care and love, and they provide joy at the end,” said Jennifer, a native of Honduras who traveled north with her husband, leaving their children behind with her parents to be able to pay for their schooling. “Raising a healthy vine is like raising healthy kids.”

Under a cerulean sky as wide and open as her smile, Jennifer spoke of how much better it is tending to vines, breathing in fresh air with the sun shining above than being confined to a tiny, enclosed space and sitting in front of a cash register all day, which she did in Honduras.

Does she miss her kids? Of course, she said. But she has a second job babysitting and working in child care, which she said helps. So does knowing she can provide for their future.

“I’m thankful to be able to connect to nature and work with such a great family here,” she said, referring to her employers and co-workers at Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards. She makes her way down a row of vines, snipping away leaves to ensure the clusters are exposed to the sun and can dry, preventing them from getting a fungus, a common problem at vineyards.

But tending to grapes isn’t for everyone.

“It’s hard, physical labor that most U.S.-born citizens aren’t willing to do,” said Nabeel Massoud, field manager at Paumanok, the vineyard his parents founded when he was a child and that he and his brothers currently oversee. Working in the fields involves 12-hour days spent on one’s feet, no matter the weather. Though it’s referred to as seasonal work, vineyard maintenance is a year-round job, particularly for the likes of Gonzalez, who’s been at Paumanok for 15 years, and an ambitious young worker like Jacobo, who previously worked in a coffee plantation in Guatemala, which he said is similar in terms of the level of manual care and attention required.

“It’s all about getting used to it,” Jacobo said. “It depends on your attitude and the way you see your future. I tell myself, every hardship is temporary if you have a goal.”

“They are the backbone of this country and this region’s wine country.”

Nabeel Massoud

Though they toil under the sun, field workers remain in the shadows of the North Fork’s 60 vineyards, receiving little of the acclaim usually bestowed on the winemakers who oversee pressing the grapes and turning them into liquid gold.

But they are just as vital.

“They are the backbone of this country and this region’s wine country,” said Massoud. “They work the farms that put food on our table, and they nurture the grapes that allow us to make wine.”

During last year’s COVID-19 lockdown, Paumanok’s team had to furlough many of their staff — except for their vinedressers, who Massoud considers essential workers. “Their work is indispensable,” he said. “The grapes can’t wait.”

And that’s a lesson he learned as a kid, his earliest memories being of riding in the tractor with his father, where he developed his passion for viticulture and appreciation for the grit of field workers.

“It’s a family business,” said Massoud. “We’re a family of vines and family of workers, and we consider our customers family, too. So it’s family upon family upon family.

“I’m flexible when workers have personal needs, and make it clear that everyone working here is helping us realize our dream, so we have a responsibility to our workers to help realize their dreams.”

For example, when Gonzalez attended night school at Suffolk Community College, the Massouds reimbursed him when he earned his degree. They so value Gonzalez that when he received a competing offer from another vineyard, they matched it and loaned him money without interest, so he could invest in starting his own coffee business in Guatemala.

“I consider him a true brother,” said Massoud. And the love is mutual. The two muse about someday starting a roasting company on the North Fork, importing beans from Gonzalez’s coffee plantation in Guatemala. But for now, it’s all eyes — and hands — on the grapes.

William Jacobo has gone from growing coffee beans in Guatemala to grapes on the North Fork.

A typical workday starts at 7 a.m. and lasts until 5 p.m.

“Sometimes I get here earlier if the vines need spraying and repair work,” Gonzalez said. Though the field tasks vary with the time of year, it’s physically rigorous no matter the season, requiring 12 hours of manual labor, from the first buds of spring through summer heatwaves, August downpours and fall and winter frost.

“The hardest time for me is winter,” said Gonzalez, who adds that many vineyard workers decide to take restaurant jobs or work indoors during the winter months. “Coming from a tropical climate, it’s still tough to be out in the field when the wind is howling, and the temperature feels below zero. But if we don’t prune and tie the vines down in the winter, they can break in the spring once the buds are out.”

By the end of a typical harvest day, a worker’s fingers can get sticky from grape juice and stiff from all the clipping and snipping. One’s shoulders and back can ache from reaching high on the vines and bending down to trim grapes and ensure they drop into the bins.

“We come from nothing and then you have something, so that keeps you going,” Gonzalez said. “The promise of a dream motivates all of us. To us, working at a vineyard is a way to plant a future we can grow.”