Sonoma County Winegrowers Honors The First Woman to Receive Sonoma County’s Vineyard Employee of the Year

When Yolanda Cruz became the first woman foreman at Geyserville’s Redwood Empire Vineyard Management in 2011, it wouldn’t be the last time she would make history.

On Saturday, in a celebration presented by Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos (Voice of the Vineyard Foundation, formerly the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation), Cruz was named 2024 Vineyard Employee of the Year — the first woman to receive the esteemed honor.

“Women only represent a fraction of Sonoma County’s vineyard workforce, so pioneers like Yolanda Cruz are inspiring and important role models,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of the Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos . “She’s paved the way for other women by showing initiative, innovation and leadership, which has drawn more women into the vineyard.”

Born in the town of Putla de Guerrero in Oaxaca, Mexico, Cruz began working for Redwood Empire Vineyard Management in 2001, joining her husband, Pedro Cholula, who has worked for the company since 1997.

Despite her reserved, humble demeanor, Cruz soon proved herself a skilled, highly effective leader — someone the company believed would make an excellent vineyard foreman.

When offered a position as foreman, Cruz initially resisted, uncertain of her abilities. But when another foreman didn’t show up for work one day, Cruz was asked again to step up. She’s been a foreman ever since.

“Yolanda may be quiet, but she has tremendous command of her crew,” said Kevin Barr, co-owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management. “There are just some people who don’t have to yell or be verbose to get their point across. They just have a presence and the ability to quietly convey what they want to get the job done. That’s Yolanda.”

Founded in 1980, Redwood Empire Vineyard Management custom farms about 2,000 vineyard acres in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties. Depending on the season, the company employs about 200 to 300 people, including six vineyards crews of just women.

Barr and his wife, Linda Barr, have been fervent supporters of women vineyard workers since the company’s inception. He said most women who work in the vineyard have a “phenomenal work ethic and attention to detail.”

“We farm some very high-end vineyards where the stakes are high that we perform precise, quality work,” said Barr. “Yolanda is one of those crew leaders I can send out into those vineyards and be confident she and her crew will do a beautiful job. We all have the utmost respect for her.”

Best of the best

Established by the Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos in 2018, the Vineyard Employee of the Year award was created to recognize long-tenured vineyard employees at their height of expertise, performance and accomplishment.

The award is part of the nonprofit foundation’s broader commitment to acknowledge the vital role agriculture workers play in the wine industry.

The Vineyard Employee of the Year is chosen through the foundation’s Employee Recognition Program, which honors four to eight Employees of the Month who have demonstrated expertise in a particular area, like leadership, sustainability of innovation.

Since the program launched, 274 vineyard employees have been named Employee of the Month, and its from this select group that the Vineyard Employee of the Year is chosen.

All employees working in Sonoma County agriculture for a vineyard owner, vineyard management company or winery are eligible for the Employee Recognition program.

Employee recognition celebration

This year’s awards ceremony was held at the Mary Agatha Furth Center in Windsor, where about 300 vineyard employees, their families, industry members and community leaders gathered for food, mariachi music and celebration.

Presenting the awards was U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a longtime advocate for California’s agriculture and wine industries. The annual event, he said, is one of his favorites.

“This event demonstrates that vineyard owners and managers recognize we wouldn’t have world-class wine without a good workforce,” said Thompson, D-St. Helena. “One thing that strikes me is how long these employees have worked in the community, in the industry and for the people they work for today. That speaks highly of their loyalty and the loyalty of their employers. That says a lot. Everyone here is proud, and rightfully so.”

In addition to Vineyard Employee of the Year, the foundation also awarded a runner-up: Juan Avila, lead vineyard foreman at Emeritus Vineyards in Sebastopol, where he has worked for 23 years.

“Juan has been my right hand for years and is absolutely invaluable,” said Kirk Lokka, longtime vineyard manager at Emeritus Vineyards. “He helped us establish the vineyard 25 years ago. He runs the crews, he’s a tremendous teacher to the other workers, he drives the tractor, he can graft (the vines), he can prune. You can’t ask for anything more. People like Juan are the only reason vineyards exist around here. This recognition is long overdue.”

“Both Juan and Yolanda are incredibly deserving of this recognition,” Kruse added. “Both of them have been at their farming operations for 23 years. This is quite typical and further speaks to the mutual trust and respect between employees and winegrowers in Sonoma County.”

At Saturday’s celebration, Cruz admitted she was shocked to learn she’d been named Vineyard Employee of the Year. Today, she remains humble about what she achieved, but encourages other women to go after their dreams.

“Nothing is impossible,” said Cruz. “You can accomplish anything if you work hard.”