Food

Meet the Latino Winemakers of Napa Valley

Lead Photo: Grand Cata
Grand Cata

Napa Valley couldn’t have become wine country without immigrants. According to PRI, when Croatian-born Miljenko Grgich arrived to Napa in 1958, the United States had yet to embrace table wine. Two decades later, Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay beat French wines in a blind tasting, and he and other European immigrants had effectively made Napa a wine industry contender.

Europeans may have brought winemaking traditions to Napa, but Mexicans built the industry through backbreaking work. World War II caused a shortage of U.S. field workers, so through the bracero program (1942-1964), the country welcomed Mexicans to work in the fields for seasonal work. When the fine-wine business took off, winemakers needed year-round workers, and Mexicans filled these roles. By 2004, Mexicans made up as much as 98 percent of the field workers in Napa, The New York Times reports.

But Latinos have been there from the beginning. By the time Grgich helped put Napa’s wine on the map in the 70s, Mario Bazán and Ernesto Ayala had already started their careers in Napa’s vineyards. Both of them eventually graduated to foreman, making them a couple of the hundreds of field workers who rose through the ranks to manage vineyards. And the two are an even smaller percentage of field workers who have gone on to start their own wineries.

In 1989, this may have seemed inconceivable. But by the early aughts, Mexican families started bottling their own wines. Some made the jump by learning about the industry from the ground up; others – or their children or grandchildren – studied business or viticulture at schools with respected wine programs, like the University of California, Davis.

“It’s what we have been doing all our lives,” Reynaldo Robledo’s son told The New York Times. “The land is in our DNA.” Presently, there are more than 10 Latino-owned vineyards in Napa Valley, and through the Mexican-American Vintners Association, Latinos have created more connections within the industry, according to the Matador Network.

In 2013, Latinos only accounted for a small percentage of wineries in California, and many admitted to the NYT that they hadn’t turned a profit. But they continue to persevere.

Learn more about four of the Latino wineries who have taken on Napa:

1

Ceja Vineyards

Ceja Vineyards is really a family affair. Through the bracero project, Pablo Ceja had been working in St.Helena for years. In 1967, he returned to Mexico so that his family could relocate to the United States. Both Pablo and his wife, Juanita, worked in wineries. And according to the Ceja Vineyards site, “when the children were not in school and on weekends, the entire family could be found working in the vineyards, laughing and learning together.”

Pablo and his 10 children’s lives were shaped by wine. And one of his sons married Amelia Moran Ceja, a woman who also intended to build her life around wine. Amelia knew she wanted to become a winemaker since age 12. Born in Jalisco, she grew up picking merlot grapes, according to USA Today. In the 80s, Amelia, her husband, and the Ceja family pooled their money together and bought their first plot of land. On top of being a co-owner of the company, Ceja is also the female Mexican-American president of a California winery.

Buy the wine here.

2

Robledo Winery

Reynaldo Robledo arrived to the U.S. from Michoacan in 1968 as a 16 year old. Christian Brothers Winery introduced him to the world of winemaking; he started pruning vines for about $1.10/hour. Over the next 30 years, he learned as much as he could about the business. By 1996, he launched Robledo Vineyard Management, LLC, and in the first few years, the family purchased 14 vineyards, which totaled about 350 acres.

Purchase the wine here.

3

Alex Sotelo Cellars

Alex Sotelo emigrated from Zacatecas to the United States in 1991 at age 18. Back then, he didn’t know anything about vineyards, but he knew he wanted to work in the industry. That’s how he ended up studying viticulture and wine making at Napa Valley College. He handled school at the same time as he worked for Roberta Pecota Winery.

After 12 years of learning as much about the industry as he could, he decided to go solo and started Alex Sotelo Cellars. He released his first wine 13 years after he first arrived to the U.S.

Check out Alex’s wine here.

4

Valdez Family Winery

Born in Oaxaca, Ulises Valdez headed to the U.S. for more opportunity. He arrived in the U.S. as a 16-year-old in 1985, and he started working in Cloverdale. He gained legal residency because of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Before starting a winery, Valdez co-owned a vineyard management company. Eventually, he bought out his partner and his company now farms more than 1,000 acres.

But Valdez had bigger ambitions, and in 2004, he released his first wine. Six years after that, he established a winery.

Purchase Valdez’s wine here.

5

Learn about more

For a more complete list of Napa Valley’s Latino winemakers, check out Matador Network’s post.