For Elena Rodriguez of Alumbra Cellars, winemaking is more than just a job — it’s become a way of life and a huge part of her family’s identity. It’s certainly not the career or lifestyle she envisioned as a nursing student, but ever since her father first planted the vineyard back in 2005, her label has become a unique way to share her family’s story and her Latina identity through their wine. And it’s a special story that needs to be shared.
Typically, wine tells the story of the grapes or the land where those grapes were planted. But the wine from Alumbra Cellars is unique; it not only communicates flavor notes, it also tells a story of a Mexican immigrant who came to Oregon to create a better life for his family. It tells the story of Latino farmworkers and it celebrates Mexican-American culture. With every sip, there’s a story. And telling that story has become Elena’s mission over the years.
It’s not every day that you find a winery and vineyard dedicated to not only sustainable farming, but also telling the tale and showcasing the strength and importance of American immigration. And that’s what makes Alumbra Cellars so special. That unique, bright, uplifting story stems right from the name: Alumbra, which is the Spanish word for shining light. Alumbra Cellars has always been about shining a light on the heart and soul of their brand: the immigrant farmworkers. Alumbra’s story has always been one of family, hard work, culture, and of new beginnings. It’s a story that so many of us can relate to — and this story of family, immigration, hard work, and success is one we can all become a part of when we drink Alumbra.
After all, wine has the power to bring people together, and more than ever, we all need to unite and celebrate our unique heritage. Alumbra’s bright, fresh wines give us a delicious reason to acknowledge and celebrate the hard work that goes into each bottle.
We chatted with Elena Rodriguez to learn all about what inspires her, her family’s story, her vision for Alumbra Cellars, and what she hopes other Latinas can learn from her experiences.
How did your family end up in wine country Oregon? What led your family to establish Alumbra vineyard?
My father, who established the vineyard in 2005, came from Durango, Mexico. He immigrated to the US in the late 1970s working in the agricultural fields harvesting onions, cucumbers, cherries, apples, and this took him to Oregon to pick strawberries. He met my mother in Oregon and they settled there. My father and mother worked very hard; with a lot of sacrifices they were able to purchase land in Dayton, Oregon in 1996, which was one of my father’s dreams in coming to the US. He had always dreamed of having a farm, but not a vineyard. It was my father’s friend who had proposed the idea of planting a vineyard on the 30-acre farm. My father, being a dreamer and risk-taker, saw potential in having a vineyard in the Willamette Valley and decided to work with his friend to plant the vineyard in 2005, Rodriguez Family Vineyard.
Tell us about the name of your vineyard and wine company. How does that name represent the brand and business you have created?
The name of the vineyard is actually Rodriguez Family Vineyard, my family’s surname.
The wine company that I established with the help of my brother and uncle is called Alumbra Cellars. I decided on this name because one of my visions for my wine company is to shine some light on vineyard workers, most of whom are Mexican immigrants. I wanted to bring the vineyard to the tasting — instead of hiding the hard work that is done out in the vineyard, I want to shine it forth in the wine. I don’t think a lot people think about the work that is done out in the fields when they drink a glass of wine and I know most people would appreciate the wine even more if they understood the hard work that goes into it.
What do you think makes your wine so unique, both in terms of the flavor and in the story behind the wine?
The site of our vineyard is unique because we are located in an uncommon location for a vineyard, where most vineyards here in the Willamette Valley are not found. Our site is on the valley floor, the soils are sandy, silty, loam, and surrounded by hazelnuts. Our wines are acid driven and fruit forward, giving them a strong backbone and a unique freshness of pure fruits. We are herbicide free and we farm using sustainable practices.
The story behind the wine is one-of-a-kind, I believe we are the only Mexican American family that owns a vineyard and winery in Oregon. It is truly family operated. I never imagined that I would become a winemaker; I studied nursing and moved back to Oregon in 2014 to take over the vineyard for my father. It was later, in 2017, that I took on winemaking.
What do you think are the greatest challenges of running a business as a Latina winemaker? And on the flip side, how has your Mexican American heritage helped inspire your success?
I definitely feel there are more benefits in being a Latina in this industry because there are so few of us. My Mexican heritage has inspired my wine label, my story is a story of Mexican American immigration and first-generation farmer success. The story is unique in itself that people are drawn to wanting to know more about it and it has helped my brand.
I think there is more of a challenge in being a young woman in this industry that is dominated by men; experience is essential in winemaking and I am definitely lacking in the experience category. I can also say that growing up in a low-income home and in a Latino home wine was not something I was ever exposed to. My understanding of wine and winemaking all came at the same time as an adult and it was a bit overwhelming at first. So, because my cultural experiences as a Latina never took me to wine, I had to go out of my comfort zone and search for that myself and that was and has been challenging.
You are involved with AHIVOY, an organization dedicated to educating and empowering Latinx and Hispanic vineyard workers. Could you tell us a little bit about your involvement in this organization, and how you hope your role with AHIVOY will help to support, mentor, and educate fellow Latinx professionals in the wine industry?
Yes, AHIVOY, is a first of its kind in the wine industry and I’m super passionate about this non-profit organization! I was introduced to AHIVOY by one of the co-founders, Sofia Torres. Shortly after launching my label last year I was approached by Sofia to see if I wanted to be part of AHIVOY. She had read my story in the Oregon Wine Press and though I would want to be a part of this; of course I said yes. I am part of the Educational Committee and I’m involved in attending the classes and reviewing educational content. But I think beyond the curriculum that we help prepare is my presence that inspires and encourages the students. As a fellow Latina that works in the vineyard and with the same cultural background, we share stories and connect. The tremendous work ethic and knowledge they already have within the wine industry inspires me and I know these students are the future of Oregon Wine and it is so fun and exciting to watch and be a part of.
How do you hope people will understand and relate to your family’s journey as they experience your wine?
I believe that through wine you have the ability to bring families, friends, and communities together. By sharing my wine, I am able to share my story and when we take the time to listen to each other’s stories we are able to have a true human connection. I hope that by sharing my wine it can show the story of Mexican immigrants searching for a better life, following dreams, and that achieving an impossible thing is attainable. I hope it inspires others to take the time to really listen to each other’s stories, everyone has a story to tell that can change our preconceptions in life.