After decades of working as farmhands in California wine country, it should come as to no surprise that Latinos have ascended the ranks of winemaking to become their own bosses, running their own vineyards with their top-to-bottom experience in viticulture. With titans like Mondavi having been credited with defining an era modern American wine, it’s easy to overlook the reality that the Latino community’s ties to the wine industry run just as deep and are just as strong as the ties of the landowners.
But the fact is, many of Mondavi’s employees were Mexicans who were permitted to work in the U.S. through the Bracero program, a temporary agreement between the United States and Mexico that was put in place to relieve a shortage of American workers during WWII; the current-day industry still relies heavily upon the skill and sweat of Latin American immigrants, both documented and undocumented.
What’s the Vintner’s Association?
Nearly a decade ago, the Mexican-American Vintner’s Association (MAVA) was established to amplify the Latino presence especially in the echelons of the industry, representing an unsung generation of Mexican-Americans winemakers whose accomplishments are often eclipsed by more established and non-POC-owned vineyards. MAVA has grown over the years to include over a dozen members, each with a unique viticultural origin story defined by common themes of hard work, dedication, risk-taking, and pioneering.
“There’s this preconceived notion that Latinos are just the farmworkers. That’s one of the most important things: to dispel those kind of thoughts and ideas,” said Rafael Rios, former president of MAVA, in an interview with Wine Magazine. Rios also emphasized that when consumers choose wines made by Latino winemakers, they can expect “the same great quality you’d expect from any other winemaker. The only difference is that it is mostly families that went from being laborers to working in wineries, to owning wineries and starting their own labels.” Especially considering the stronghold that big, commercial winemakers have on California wine sales and tourism, wines made by Mexican-American winemakers are an indie wino’s dream.
MAVA’s support of the Latino community extends beyond the wine industry and into the local and national spheres. For one thing, the organization awards scholarships to students of Hispanic heritage who are pursuing a college education. The scholarships were developed to support the educational aspirations of the Latino community: faced with the rising costs of higher education, many high school graduates decide against pursuing college degrees in order to help support their family. The organization also has fundraised for Puertas Abiertas, a local non-profit that assists low-income families in the community with issues of healthcare, education, and citizenship.
MAVA wouldn’t be here today to give back to the community without the accomplishments of intrepid first- and second-generation immigrants from Mexico who dedicated their lives to the winemaking tradition, paving the way for others to follow. To honor their impact on California wine industry, here are a few Mexican-American winemakers who you ought to know:
Edgar Torres arrived in the U.S. in a stranger’s van when he was only eight years old, smuggled over the southern border in order to be reunited with his parents in California. He lived and worked in the state illegally for many years, even owning his own wine label before finally obtaining citizenship in 2014.
The young winemaker forwent a college degree for a headfirst dive into becoming a vintner. His first wine label, Bodega de Edgar, produces wines from the Spanish varietals Albariño and Tempranillo. He founded Bodega de Edgar a couple years after buying his first few barrels of wine with money he had saved up through his work as a waiter and odd jobs. He also owns Hug Cellars, a smaller label that he took over when the founders retired.
Torres has the distinction of being the first Mexican-American winemaker in Paso Robles. He admits that he initially resisted the focus on his heritage, preferring to be judged on his winemaking skills alone. With the encouragement of people around him though, he came around and has settled into his role as both inspiration and advocate for Latinos. “It’s also about paying respect to my community and my parents who left their country and worked so hard so we could be here,” he told the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
Amelia Ceja and Dalia Ceja Swedelson
Amelia Ceja was only 12 years old when she and her family traveled to California to meet her father, who had found work in the Napa vineyards. Within a week of arriving, Ceja was in the field, harvesting grapes on a Mondavi plot of land.
Amelia Ceja, along with her husband Pedro and his brother Armando, founded Ceja Vineyards in 1999, of which she was elected president — the first Mexican-American woman to have ever received that title. Several years later, the California legislature dubbed her “Woman of the Year” for her achievements in the wine industry. “No one ever thinks I own the company,” said Ceja in an interview with NBC News. “Why? Because I am an immigrant, Latina woman.
Daughter Dalia Ceja Swedelson inherited her family’s entrepreneurial spirit and has followed her own sense of wanderlust in food, travel, and wine, which she shares with her fans on Instagram @DaliaCeja. She heads up Ceja Vineyards sales and marketing team, keeping her family’s business at the forefront of the California wine industry by disregarding staid conventions and honoring the Ceja family’s unique cultural assets and viticultural acumen. Her work emphasizes a connection to the community — especially the Latino community. Like mother, like daughter: her accomplishments won her her very own “Woman of the Year” honor in 2011 from the Napa Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The Ceja vineyards espouse eco-friendly practices that limit their water use, preserve soil health, reduce waste, and use organic pesticides in order to protect their workers from exposure to what would otherwise be toxic to their health. “We learned that you can go for the American dream, but you have to fight injustices along the way,” said Ariel Ceja, son of Amelia and Pedro, in an interview with the Press Democrat. He shared that his family regularly considered the issue of social injustice and acknowledged their position of privilege, which they had managed to reach over generations of work. “[We] have the ability to go after the American dream but some people have it harder. A lot of laborers are paid little with no benefits, without the safety net of social services.”
Lupe and Hugo Maldonado
Lupe Maldonado traveled to California from his hometown of Michoacán, an agricultural community about 2,000 miles southeast of the Napa Valley. There, he worked his way up from farm laborer to winemaker; today, over four decades after first arriving in the United States, he owns and runs Maldonado Vineyards with his son Hugo. Their first release, a 2002 chardonnay won them high marks among wine critics and was even served at the White House.
Hugo was only 10 when traveled to California with the rest of his family to meet Lupe. As a youth, he had shouldered his father’s tireless work ethic. “I went to school, then worked afternoons, evenings and weekends at multiple jobs,” he told the Washington Post. After high school, he earned a degree in viticulture and oenology from the prestigious program at the University of California at Davis, joining his father in the wine industry with an academic depth of knowledge that complemented the senior Maldonado’s deep ties to the vines.
The Maldonado winemaking process honors the natural bounty of their environment, taking advantage of the terroir of the vineyard and allowing the grapes to just do their thing during the fermentation process with as little disturbance as possible, without any additives. This natural process aligns with the long history of winemaking that hearkens back to its roots in the pre-modern Old World, a contrast to many of the commercially successful wines that come out of Napa Valley.
“A lot of us, when we were growing up, never thought we’d be winery owners,” shared Hugo Maldonado, describing his family’s experiences pursuing the American Dream. “Winery owners were rich people. We’re not getting rich, but it’s nice to have some security for our kids.”
Also from Michoacán, Rolando Herrera fell into the winemaking business through a mix of chance and work ethic. He began working as a sort of mason for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, but was moved into the wine cellars by the owner of the vineyard. There, he worked the industry from the inside and out, literally. “I never knew I could have so much fun scrubbing barrels and tanks, lugging hoses, getting dirty and all covered with leaves,” he told the Post.
He worked there and in local restaurants as he completed high school and college. He has since founded his own business, Mi Sueño Winery, which he and his wife Lorena launched over ten years ago. Since then, two of his wines have been poured at the White House in honor of visits from Mexican presidents. To this day, Herrera spends every waking minute immersed in winemaking. “People say, ‘How do you do it?’ I say, ‘By working three jobs, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.’”
Herrera spoke to Forbes last year about the importance of having a permanent team, despite the higher costs and liabilities. The reality is that “not enough people can or want to do the job,” so being able to offer the stability and dignity of a permanent position rather than simply regarding workers as expendable laborers is a critical way to fill those important positions. Recall the effect that the Trump administration’s immigration policies had on California’s farms in 2017: seasonal farm workers were nowhere to be found, laying low to avoid being rounded up by immigration authorities. Crops went to rot in the fields, underscoring the reality that undocumented migrants make up a huge portion of the country’s agricultural sector, accounting for at least 50 percent of the farm workforce — if not more.
Guillermo and Angelica Herrera
Wine was fixture of Guillermo Herrera’s life from a young age. Both of his parents worked in the vineyards of Napa Valley, exposing him to on-the-job experience even before he graduated high school. His wife Angelica was also the child of immigrant workers. Together, the couple founded Herencia Del Valle in 2007, producing award-winning wines practically from their first bottle. The highly coveted wine is produced in such small quantities — less than 200 cases of their last vintage release were produced — that the wine is not available to the general public through tastings. Instead, prospective consumers will need to request to be notified when a bottle becomes available for purchase.
Guillermo Herrera currently serves as the president of MAVA, and was the driving force behind connecting MAVA to Puertas Abiertas. He hopes to expand MAVA’s influence on the Latino community. “If us, the Mexican-American Vintners Association, can’t spearhead our local efforts for our own local community, who will?” he said in an interview with the Napa Valley Register.
Herrera holds a broad view on what winemaking does for the Latino community at the national level. “We needed to kind of unify and tell our story and present to the world that we also make really, really good wine,” he said, explaining that MAVA was much more than just a way to market wine made by Mexican-Americans. Leading up to the Napa Valley Harvest Festival last year, he extended an invitation to Donald Trump. ”So he can see that we’re not all ‘bad hombres.’”
Reynaldo and Vanessa Robledo
Another Michoacán native, Reynaldo Robledo officially became the first Mexican migrant worker to open a wine tasting room to the public in 2003. He first arrived in Napa as a teenager through the Bracero program, working first in the field, acquiring critical winemaking skills and experience. By the time he was 19 years old, he was working as a manager in the industry. Now, he is the head of a wine empire, the owner of hundreds of acres of vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, and Lake Counties with his family.
Robledo, along with several other Mexican-American winemakers, was featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of American History. The museum paid homage to the Robledos as an integral part of the American tradition of winemaking, one that he has passed down to his own family as well; nine of Robeldo’s 14 children work in the wine industry. His daughter Vanessa shared with Sonoma News her keen sense of pride that she takes in coming from a lineage of migrant workers. “My great-grandfather and grandfather came into the U.S. for work during the Bracero program. Their resumes were the calluses of their hands and the muscle mass on their body.”
As the youngest daughter of the Robledo family, Vanessa overcame her own challenges working as a Mexican-American in the wine industry. She revealed that no one expected her to finish high school, and that her higher aspirations beyond that were usually facilitated by the men in her family. “When I did began to take classes at Napa Valley Community College, one of my brothers had to accompany me. If I traveled for business, one of my brothers had to accompany me.” By age 24, though, Vanessa rose to her own lofty expectations and became the president of the family winery. She and her mother Maria are featured subjects in “Harvest Season,” a Bernardo Ruiz documentary that premiered last fall at the Mill Valley Film Festival. The film spotlights the small producers and vineyard workers of Napa Valley that you can expect to encounter if you travel off the beaten path in Northern California. You can catch the film on PBS in the spring.