From Farm Workers to Wine Makers—Latinos are a Growing Force in the Wine Industry

From Charles Krug, the pioneer, to Robert Mondavi the father, Napa and Sonoma counties in California are considered Mecca for wine making in the United States.  But from the 1960s on, it’s been the Latino labor force behind the wineries fueling the industry.

Today, many of its workers have become wine owners and influencers. With labels like Maldonado, Alex Sotelo, Ceja, Mi Sueno, and Robledo, sommelier/wine director Jesse Rodríguez, and radio host and associate member of the Napa/Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association, Sandra González, the faces of the wine world are slowly changing.

The stories are unique but similar. The young immigrant men and women moving to the US to pick grapes; migrant farm workers who see possibilities beyond the fields. Folks who put themselves through school at night and work during the day to learn all they need to know about wine. How to grow it, how to process it, the chemistry behind it, the best barrels and bottles, and how to taste it—making sure it’s the best.

I became a farmer to survive. I worked 60-hour weeks in the vineyards at the Robert Pecota winery. After a while I was put in charge of the field. Then I was given an opportunity to work in the lab.

— Alex Sotelo, winery owner

“I was sent to the US when I was 18. I didn’t speak English. I became a farmer to survive. I worked 60-hour weeks in the vineyards at the Robert Pecota winery. After a while I was put in charge of the field. Then I was given an opportunity to work in the lab,” said winery owner Alex Sotelo.

Sotelo said he knew he needed a formal education to get ahead.

“It took me over five years in Community College, working full-time during the day to get my degree,” Sotelo said. “I started with many other Latinos, but by the end, there were fewer and fewer. That was very hard to see.”

Sotelo moved on to become a Cellar Master and later an assistant wine maker. By 1998, he became the main winemaker and by 2000 was making wine for multiple clients.  In 2002, Sotelo created his own label—though it was hosted by someone else’s winery (Only 20 percent of all wines in Napa have their own location).

The biggest step any wine maker can take, he said, is to own the land and process the wine on their own.

“It takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in the wine business,” says Sotelo.  But he has great hope for the future of Latino winemakers.

“We have a great work ethic as a people and we know the industry. I mentor high school students and it’s great to teach them about some of the possibilities in this business.”

Jesse Rodríguez, a director of wine and a sommelier, works at the 5-star Addison Restaurant and Grand Del Mar resort, located in San Diego, Calif. He’s the man behind all of the wine served at the resort as well as any events catered there—3,577 selections of wine. Before the Grand, he was head sommelier at the famed French Laundry in Napa for four years.

“I feel like I got my start working at my grandparent’s restaurant, Jimmy’s Casa in Beaumont California, near Riverside.  I did everything from picking up cigarette butts and cleaning toilets to waiting on tables.  But every Sunday our family would sit down together and eat a five-course meal,” he said. “It was my introduction to the culinary industry I work in today.  It’s probably why I have the attitude about wine as a grocery. It shouldn’t be thought of as for the elite only.  It’s a vehicle to help bring out the taste in good food.”

There are only 186 Master Sommeliers in the world. Of those, 118 are American, and just 17 are women. Next month, Rodríguez will take the Master Sommelier test in Aspen. If he passes, he will become one of only five Latino Master Sommeliers in the U.S.

Sandra González has a weekly radio show in Sacramento called Wine Country Con Sabor.  On Thursday mornings, AM channel 1440, she talks about wine, food, art, and all things related to Latino culture.  Her family is from Mexico and came to the Central Valley to work in the fields.  After working at the Wine Institute for seven years, she left to run a couture bridal boutique for large-size brides with her mother.

Dedicated to wine education, González was the first person to organize a couple of events that would have huge impact in the Latino wine community.

“In 2003, we called it a ‘Get To Know You’ Harvest luncheon. I brought together all the growers, vintners, wine makers, and culinary people—all the Latino wine influencers.  People were so excited. It was a very positive and inspiring event.”

In 2004, González organized an event called “Sabor de Napa”. It was the first ever-public wine tasting event in US, bringing together US Latino vintners, chefs and artists.

“In 2004 we created the Hispanic Vintners Alliance, which six years later became the Napa/Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association, González said.  “The mission then is the same today. We’re trying to bring the next generations into the industry. We want to educate consumers as well of the many roles of Latinos in these areas.”

Over 40 percent of the Napa Valley is Latino, but only 3 percent are in powerful positions within the wine business.

“That has to change,” says Hugo Maldonado of Maldonado wineries.

Hugo Maldonado started with his father Lupe over 44 years ago, working his way up from the fields to vineyard manager. Maldonado succeeded his father in 1999. At that time, Lupe bought seven acres of land in Southern Napa.

In 2002, Maldonado produced their first 227 cases of wine from the grapes grown on their own small piece of acreage—and sold every one.  Maldonado is the only Latino owned winery with caves where they’re able to bottle and store wine in Napa.

Maldonado’s wines were served in the White House under President George Bush, and this year Maldonado’s 2009 Chardonnay, Los Olivos, was awarded 94 points out of 100 by Wine Spectator.

“Our wines are well received, but it’s challenging especially with a Latino label. But I’m convinced there’s a great wave of young people coming up. My daughter and her boyfriend are both studying Viticulture in college.  We’re not just in the fields anymore,” Maldonado said. “We’re a force to be reckoned with.”