From the fields to the front office: Latino wineries grow strong in Napa and Sonoma

During harvest season in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the fields are filled with Latinos of all ages, working under the hot sun as they move through row after row of grapes on the vine that will eventually produce some of the greatest wines in the region.

But increasingly, Latinos are not just in the fields.  For the members who make up the Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association (NSMAVA), the fruits of their labor are doubly sweet.  For most of these Latino winemakers, their family roots are planted as thick as the vines that grow in their fields.

Reynaldo Robledo was just 16 years old when he made the trek from Michoacan, Mexico to the Northern California wine region in 1968.  He followed the lead of his uncles, who decades earlier had come to harvest the untended fields due to an American worker shortage.

“They called them los braceros,” says Robledo before adding, “Los braceros means ‘strong arms.’

The “Bracero” program, an agreement by the U.S. and Mexico to provide Mexican labor while American soldiers fought in World War II, is the reason why many of today’s Latino winemakers call this region home.

Robledo’s story is the American Dream.

Robledo worked his way up through the fields, eventually becoming a vineyard manager, and then owner of a Vineyard Management company. In 2003, he opened up the Robledo Family Winery, and a decade later he’s one of the largest producer of wines among Latino owners in the region, producing just under 30-thousand cases a year.

He wears his heart on his sleeve and puts his history on his wine labels, with different bottles dedicated to his family and his culture.

Along with his wife, six of his nine children work in each part of the winery; from the fields, to the cellar, to the tasting room. He is proud of his accomplishments but says the true sign of success will be the winery’s legacy. He looks to his grandchildren to get involved and pass it along.

Operating in its third year, NSMAVA helps up and coming Latino business owners in the industry as they establish themselves. While the bulk of the people working the fields are Hispanic, the numbers dwindle when looking for Hispanic winemakers and winery owners. NSMAVA hopes to change that, by offering support and advice to those just starting out. Many of these new owners were once children playing or working alongside their parents in the fields. And now they hope grab the attention of the wine industry’s next target, the Latino wine drinker, a group that is growing year to year.

NSMAVA President, Rafael Rios, is also the owner of Justicia Wines. His recent venture produces wine with themes modeled on his other profession, attorney-at-law.

Rios left the fields to attend college, but always came home to help his family with “the crush.”

“It’s something that I never thought about when I was growing up, when I was working in the vineyards. I never thought that I’d come back and want to make my own wine,” says Rios. “But I think it is a natural progression. Just like family businesses– whatever the business may be– if your father and mother had a business and you grew up in it, you kind of keep that going.”

Rios says many of the members are small upstarts, producing a few hundred cases of wine per year.  Some lack the resources for a tasting room or large marketing campaign. NSMAVA allows them to help promote each other, while acknowledging that they are still in competition. NSMAVA is also dedicated to providing scholarships and education to young Latinos in the community with a vision for this industry.

And while some of the facilities and production may be small, the passion for winemaking runs deep.  Just as importantly, these vintners also know they are  an inspiration to those looking to move from the “fields to the front office.”

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