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Emergence of Mexican-American Wineries

There has been considerable controversial news of late about the proposed bill HR 4437 that will limit the flow of illegal immigrants across the border from Mexico. Since 1942, when the guest worker program was begun, the Mexican brocero has been the backbone of the California and Oregon wine industry, providing a majority of the field labor. Although most workers toil as field hands with limited wages and benefits, there has been a concerted effort through various charity organizations to provide proper health care and living facilities for the migrant Mexican workers.

A number of workers with the passion and skills to succeed in the wine industry have lived the American Dream and become prominent owners of vineyard management companies and even wineries. Reynaldo Robledo, the first former migrant vineyard worker in North America to own a winery, is a prime example. His story was profiled in a recent feature article in Saveur (October, 2006). Robledo came to the United States at age 16 with a few other relatives from the Mexican state of Michoacan in 1968. He initially lived in a migrant labor camp near Calistoga, working long hours pruning vines for as little as $1.10 an hour. After 35 years, he has his own vineyard management company with 30 to 45 year-round employees, as well as his Robledo Family Winery. He has 220 acres of vineyards (90 of them are leased) in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties. He sells grapes to several notable wineries, and makes 10,000 cases of his own wine. Robledo produces multiple varietals including Pinot Noir. His 2003 Pinot Noir ($28) won a gold medal at the 2006 Orange County Fair Wine Competition. Robledo’s entire family, including nine children, all work in the family business. The winemaker is Rolando Herrera, another Mexican-American who was formerly the director of winemaking for Paul Hobbs. The winery has a tasting room at 21901 Bonness Rd, Sonoma. The website is located at www.robledofamilywinery.com where wines may be purchased. The phone is 707-939-6903.

Another Michoacan, Ulises Valdez, can trace a similar story. In 1985, at age 16, he crossed the border and traveled to Sonoma County to join his older brother who was working in the vineyards. Although underage, he was able to obtain a job pruning vines based on his skills (and by lying that he was 18). Like many migrant workers, he lived in humble conditions and rode a bicycle to the vineyards. He obtained amnesty in 1986 and achieved citizenship in 1996. Valdez became a partner in Florence Vineyard Management Company, and in 2003, he bought Jack Florence, Jr’s stake in the company and named it Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management, Inc. His grape clients include many prominent names such as Paul Hobbs, Mark Aubert, Kent Rosenbaum, and Jayson Pahlmeyer. Valdez now controls 150 acres of vineyard land in Sonoma County and has 70 employees. His Pinot Noir vineyards include the Ulises Valdez (UV) Vineyard (aka Laguna Road Vineyard) near Sebastopol in the Sonoma Coast appellation and the Lancel Creek Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. In 2006, he started Valdez Family Wines, marking 20 years in the wine business. He has made a 2004 Ulises Valdez Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and next year will release the 2005 Valdez Family Wines Lancel Creek Pinot Noir ($80, 25 cases), both of which were made by Mark Aubert. Aubert gives considerable credit for his own success to Valdez, who is his vineyard manager and viticultural partner. Aubert sources his own Pinot Noir from the UV Vineyard. Young winemaker, Jamie Kutch, will be releasing a 2006 Kutch McDougall Vineyard Pinot Noir in the future from a vineyard that Valdez farms next to Hirsch and Martinelli Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. Valdez’s website is located at www.valdezfamilywinery.com, where you may purchase wines (no Pinot for sale yet) and sign up for the mailing list. 707-894-3710.

There are now at least 12 Mexican-American-owned wineries in California, including Ceja Vineyards, Gustavo Thrace, Alex Sotelo Cellars, Mi Sueno, Renteria Wines, and Guerrero Fernandez among others. Arturo and daughter Ana Keller are Mexicans (as opposed to Mexican-Americans) who own Keller Estate in Petaluma, a fine producer of Pinot Noir. For more information on Latino-owned wineries, contact Sandra Gonzalez of Vino con Vida communications at www.vinoconvida.com.

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