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Originally published Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 6:15 AM

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Mexican-American vintners find success from the ground up

For members of the 3-year-old Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association — who have collectively launched some 14 wineries — the harvest is a time to celebrate and take stock.

The New York Times

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SONOMA, Calif. — It is harvest season in wine country, the time of year when the scent of crushed grapes infuses the air and flatbed trucks heavy with fruit cargo come lurching down narrow back roads.

For the winemaker Everardo Robledo — who grew up working in the fields alongside his father, Reynaldo, on weekends and after school — the harvest has a particular emotional resonance: a measure of how far the family has come since his Mexican immigrant grandfather drifted from one migrant labor camp to another and his father toiled in the vineyards for $1.10 an hour.

Everardo Robledo, 30, and his family are part of a tiny but growing fraternity of Mexican-American winemakers, many of them farmworkers’ children who now pursue wine business degrees or study viticulture and oenology at the University of California, Davis. “It’s what we have been doing all our lives,” the younger Robledo said of picking, pruning, trellising, planting and “suckering,” or removing unwanted shoots from vines. “The land is in our DNA.”

For tourists here and in other wine-producing regions, the August through October harvest is an opportunity to swirl, sniff and sip wine, stomp grapes and revel in dinners by master chefs.

But for members of the 3-year-old Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association — who have collectively launched some 14 wineries — the harvest is a time to celebrate and take stock. At their recent Vendimia, or harvest party, winemakers like Mario Bazán reveled on the Robledos’ patio, the moon rising as if on cue to bathe rows of chardonnay grapes in its light.

Amid “celebratory” yells by folk dancers and mariachi musicians, Bazán recalled arriving in the “Valle de Napa” in 1973 from Oaxaca as an 18-year-old. He cut brush and cleared fields, spending three years in a labor camp bunkhouse. At harvest, when picking frequently begins in the dead of night under glaring lights, Bazán’s goal was to accrue enough hours to save $2,000. Like many here, he worked his way up — from picker, to tractor driver, to foreman, to vineyard manager who also produces his own boutique cabernet sauvignon.

“All of us have come from the ground up,” said Rafael Rios, 46, the group’s president, whose father came to the Napa Valley under the bracero program, a series of guest-worker agreements between the United States and Mexico. “We know how it feels to be in the fields in 90 degrees.”

Rios’ path reflects the rise of a new generation of aspiring Mexican-American Mondavis. One of seven siblings, he returned home from college at UC Davis every fall to help his father “work the crush,” as he put it, cleaning conveyor belts and grape-destemming machines. Rios’ label, Justicia Wines, is subsidized with income from his day job as an attorney specializing in the wine industry.

His fellow Mexican-American vintners work as cellar masters and vineyard managers, and in related businesses like manufacturing boxes for transporting bottles. Many admit that their wine has yet to make a profit and that they represent only a fraction of California’s winemaking industry. Yet many of them have received kudos from fellow professionals, and they could be well positioned for a growing Latino market.

“We’re in an industry commonly known as a millionaire’s playground,” Ignacio Delgadillo Jr. noted somewhat wryly. “But our wines were created through a lot of struggle and passion, without the fancy châteaus.”

In Napa and Sonoma, the changing nature of vineyard practices, including denser spacing of vineyard rows, increased the demand for skilled year-round agricultural labor. A recent survey of farmworkers commissioned by Napa County found that although 95 percent were originally from Mexico, 54 percent considered Napa County their permanent home. The report suggested the need for more affordable housing to accommodate low-income families.

“Winemakers are the rock stars of Napa,” said Sandra Nichols, a geographer who has written major studies on Mexican migration. “Why shouldn’t people who are now settled move into the peak of the profession?”

Carlos Hagedorn, a Mexican-American studies instructor at Napa Valley College, said the vintners are becoming role models. “It’s about raising expectations, whether it’s going into the wine business or owning a garage instead of being a mechanic,” he said.

Nevertheless, the idea of the entrepreneur going it alone is not part of the equation. Pedro Ceja, 66, an engineer who co-founded Ceja Vineyards, went to college, as did six of his nine siblings, even though his parents lacked formal education in Michoacan. In the early 1980s, the family bought a 15-acre plot in Carneros.

Today, Pedro’s brother Armando is a winemaker, and his brother Jesus owns the Carneros Brewing Co.

Hugo Maldonado, also a farmworker’s son, grew up with his father’s perpetual refrain: “If you get up in the morning and go to work, you’ll be fine.” And even now, every day at 6 a.m. sharp, there is a familiar 72-year-old voice on the other end of the phone, asking Maldonado if he is working yet.

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