The clink of glasses and buzz of conversation blend into the pulsing rhythm of “La Bamba” as the wine tasting in the Robledo Family Winery’s big, wooden barn swings into its second hour. The band is good, the beat near-irresistible, and some of the tasters don’t resist, shimmying gently as they make the rounds of tables featuring wines from the Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
It’s a typical harvest festival, the kind of celebration you see all over wine country as the growing season winds up to its inevitable climax. Except this event isn’t just about the 2016 grape harvest. It’s also the annual get-together of the Napa Sonoma Mexican American Vintners Association, a six-year-old group dedicated to promoting and celebrating the growing number of Latinos putting down roots in the California wine country.
“It’s wonderful to see this festival that really unites so many wonderful Latino family wineries,” says Dalia Ceja, sales and marketing director for Ceja Vineyards, one of the members of MAVA.
Mexican-American workers have played a huge role in the rise of the multibillion-dollar wine business starting with the braceros who came to work the fields in the 1940s and ‘50s. Subsequent generations have worked their way up, holding positions as vineyard managers, cellar masters, and, in a few cases, winery owners.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that the idea of banding together took shape, something that happened, as fate would have it, when several of the vintners found themselves pouring wines at the Michoacán State Fair in Mexico at the invitation of the governor of the State of Michoacán. (The invitation actually came through vintner Rolando Herrera who’d been invited to pour wines and suggested that his peers join in.) Their time together convinced them they should form an organization that would promote their wines and support future generations coming up through scholarships and on their return to the U.S. that’s what they did.
Today, MAVA has 15 members and takes an active role in raising awareness of their presence in the industry as well as raising scholarship money to encourage and support future generations.
Every MAVA winery has its own story; here are a few of them.
There’s Encanto Vineyards, which was founded by Enrique Lopez. Lopez earned a degree in chemical engineering from a Michoacán university before moving to Napa, and worked in the engineering field for some years before starting Encanto in 2006.
And Justicia Wines, founded by Rafael Rios III, who is currently president of the NSMAVA. Rios grew up working in the vineyards and wineries of the Napa Valley and then headed off to college, eventually earning a law degree. He still practices, specializing in wine, business, real estate, and immigration law.
Mario Bazan Cellars was represented at the festival by Mario himself, along with wife, Gloria, who serves as MAVA secretary. An immigrant from Oaxaca, Bazan began as a general laborer in the Napa Valley in 1973, rising to grape grower and now the owner of an estate vineyard and vineyard management company farming several hundred acres in the Napa Valley and Sonoma. He founded Mario Bazan Cellars in 2005. “I wanted to learn,” he says. “Once I learned something, I wanted to learn something else and that’s how I got into this business. Little by little.” He smiles and adds, “I like what I do.”
Mi Sueno Winery was founded in 1997 by Rolando Herrera and his wife, Lorena. Rolando Herrera has worked all kinds of jobs in the valley including dishwasher and grape picker. He got a job at Stags’ Leap Wine Cellar at age 17—then-owner Warren Winiarski made it a condition that the young Herrera would go to school in the mornings—and within 10 years had become cellar master. He later worked at Chateau Potelle, Vine Cliff Winery, and Paul Hobbs Consulting, and continues to consult for several premium California wineries. In 2001, his wine was poured at a White House dinner honoring then-Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Robledo Family Winery, site of the 2016 harvest event, traces its roots to patriarch Reynaldo Robledo, who came to California in 1968 to work the orchards and vineyards of the Napa Valley and Sonoma. He formed his own vineyard management business, Robledo Vineyard Management, in 1996. The family purchased 14 vineyards, with a total of about 350 acres, and in 2003 opened their own winery.
And then there is Ceja Vineyards, founded in 1999 by Amelia, Pedro, Armando, and Martha Ceja. Pedro and his brother Armando, Ceja’s winemaker, began as campesinos—field workers. As a member of the next generation, Dalia Ceja is “just so proud of what we’re doing not just as a family, but as a business together.” And she’s proud to be, like her mother, a Hispanic woman flourishing in a world that traditionally has belonged to European men. “As a Latina in the wine industry, it’s been wonderful to see so many other women be leaders in this industry predominantly run by European males. So not only are we a small family business, but we’re minorities within this very affluent industry,” says Ceja.
“It’s wonderful to break barriers,” she says, “to accomplish what we collectively consider to be the American Dream.”