Mexican migrant workers went to California to pick grapes, now they own wineries

Leticia Trejo, Reynaldo Robledo and Lazaro Robledo of Robledo Family Winery. Reynaldo was the first Mexican-American migrant worker to open his own tasting room.
Leticia Trejo, Reynaldo Robledo and Lazaro Robledo of Robledo Family Winery. Reynaldo was the first Mexican-American migrant worker to open his own tasting room.PHOTO: MARVIN JOSEPH / THE WASHINGTON POST

NAPA VALLEY (THE WASHINGTON POST) - Outside Robledo Family Winery, south of Sonoma, on a cool April Sunday, the US and Mexican flags whipped a stiff salute in the wind blowing off the San Pablo Bay. A third banner bore the winery logo. The flags represent three themes central to the lives of Reynaldo Robledo and many other Mexican migrant workers who have helped shape California's wine industry: heritage, opportunity and family.

In February 1968, when family duty called Reynaldo, then 16, to the migrant labour camps of Napa Valley, he was not satisfied pruning vines for the Christian Brothers winery for 10 hours a day, six days a week, earning US$1.10 (S$3.37 at the time) an hour. "I needed to help the family," he says. "And I wanted to be the boss, so I worked extra hours without pay so I could learn everything." And that, he did. Fast forward to 2008, and his own wines were being served at the White House, one of many honours bestowed on his acclaimed winery.

Robledo is part of a small but growing community of Mexican-American families who started as migrant workers and now have their own wineries. They have emerged from the invisible workforce of labourers who prune the vines in bitter winter cold and tend them under searing summer sun. We read about them when they collapse from heat exhaustion in California's Central Valley or perish in a winery accident. But they rarely appear in the glossy magazines that extol the luxury wine lifestyle, except as cheerful extras in harvest photos.

This month, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History featured five of these families during its annual winemakers' fundraising dinner. The event, Rooted in Family: Wine and Stories from Mexican American Winemakers, echoed an exhibit to open at the museum this summer, Many Voices, One Nation, part of a wider theme called The Nation We Build Together. (The themes were chosen years ago, before immigration from Mexico became a campaign issue and a policy priority for the Trump administration.) I met with each of the five families in April during a visit to Napa and Sonoma counties. Their stories are at once similar yet distinctive. They came from Michoacan or Jalisco, two agricultural provinces near Mexico City. Their fathers left for El Norte as migrant workers - some under the Bracero guest-worker programme, others crossing the border illegally but gaining legal status in a time when papers were easier to come by. They worked in California's burgeoning agricultural industry before settling in Northern California wine country. They encountered some of Napa Valley's most celebrated winemakers and contributed to California's wine revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, a period that saw dramatic changes in viticulture and food culture as the United States became a wine-loving nation.

Their wineries today are not the Tuscan-style villas or French-style chateaus that dot so much of the Napa Valley landscape, but more modest facilities in Carneros, a warehouse park in Napa, or a cave carved into a hillside north of Calistoga.

"Their story is the journey," says Steve Velasquez, who researches Mexican-American winemakers for the museum's American Food History Project. "A journey from Mexico to the U.S. to work in agriculture, from a handful of families to a thriving community of Mexican Americans, from vineyard workers to winery owners. . . . These families represent Mexican Americans who once just supported an industry but now help shape it."

And as they helped transform California wine from provincial agriculture to a world powerhouse, they embraced their new home and the opportunities it offered.

Amelia Morán Ceja, owner of Ceja Vineyards, fought back tears at the Smithsonian dinner as she said, "I am a poster child for the American Dream."

Reynaldo Robledo, Robledo Family Winery

 Leticia Trejo, Reynaldo Robledo and Lazaro Robledo of Robledo Family Winery. Reynaldo was the first Mexican-American migrant worker to open his own tasting room. PHOTO: MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

Reynaldo Robledo tears up with pride as he describes how in 2003, he became the first Mexican-American migrant worker in California to open his own tasting room to the public. He displays mementos of other career highlights, including those White House dinners and a 2008 visit to the winery from Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

Robledo's story began more modestly, and he related it to me in quiet, hesitant English as we sat at a large table made of wood from his native Michoacan state while his youngest son, Lazaro, prepared to welcome the day's first customers to Robledo Family Winery, in the Carneros region a few miles south of Sonoma.

Even as a young boy in Mexico's agricultural Michoacan state, Reynaldo was used to being in charge. He was the oldest of 13 children whose father, grandfather and uncles spent eight months of every year working in apple orchards and vineyards in El Norte, and he assumed family responsibilities in their absence.

So as a teenager in Napa Valley, he was quick to seize opportunity, which was plentiful in those heady early years of California's wine boom. Napa was rapidly transforming from a sleepy agricultural region of prune and walnut orchards into a viticultural powerhouse. An Italian-American vineyard manager taught him how to graft vines, a skill that earned him as much as US$4.75 per vine. He learnt to drive a tractor. Before long he was a crew chief for a vineyard management company planting and managing thousands of acres of vineyards.

Learning the wine business literally from the ground up was not enough. Robledo dreamed of owning his own vineyards and putting his family name on a label. In 1984, he purchased a 5.26ha junkyard in Carneros no one else wanted for about US$126,000 (S$267,400 at the time). He cleaned it up, planted vines and sold the grapes to Mumm Napa for sparkling wine. Today, Robledo Family Winery owns or leases 142ha of vineyards in Carneros and Lake County.

While growing his business, Robledo was also raising a family. He married his childhood sweetheart, Maria, in 1970, and they raised seven sons and two daughters. It was not all bliss and harmony.

He and Maria divorced in 2012, and Reynaldo hints at some strong disagreements with his children."The boys didn't understand the business," he says. "In wine, you invest your money and you don't see it for a few years. When people don't understand the business, they want money right away." Even so, in 2014 he formally turned ownership of the winery and vineyard management firm to five of his sons, including chief executive and winemaker Everardo and tasting room manager Lazaro.

Robledo, 64, also struggled with the clash of American culture and the patriarchal traditions he brought from Mexico."When we first made a sauvignon blanc, I told the family I wanted to call it Seven Brothers for my sons. That was a mistake," he says with a laugh. "My two daughters were very angry." Another wine was less contentious. Los Braceros is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. "Braceros means strong arms," Robledo explained. "A worker could bring his wife and one son. These grapes represent the family: father, mother and son."

Amelia Morán, Ceja Ceja Vineyards

Amelia Morán Ceja of Ceja Vineyards and her daughter, Dalia. Amelia is the first Mexican-American woman to be president of a California winery. PHOTO:  MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

When young Amelia Morán moved from Jalisco, Mexico, to Rutherford, California, in September 1967, she worked in the vineyards after school. Her father, Felipe, was a manager for Oakville Vineyard Management, which tended the now-famous To Kalon vineyard for Robert Mondavi Winery. Mondavi, who would become the most influential vintner in California, was just in his second harvest, and the winery was not yet finished.

Amelia, 12 at the time, remembers enjoying the work and meeting a young boy her age who had just arrived from Mexico, Pedro Ceja, whom she would later marry. And she remembers liking the To Kalon cabernet."Pedro tells everybody I ate the grapes for the first two hours," she says. "It's true!" Her other impressions of food in her new home were not positive. "It was all processed food," she recalls. She began making her own lunches from recipes her grandmother taught her back in Mexico.

Today, Ceja is an enthusiastic ambassador for Mexican cuisine, filming instructional videos and demonstrating recipes in television appearances. "I want to take the best of Mexican culture - not the macho stuff, that's no good - and incorporate it with the best from my adopted country," she says.

Ceja, 61, is the first Mexican-American woman to be president of a California winery. She co-founded Ceja Vineyards in 1999 with Pedro and his brother, Armando, the winemaker. They own or lease 60.7ha in Napa and Sonoma counties and plan to break ground this year on a winery on their property in the Napa section of Carneros.

Two years ago, Ceja lobbied in Washington for revisions in worker protection regulations that had not been updated since 1992. Her activism grew out of the turbulent labour movement of the 1970s led by Cesar Chavez, who would stay with her family when her father was president of the local United Farm Workers chapter. "I marched with them on Route 29," she recalls."People understood that in order to live a life of dignity, they needed the support of someone to advocate for them," Ceja says. "Even today, the farmworkers are invisible, and we need to advocate for them. Through our wines we are paying homage to the true artists of wine - the workers." Though still a young winery, Ceja Vineyards is preparing for generational change. Amelia's three children are all involved; Dalia Ceja, with an executive MBA, is sales and marketing director, and Armando's daughter is assistant winemaker."There is an expression in Spanish, 'Aun hay mas,' " Ceja says. "There is much more to come."

Gustavo Brambila, Gustavo Wine

Gustavo Brambila of Gustavo Wine and his son Lorin (blue shirt). PHOTO: MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

Gustavo Brambila was only three when his father brought the family from Mexico to Rutherford, in the heart of Napa Valley; perhaps it is no surprise then that he has little or no memory of the strictly hierarchical society in Mexico. His independent streak was apparent when his career in the vineyards lasted one day. It was harvest 1968, and the 13-year-old was recruited to help the crews his father supervised at Beaulieu Vineyard."It was brutal," he recalls. "It's having to endure humiliation. It's having to endure backbreaking activities. They were working so hard and so fast, I couldn't keep up. The supervisor" - a friend of his father's - "just kept barking orders, not showing respect for the workers."

So Brambila got a job gardening. But an explosive development drew him back to wine."One day during harvest, my father brought home a small bottle of just-pressed muscat juice," he recalls. "It was good, nice and sweet, and I put the rest in the refrigerator." The juice then fermented, and two weeks later the bottle exploded, ruining all the food in the refrigerator. "I heard a loud noise, and then my mother started cursing. I told her then and there I would find out why that bottle exploded." That vow led him to the viticulture and oenology programme at the University of California at Davis, where he became the one of the first Mexican-American students to earn a degree in fermentation science. After graduation, he borrowed his father's suit and interviewed for a job with Mike Grgich, the winemaker at Chateau Montelena.

Brambila was at Montelena in 1976 when word came from France that the winery's chardonnay had bested white burgundies at a tasting that would become known as the Judgment of Paris, which is credited with opening the door to New World wine producers."There was this big commotion upstairs," he recalls. "We thought the bosses had gone crazy." Brambila's association with the Paris tasting earned him some fame in 2008 when he was portrayed by Freddy Rodriguez in Bottle Shock, the highly fictionalised account of California's vinous triumph over France. "Everything in the movie was fluffed up," he says. That does not stop him from using it in his marketing and on his website, however.

When Grgich left Chateau Montelena and created Grgich Hills winery, Brambila followed and worked for him for 23 years, rising to be winemaker and general manager. In 1996, he started making wine on his own, and by 2002, he had his own winery and vineyard management company.

Brambila, 63, follows an unconventional model: His facility is a warehouse in an industrial park within the Napa city limits, where he is not covered by the many restrictions imposed on wineries by Napa County. (Among other rules, wineries there are required to own at least 4ha, which can be exorbitantly expensive.) The park has become home to more than a dozen wineries and is known informally as the Crusher District. Brambila leases vineyards to source his fruit, and his son, Brendan, runs the vineyard management company that tends them.

He had distributors in 29 states when the Great Recession hit. "Half of them owed me money and went belly up, and the banks pulled my credit lines." So once again, he decided to go independent and now sells his wines only through direct-to-consumer sales.

And for a while, he stopped making chardonnay. "I prefer European-style wines, and when everyone wanted oaky, buttery sweet wines, I couldn't put my wine against that," he says. But he started making it again in 2013, in the style of the Chateau Montelena that won the Paris tasting."I felt consumers were ready for crisper wines," he said. "I wanted to bring the style back."

Rolando Herrera, Mi Sueño Winery

Rolando and Lorena Herrera of Mi Sueño Winery. PHOTO: MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

Disobeying orders changed the arc of Rolando Herrera's career. It was summer 1985, and the 17-year-old from Michoacan got a job at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars cutting stones for a wall being built around the home of winemaker Warren Winiarski."They told the workers not to look at El Señor," Winiarski recalls. "But this young man made eye contact, and there was something in his eyes that said, 'I am capable of much more than this.' So when the wall was done, I offered him a job in the cellar." Herrera realised he had found his calling. "I never knew I could have so much fun scrubbing barrels and tanks, lugging hoses, getting dirty and all covered with leaves," he says.

He stayed at Stag's Leap for 10 years, finishing high school and college while learning the tricks of his new trade. Winiarski was an able teacher - the former college professor had made the cabernet sauvignon that won the 1976 Paris Tasting against some top Bordeaux.

Herrera's hard work enabled him to pursue his dream of getting an education and someday owning his own company. His father brought the family to St Helena in Napa Valley in 1975, when Herrera was eight, but took them back to Mexico five years later. Rolando missed his California friends and lifestyle, but most of all, the opportunity.

"I didn't want to stay and get married and have kids at 17 or 18 and pick strawberries for a living like everyone else," he says. So at 15, his father allowed him to venture north again and join an older brother in St Helena. He enrolled in high school, working nights in the kitchen of Auberge du Soleil under chef Masa Kobayashi, first as a dishwasher and then as a prep cook.

Once launched on his wine career, Herrera worked with winemaker Paul Hobbs and consulted for several wineries. One client was Robledo Family Winery, where he became winemaker and married Lorena Robledo, the oldest child of Reynaldo and Maria Robledo.

Herrera started making wine for himself in 1997 and called his label Mi Sueño, Spanish for "my dream." He still makes wine for a few other wineries at his facility in the Crusher District, around the corner from Gustavo Brambila's Gustavo Wine.

Part of Herrera's heart remains in Mexico. He calls his cabernet sauvignon-based red blend El Llano, after his home town in Michoacan. And in 2010, when the Michoacan government invited him to pour his wines at the state fair, he recruited 10 other Mexican-American vintners to participate. That was the genesis of the Napa and Sonoma Mexican American Vintners Association."I hated that we were competing and bickering at each other instead of supporting each other," he says. "This was an opportunity for the people of Michoacan to see the sons of Mexican farmers becoming growers and winemakers." At 50, Herrera still exudes the restlessness of someone with a lot left to accomplish. His next project will be to plant vines and build a winery for his second label, Herrera, on 20 acres of land he purchased last year on Mount Veeder."People say, 'How do you do it?' I say, 'By working three jobs, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,' " Herrera says. "Failure - that's not following your dream."

Hugo Maldonado, Maldonado Vineyards

 The Maldonados - Hugo, Lidia and Lupe - of Maldonado Vineyards. Lupe moved to California in 1962. PHOTO: MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST

Hugo Maldonado carved his own place in Napa Valley. In 2007, he purchased a small, rocky piece of land just off the Silverado Trail in Jericho Canyon, north of Calistoga. "It was an old billy goat hill," he says, with little to offer except a view of the Calistoga Palisade Mountains and a valid winery-use permit. When mining companies told him how much it would cost to dig a cave out of the granite, he decided to learn excavation and do it himself.

Today, the small cave is nearly overflowing with barrels, bottles and the equipment he uses to produce Maldonado Vineyards wines, and he's thinking of expanding. Not back into the hillside, though. "We'll put a building in front," he says.

Hugo's father, Jose Guadalupe Maldonado, known as Lupe, came to California from Michoacan in 1962. He picked apples in Sebastopol, then tended vines at Christian Brothers, Sterling Vineyards and finally Newton winery, where he stayed nearly three decades. In 1982, he brought his family north from Mexico. Hugo was 10.

In St Helena, he led what he calls "a typical Mexican family life.""I went to school, then worked afternoons, evenings and weekends at multiple jobs," he recalls. "I graduated high school in 1989 at 17, then married that year. I was a father by 19." His wife, Lidia, is second-generation Mexican-American. Hugo graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in viticulture and oenology, then joined his father in what was by then a family business.

The Maldonados bought their first vineyard in the early 1990s, selling the grapes to Newton. They began making their own wine, a chardonnay, in 2002, to immediate critical acclaim. It was also served at the White House. Today they own 22.7ha of vineyard and manage more than 200 more for other wineries. They produce up to 10,000 cases of wine each harvest, including their own label and a second line called Farm Worker."The basis has always been sweat equity and trying to build something for ourselves," Maldonado says.

The migration from Mexico has slowed, and now there is a shortage of labour in Napa Valley. "It's hard to get a quality employee, and their knowledge of agriculture is poor," he says.

Maldonado, 45, cites better economic times in Mexico - "strawberry farming is booming" in Michoacan - and tougher deportation policies implemented seven years ago by the Obama administration as reasons for the shortage. He predicts another immigrant community will eventually fill the need."The Italians were the workers, then they became the managers and the people who knew how to graft, and the Mexicans became the workers," he said. "Someone will come." But his generation of Mexican migrant workers, and the two or three before them, have seized the opportunities to rise from the ranks in the vineyard rows, to the tractor seats, to the barrel caves and tasting rooms. They may be viticulturists, winemakers or chief executives, but their proudest title is "owner."

"A lot of us, when we were growing up, never thought we'd be winery owners," Maldonado says. "Winery owners were rich people. We're not getting rich, but it's nice to have some security for our kids."