In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to highlight the contributions that Hispanic immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, have had on the wine industry. It is one of the few industries where you can see Latinx people at all levels, from harvesting the grapes to owning the vineyards. The North Coast of California and the Oregon wine regions have greatly benefited and have been forever changed by the immigrant labor force. Many vineyards can trace their labor force back to the times of the Bracero Program that began in the 1940s. Since then, a lot of literal and figurative growth has happened on the vineyards, which has led to a new era of winemakers.
Brief History of the Bracero Program
The bracero program was a US contract labor program between the United States and Mexico that lasted from 1942 to 1964. World War II had depleted the US labor force growers needed workers who would take the low-paying agricultural jobs. This seems to be the beginning American workers worry about losing their jobs to braceros, but safeguards were put into place to protect both American and Mexican farm workers.
To ensure wage fairness, braceros were guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by American workers. Braceros were also guaranteed adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at decent prices; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of their contract. While the safeguards were well-intended, the growers did not follow the guidelines. This caused both Mexican and American workers to suffer, while growers benefited from abundantly cheap labor. Nonetheless, this demand for labor gave millions of Mexican immigrants the opportunity to expand their agricultural knowledge or fall in love with it for the first time.
Working Their Way Up the Vine
Many of today’s Latinx vintners were braceros themselves or they are the children and grandchildren of immigrant agricultural workers. The strong work ethic that Latinx people are known for helped them make their way up the vine and master a craft that was typically reserved for the wealthy vineyard owners. Some, like Reynaldo Robledo, Sr. of Robledo Family Winery, were introduced to winemaking when they were taught about harvesting grapes. Others with previous agricultural experience had the opportunity to work for prestigious vineyards like Mondavi and Stags Leap. Ignacio Delgadillo, Sr. of Delgadillo Cellars had 30 years of experience in the Napa Valley vineyards with Freemark Abbey before he created his own label in 2001. While not everyone has gone on to own a vineyard, many immigrants have gone on to be winemakers and cellar masters for some of the country’s top labels.
Today you find a concentration of Mexican and Latinx vineyards in the Carneros Wine Region located south of Napa and Sonoma Valley as well as the Willamette Valley in the Portland/Salem region. Here, numerous winemakers have made their American Dream come true and have passed on their passion and trade secrets to the younger generations. It seems that this intersection of knowledge, culture, passion, and family has created a unique dynamic for intergenerational success. Read about some of these success stories below.
- Lupe Maldonado of Maldonado Vineyards emigrated from Michoacán in the 1980s; he spent the next thirty years working in and managing vineyards. When Lupe was going to retire from winemaking, he chose to dedicate his time to his own vineyard instead. Now, he runs the vineyard with his son Hugo, a second-generation winemaker who graduated with a degree in viticulture from the University of California, Davis.
- Felipe Moran, an immigrant from Jalisco, served as a foreman for a vineyard. His children and the children of other immigrants also worked around the vineyard and developed a passion for winemaking. His daughter Amelia and her now-husband Pedro Ceja graduated from college and carried forward the dream of owning their vineyard, Ceja Vineyards.
- Baudelio Rodriguez is a Mexican immigrant who arrived in Oregon looking for a better life. In 2005 he took the chance to plant his first vineyard. His daughter, Elena Rodriguez, has helped transform her father’s vineyard into a brand, Alumbra Cellars, that depicts her family’s culture and story.
- Manny Frias of Frias Family Wines and his family emigrated from Mexico. In 1977 they were able to buy a 100-acre farm and farmhouse. Today, Manny’s two sons are second-generation winemakers.
Organizations Supporting Latinx Folks in the Wine Industry
As the Latinx wine sector continues to grow, various organizations have come together to promote, support, and advocate for vintners.
- MAVA (Mexican American Vintners Association) – MAVA and its members strive to bring awareness to world-class Mexican-American produced wines while advocating quality standards throughout its members, and providing educational sponsorships to Latino youth. The goal is to serve as a marketing vehicle and as a source of motivation and support for future generations of aspiring Mexican-American winemakers and winery professionals.
- AHIVOY (Associacion Hispana de la Industria del Vino en Oregon y Comunidad) – provides education and professional development opportunities to vineyard workers in the Oregon wine industry. In partnership with Chemeketa Community College, they have developed a wine industry professional training curriculum to further technical grape and wine knowledge while also creating awareness of potential career, entrepreneurial, and leadership opportunities in the wine industry.
From humble beginnings to vineyard ownership and everything in between, the Mexican and Mexican-American community has left an everlasting mark in the wine industry. There are far more vintners than the ones highlighted in this post. Check out the map below for an extensive directory of Latinx-owned vineyards that you can support.
Wineries not pinned on map:
- Encanto Vineyards
- Gonzalez Wine Company
- Honrama Cellars
- Justicia Wines
- Parra Wine Co.
- Rancho Uva Blanka Family Wines
- Rios Wine Company
- Scalon Cellars
- Tres Perlas