Finding the American Dream through Wine

The American dream lives strong in the hearts of Mexican-American winemakers in California. Meet the industrious vintners pioneering a better tomorrow.
Photo by Toni Weber

Nowhere is the American dream more alive than in the hearts of immigrants, who overcome countless obstacles to strive for better lives in this country. In California vineyards, many men and women of Mexican heritage toil their entire work lives in the fields so that their children can achieve their dreams.

In the North Coast, there are enough winemakers to power the Mexican-American Vintners Association. And the Central Coast is home to a growing number of immigrants and descendants who’ve moved from the vineyards into the cellars to make wine.

Their stories are poignant reminders of how bravery, hard work and talent are still the primary keys to achieve success.

Felipe Hernandez of Feliz Noche.
Felipe Hernandez of Feliz Noche / Photo by Toni Weber

Felipe Hernandez

The Trailblazer

“I started in the field, and I’m still in the field,” says Felipe Hernandez, who, in 1971 as a 15-year-old, left Ayutla, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Shortly after crossing the U.S. border, he helped plant some of the first vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. Those sites include Savannah Oak, where he’s lived and worked for more than 45 years, and Koehler, where he’s been vineyard manager since 1997, around the time he became a legal citizen.

In 2001, Hernandez became the region’s first Mexican immigrant to start his own brand, Feliz Noche. It produces about 700 cases per year from a wide array of grapes, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Tempranillo.

“I figured there were a lot of people making good wine out of the stuff I was growing,” says Hernandez, whose five children include a nurse, cop and engineer. “And if anyone ever says your fruit is no good, you can prove them wrong.”

Hernandez remembers long talks during the 1970s with a visiting vintner from France who died suddenly the following year. “I learned whatever I know from him,” he says. He doesn’t recall his mentor’s name, because Hernandez was a self-described “young punk” at the time. “He taught me to be patient and to use less sulfites and age the wine longer than what other people do.”

Like many vintners, he’s worried about the tightening labor market due to strict immigration policies, but he says he’s hoping machinery will ease the workload.

Marlen Porter in a vineyard.
Marlen Porter / Photo by Toni Weber

Marlen Porter

Hometown Hero

Marlen Porter jumped into the wine world at 21, when she worked at a bistro in Santa Maria where winemakers like Lane Tanner and Tobin James held court.

“It reminded me of my family, hanging around, having drinks, eating food,” says Porter, whose grandfather came from Oaxaca and settled in Oxnard as part of the midcentury Bracero Program, which allowed millions of Mexican men to legally take temporary agricultural work in the U.S. Her mom came at age six with the help of a professional smuggler, known as a coyote. Her dad came later and became a successful touring musician. The family moved to Nipomo, north of Santa Maria, when Porter was four.

Porter worked for Addamo Vineyard and then Rideau, where she ascended to general manager. Porter then became operations manager for Andrew Murray. In 2010, she married musician-turned-cellar-rat Cameron Porter, a Santa Maria native, and helped him work toward his advanced sommelier certification.

“That was a huge experience for both of us,” she says. “We were newly married, and my job was to make dinner and go out and find wines to stump him on.”

In 2013, they began to make Carignan from the Camp 4 Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley.

“We always wondered, ‘Why aren’t there a lot of wines that pair with Mexican food?’ ” she says. “The spiciness can overtake those big reds. So, part of the inspiration for making our Carignan was to have it with Mexican food.”

They also make Viognier from Zaca Mesa Vineyard, and total production has increased to about 800 cases, including Merlot, a Counoise rosé, a white blend and Cabernet Sauvignon under a planned second label.

The project has also begun to change her family’s allegiance to margaritas.

“My grandfather never really drank wine before we started making it, and now he drinks it all the time,” says Marlen. Her grandfather recently brought a bottle back to Oaxaca to share with his brother. “That was pretty cool.”

Miguel Lepe of Lepe Cellars.
Miguel Lepe of Lepe Cellars / Photo by Toni Weber

Miguel Lepe

Monterey Prodigy

Miguel Lepe was one class shy of a degree in business administration from Hartnell College in his hometown of Salinas when he was pondering which elective he should take to finish. He liked gardening, and the vineyard/wine production class seemed interesting.

“I had never even tasted wine before,” says Lepe. His mom and dad, who entered the U.S. legally from Mexicali and Jalisco, respectively, in 1972, didn’t really drink alcohol. “But I just really loved that I could smell the wine fermenting.”

While his siblings pursued white-collar jobs, Lepe began to study wine at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2009, and he served internships at Claiborne & Churchill, La Vigne and Justin.

After college, he worked at a winery north of Temecula for a year, then made his way back to Monterey County. He interviewed with vintner Peter Figge, who toured vineyards with Lepe and even took him out to lunch.

“I’d never had anyone do that for me during an interview,” says Lepe of Figge, who died suddenly in June at age 47. “By the end of it, he offered me a full-time position, even though I was just applying for the intern job. I don’t know if I would have found that anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have started my brand if it weren’t for him.”

With a focus on Monterey County, Lepe Cellars produces about 250 cases a year of Riesling, Chardonnay, Syrah rosé, Zinfandel and Petit Verdot, the latter of which will go into a new brand called Salinas Valley Vintners.

While his parents weren’t so sure about his career choice, they seem satisfied now. “They like that I started a brand and am working toward something that I can call my own,” he says. “They love that the family name is on the label. They’re very proud of that.”

Ruben Solorzano of Hecho Por Ruben.
Ruben Solorzano of Hecho Por Ruben / Photo by Toni Weber

Ruben Solorzano

The Grape Whisperer

In 1989, as a 19-year-old, Ruben Solorzano left the tiny village of Ranchito in Jalisco, where his family farmed corn, peppers and tomatoes. He trekked to America to join his older brothers in the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley.

“As soon as I crossed the border and started pruning grapes, I said, ‘Wow, this is me. This is what I love,’ ” says Solorzano.

In 1994, Stolpman Vineyard hired Solorzano. Its founding partner, Tom Stolpman, helped him become a citizen.

Today, Solorzano, who’s known as “The Grape Whisperer,” is a partner in Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. He farms Stolpman, Jonata, most of the ranches in Ballard Canyon, and the John Sebastiano and Salsipuedes vineyards, which bookend the Sta. Rita Hills.

In 2008, he began to make his own wine, which he says was cheaper than buying it. Solorzano launched Hecho Por Ruben in 2012.

“It helps me be a better farmer, and that’s my goal, to be the best farmer,” says Solorzano. “When I taste the wine, I can see the difference from the work that we’re doing in the vineyard. It’s really changed my thinking about grapes.” The future of his brand is a high-density, four-acre block of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre that he planted at Stolpman last year.

He’s been pleased to see cultures converge during his time here.

“Ten years ago, I never saw a party with Mexicans and Americans all together,” he says. “Now, you see that very often. Wine helps everybody be together, and now we don’t see much difference.

Caren Rideau and Andres Ibarra of Tierra y Vino.
Caren Rideau and Andres Ibarra of Tierra y Vino / Photo by Toni Weber

Caren Rideau & Andres Ibarra

The Power Couple

Originally from Valle de Guadalupe in Jalisco, Andres Ibarra left Mexico with his mom and siblings in 1976.

“My mom applied for a [visa] to take us all to Disneyland, and we never went back,” says Ibarra.

They joined his dad in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he worked as a mule trainer. The family eventually gained citizenship, which was easier then. “It’s completely different now,” he says.

In 1980, Ibarra started working at Brander Vineyard. One day, while he daydreamed in the cellar, he spilled Chardonnay everywhere.

“I’d never had any wine at all,” says Ibarra, then 17 years old. “I put my finger in it and tasted the wine and said, ‘Wow. I just picked these grapes two weeks ago, and look what it is now.’

“It’s like this light came on inside of me, and from then on, my interest was to learn how to make wine.”

Jobs at La Presa Vineyard (which he still manages), Santa Ynez Winery, Fess Parker and Rideau followed. It was at the last stop that he met his partner, Caren Rideau, the cousin-in-law of founder Iris Rideau. In 2012, the couple started Tierra y Vino, which produces a few hundred cases annually.

“It’s been really great for us to show that Latinos are in this business,” says Rideau, whose mother was from Sonora, Mexico. “There’s a huge Latino population that does drink wine.”

Ibarra consults for a new Latino-owned brand, Tres Amigos, which is based in Los Angeles, where Rideau’s architecture and interior design firm is located. Her goal is for more people to taste his wine.

“I’m more the go-getter,” she says. “He’s the one that will stand back, but I feel that he needs to be heard, and his wines need to be tasted.”

Edgar Torres of Bodega de Edgar.
Edgar Torres of Bodega de Edgar / Photo by Toni Weber

Edgar Torres

Waiter to Winemaker

“It’s the epitome of the American dream: coming here with nothing and building something,” says Edgar Torres of the journey of his parents, who left the village of Buenavista near Morelia in Michoacán and settled in Cambria, on the San Luis Obispo County coast.

On New Year’s Day in 1990, an eight-year-old Edgar and one of his sisters climbed into a VW bus—“we call it our Little Miss Sunshine moment”—and drove through a hole in the border fence near Tijuana.

They lived with two other families in a small home. With his parents constantly at work, Torres became a father figure to his siblings (his older sister came a year after he did, and his other three siblings were born in Cambria).

At 14, Torres was working catering gigs while attending high school. He wound up at Villa Creek Restaurant in Paso Robles, where owner Cris Cherry involved staff in his early winemaking adventures. That experience and the connections made led to jobs at Garretson Wine Company, Hug Cellars, Barrel 27 and McPrice Meyers.

In 2005, rather than finish college, Torres put his savings into four barrels of wine. Two years later, he started Bodega de Edgar as a Spanish variety-focused brand, which released its first commercial wines in 2009.

Today, Torres makes about 4,500 cases for Bodega de Edgar as well as about 800 cases for Hug Cellars, which he took over two years ago. He also plans to launch a twist-top, entry-level brand called Work & Play, which will also include canned wines and cider.

“I want to make more wine for the next generation,” says Torres.

Though married to an American for 11 years, Torres became a citizen just three years ago. He’s hopeful more Mexicans can follow in his footsteps.

“My people are the most loyal, hard-working, sweet people ever,” says Torres. “Their goals are to come here and have more financial stability. A lot are just happy doing that.” But he still encourages them to go further.

“I’m pushing everybody, Mexican or not,” says Torres.

Erika Maldonado of Runaway Vineyard.
Erika Maldonado of Runaway Vineyard / Photo by Toni Weber
The Story Behind The Mexican-American Vintners Association

Erika Maldonado

Daughter with Direction

While she was in high school, Erika Maldonado lobbied her father, Abel, a Santa Maria Valley farmer and politician, to plant wine grapes.

“I said, ‘Dad, I’m enamored by the vines, and there’s all these amazing events,’ ” she says. “I’ve never been to a nice dinner because of the produce business!”

Abel, whose father emigrated as a Bracero from Jalisco in 1964, asked Erika to create a business plan. So, she crafted a PowerPoint presentation, which helped get her dad onboard.

“Let’s do it,” said Abel.

In 2008, they planted 16 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris adjacent to Bien Nacido, and called the plot Runway Vineyard. The first vintage was 2011, which was Erika’s last year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She now produces about 1,000 cases annually, while Abel and her 21-year-old brother, Nick, work the vines. About half its grapes are sold to brands like Au Bon Climat, Scar of the Sea and Liquid Farm.

Erika strives to combine her heritage with wine culture. She has mariachi bands perform at their parties, and she’ll pair dishes like ceviche on jicama slices with Pinot Gris, and duck confit tamales with Pinot Noir.

“I make it a point to always embrace and express our Mexican culture,” says Erika, whose assistant winemaker, Frank Arredondo, is also of Mexican heritage.

In 2014, she produced a wine called Sixty Four to honor her grandfather, who laid the groundwork for the family’s empire, which now encompasses 6,000 acres. It also symbolized the beginning of her family’s journey to realize the American dream. The wine will be released this fall.

“When I presented that bottle of Sixty Four to him over last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, he just started crying,” she says. “He said, ‘I never thought in a million years that this would be my life, living in America with my grandchild making wine and naming it after me.’ ”

Fabian Bravo of Bravo Wine Company.
Fabian Bravo of Bravo Wine Company / Photo by Toni Weber

Fabian Bravo

Sauvignon Blanc Superstar

“I grew up on Chardonnay Drive, but I didn’t know what that meant,” says Fabian Bravo, whose parents left Ameca, about 45 minutes west of Guadalajara, in the early 1970s. The family entered the United States through his grandfather’s participation in the Bracero Program.

They eventually settled in the California town of Gonzales, part of the Salinas Valley. There, his mom picked Brussels sprouts, and his father loaded 40-pound boxes of celery and other cold-weather crops for 25 years.

“His arms are as big as my legs,” says Bravo of his dad, who became a supervisor for a well installation business. “He can certainly still kick my ass.”

Like many of his generation, Bravo’s dreams extended beyond the fields. He studied electrical engineering with visions of Silicon Valley success. Bravo got a taste of wine during his work for Raytheon in Santa Barbara, and he even made a homemade batch of “horrible” wine in 2005.

After that experience, he continued to search for his true passion. Bravo nearly started a bakery with his mom, briefly went back to the tech sector, taught high school geometry for a year and, finally, almost became a highway patrolman.

Instead, he took up an offer from family friend Gary Franscioni to work a harvest, and wound up with an internship at Santa Rosa’s Siduri Winery in 2007.

That November, during a visit to Santa Barbara, he wound up at Brander Vineyard and met Fred Brander.

“We visited Brander on that Thursday, not knowing that I would be working there the following Monday,” said Bravo. He’s been there ever since, and he makes about 16,000 cases of Bordeaux varieties annually, 80 percent of which is Sauvignon Blanc. Last year, he launched his own brand, Bravo Wine Company, which focuses on Italian varieties.

“I’m hoping that in a few years, as one generation of winemakers retire, the next one comes up, and you’ll see more and more Latinos,” says Bravo.

Published on October 3, 2017
Topics: Winemakers
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.




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