Almost a decade ago, the governor of the Mexican state of Michoacán invited a number of Napa and Sonoma winemakers, ones whose families originally hailed from the region, to an agricultural fair. The hope was to stoke trade with California, import the wines of these expatriates and highlight their ascent from work in the vineyards to running their own wineries.
The plan failed due to expensive import taxes and a weak market in that particular corner of Mexico for high-end wine. Those vintners, however, didn’t lose sight of the unique history and proud heritage they shared. So in 2010, they started an organization called the Mexican-American Vintners Association (MAVA) to highlight their presence and promote their wines.
The impact was immediate, says Rafael Rios III, an attorney, vintner and the association’s president.
“People saw that we existed, and it was like nobody had any thought that Latinos would have been involved in the industry,” says Rios. His father managed vineyards for about 50 years as Rios grew up in St. Helena and went to school with members of the Duckhorn, Mondavi and Coppola families. “There’s this preconceived notion that Latinos are just the farmworkers. That’s one of the most important things: to dispel those kind of thoughts and ideas.”
The association hosted informational tables and wine tastings at larger events, many of which raised money to benefit farmworkers. It also launched a scholarship program that now gives $1,500 each to four students interested in pursuing enology or viticultural degrees. The group started an annual public harvest festival that celebrated its seventh year in August. A springtime trade tasting launched three years ago.
“Most of the members are very small and just starting out,” says Rios, whose Justicia Wines makes about 500 cases a year. “A thousand cases is typical, but we have larger members like Robledo, Ceja and Mi Sueño [that] make significantly more and have been around awhile.”
However, with no staff, a minimal budget and members busy with their own businesses, the group needed new blood from beyond Napa and Sonoma. So in 2016, MAVA began to accept members from anywhere.
“Our underlying reason for organizing was really to support Latino winemakers, promote the wines they’re making, and to show that the quality of those wines is the same great quality you’d expect from any other winemaker,” says Rios. “The only difference is that it is mostly families that went from being laborers to working in wineries, to owning wineries and starting their own labels.”
Rios said that the move has “brought a lot more renewed energy to the group.” The organization currently has 16 vintner members, with even more expressing interest. A number were invited to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution earlier this year for an event focused on Mexican-Americans in the wine industry. Rios hopes that continued publicity and growth will inspire more Latinos.
“What we’re trying to do now is let everyone know that we’re open,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you can join us. We need to grow to really do the things we want to do for our members.”