For Vanessa Robledo, who rose from grape picker to CEO, and now co-stars in the documentary film Harvest Season, there is no typical day—just those that have some things in common.
“These days, I’m up early walking the vineyards,” says the 41-year-old. She strolls some of the same vineyards today she did as a young girl with her grandfather many years ago.
Robledo’s family has been in California’s wine country for three generations. Her great-grandfather migrated to the state with thousands of other agricultural workers as part of the Bracero Program—an agreement between Mexico and the United States in which guest workers replaced American men drafted to fight in World War II due to labor shortages.
“This history is really prominent in our family,” said Robledo. “All the men in our family worked in the vineyards, and they worked very hard. I always had a strong sense of who they were and the sacrifices they made.”
Robledo recalls her days working in the vineyards with her family. “They worked with wine and table grapes, plums and apples,” while she, her seven brothers and younger sister joined working the harvest.
She had a “very traditional” Mexican upbringing, which meant that even though she worked in the fields, Robledo was also expected to help with the cooking, cleaning and taking care of herself and her siblings.
In regards to her gender-defined role she says, “it was something that was very hard for me to try to be someone I wasn’t. I always thought ‘When I grow up, I’m going to have a career.’”
Goals Beyond the Family Business
After years of hard work, Robledo’s father, Reynaldo, together with his wife, Maria, purchased 13 acres in Los Carneros in 1984. And so Robledo Family Winery was born.
Reynaldo believed each of his children “was good at something,” she says. Her specialty was marketing and supply-chain management. She worked her way up to president of the family winery and grew it from 100 cases to 20,000 cases by 2007. Most sales were in the lucrative direct-to-consumer channel.
Yet, Robledo knew that she would never own a winery unless she left the family business. She went on to become the majority owner of Black Coyote Chateau in 2008, where she doubled sales and production.
In 2015, she founded VR Wine Business Consulting, a business that specializes in helping wineries reach drinkers who are part of the multicultural market.
Her own family’s winery generated about 80% of its revenues from direct-to-consumer sales, and of those, 50% were Hispanic. Black Coyote focused its sales on the African-American market.
“Multicultural marketing is really what I know,” says Robledo.
Now, her days still begin in the vineyards, before moving onto clients, customers, planning and paperwork—and, recently, as the subject of the new documentary spotlighting the lives of those behind the scenes of the California wine industry.
Harvest Season Documentary
Mexican-American director Bernardo Ruiz, whose previous films include Kingdom of Shadows and Reportero, wanted to explore all the stages of wine production, from grapes in the field to bottles on the shelves in Harvest Season.
When asked about the Robledo women, Ruiz said: “Here were these two women running a vineyard. Vanessa was an accomplished entrepreneur, but she was genuine and passionate about the wine business, and that passion lent her a quiet power,” Ruiz said.