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a historic day with the napa valley mexican-american vintners association
About three years ago we wrote a column about our attendance at the new African American Vintners Association. Afterwards, we penned an introduction that is as relevant today as it was then:
There is a cultural phenomenon that only occurs in the United
States. It is the rise of different ethnic groups from hard times
to the top of their professions. Witness the chronological rise
as a people of the Irish, the Jews, the African Americans, and
the Hispanics/Latinos. Perhaps this postulate is best illustrated
in politics, entertainment (especially comedy), and in certain
sports that have been around for 100 years or better.
Take, for example, the champions of the welterweight division
of professional boxing. From Irish Mickey Walker in the 1920’s,
to Jewish Jackie Fields in the 30’s, to African American
Sugar Ray Robinson in the 40’s and 50’s, to Hispanic
Ricardo Mayorga in this decade, these men are representative
of their brethren striving upwards, and succeeding, in our society.
In California, one sees to some degree the same evolution in
the wine industry. Started by (and still major players) the
Italians and the Germans, in the middle of the 20th century the
Anglo majority set down roots. It was not long afterwards
that the Jewish community began to expand its mercantile
expertise to wine and has, for a number of years, been an
important part of the industry. More recently, African
Americans and Hispanics are flexing their advancement
in education, business, and finance, and transferring
those successes to the production of quality wines.
And we concluded:
The rise of the Mexican-Americans from indispensable vineyard-
workers to noted vintners and winemakers mirrors the advance-
ement of the African-Americans and Jews. We anxiously await
word of (and in invitation to) wine events sponsored by the
Hispanic community, whether it be through the vintners in Napa
Valley, Vino con Vida (a wine education company that celebrates
Latino flavors and people in the culinary and winemaking
world), or some other organization.
This past weekend our anticipation ended as we attended an event hosted by the newly constituted Napa Valley Mexican-American Vintners Association, an organization created to serve as a collective marketing vehicle, as well as a source of motivation and support for future generations of aspiring Mexican-American winemakers and winery professionals. At a classy event (called “Bautizo”) mirroring the gentility and talent of the Latino vintners and winemakers themselves, we tasted some beautifully crafted wines, snacked on Mexican inspired food prepared by some of the leading Hispanic chefs in the Valley, spoke with those who shepherded the Association into existence, and educated ourselves about the group’s purpose.
As our long time friend Rolando Herrera, President of NVMAVA and owner of Mi Sueno Winery, explained:
From its inception we felt that we owe it to our community, our
heritage and most importantly, to our ancestors whose strong work
ethic and sacrifices laid the foundation for our own success. Through
our collective and united efforts we will strive to nurture and support
future generations of Latino growers, vintners and executives.
Rolando’s thoughts were echoed by one of the most recognized Mexican American vintners in the world, Amelia Ceja, and she added, “We, the Latino vintners, are all friends, and just as Robert Mondavi urged of his colleagues 50 years ago, when we share with each other we spread the enjoyment of wine to all.”
It is most unusual to attend a tasting of 20 – 30 wines and not find a few that are, as we like to say, not ready for prime time. But that was not the case at this function. Without exception, each wine poured was reflective of its terroir, well balanced, and characteristically correct. However, where the wines really shined was in their exhibition of fruit. Now we are not implying that they were “fruity” wines, but we found the grapes to be so well nurtured in the vineyard that they allowed for various uses of oak, differing aging times, immediate drinkability, and, ironically, long term aging.
Winery members of the new group who were pouring such excellent wines included Alex Sotelo Cellars, Ceja Vineyards, Delgadillo Cellars, Encanto Vineyards, Maldonado Vineyards, Mi Sueno Winery, Solovino, and Robledo Family Winery.
It is an old axiom in Napa (and probably throughout the wine growing world) that good wines start in the vineyard. In other words, without grapes (universally referred to as “fruit” in the industry) of high quality, one cannot make a concommitently high quality wine no matter how much of a super star the winemaker might be. Sort of like the Chicago Bulls in their glory years. Phil Jackson might have been the maker of a team, but without a nucleus of players such as Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippin to work around, Jackson would have produced only something average. The same holds true in the wine industry.
Where we are heading is to the inescapable conclusion that the Latino farm and vineyard workers have been, and still are, the backbone of the wine industry. Because their experience in the fields is second to none as a group, it should come as no surprise that the vineyards owned or farmed by the vintners comprising the NVMAVA are some of the best. These individuals know how to choose the right vines and how to cultivate them. And the present generation, along with their fathers and mothers to some extent, have taken what was learned on the farm and combined it with their own modern enology and winemaking practices. The families then added a healthy dose of business acumen being supplied by the children who chose that route instead of the production side. Large families in the Latino community are not uncommon, and the modern young Mexican American is taking advantage of, and proving, the American dream. Whether it is in the fields they own, in an analysis lab, in the barrel room making the wine, on a plane marketing the products, or in an office running the business, the Latino family has arrived as a player in the wine industry.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.