Vintner’s Diary: Napa trailblazing Latina winemaker Vanessa Robledo is doing rosé her own way

“We are not very usual vintners — three generations of Latina women,” said Vanessa Robledo, the founder of Vintner’s Diary, which just produced a rosé of grenache.|

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The gold design on the royal blue label for Vanessa Robledo’s first wine shows entwined tendrils of grapevines above the name, Vintner’s Diary Rosé of Grenache.

“Most people don’t know that the tendrils are the strongest part of the vine,” Robledo said. “They represent the strength of coming together. Without the tendrils, the fruit would fall to the ground.”

Sitting in the kitchen of their home in Carneros, looking out at vineyards planted by her parents, Robledo was talking about the genesis of a project that blends the talents of three women who have defied expectations of a fiercely traditional Latino winemaking family: Robledo, her mother Maria Robledo, and her daughter Jocelyn Maria Solis.

Her mother joined the conversation. Solis, a videographer working for the Chicago White Sox, weighed in via phone.

Vanessa Robledo said she was a child when a gift from winemakers in faraway France — a crystal glass engraved with her name — sparked her interest in the pink wines they made.

But despite a lifetime of working in the wine industry, from working in vineyards to managing a premium wine company, decades passed before she could pursue her dream of making her own wine, by choice, a rosé.

It came about when both Robledo’s mother and her daughter told her that, after a lifetime of “doing everything for everyone else,” Solis said, it was her time, and they were going to help her.

With “the support of the two most important women in my life,” Robledo said, her plans took shape. But the idea grew to include all three women: Robledo would make her wine, and Vintner’s Diary was going to tell stories about people who make wine.

“We are not very usual vintners — three generations of Latina women,” Robledo said.

About Vanessa Robledo

— The fourth of nine children of Maria and Reynaldo Robledo, she helped found and manage Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma.

— After leaving the family business, she became managing partner of Black Coyote, a Black-owned winery in Napa Valley.

— In 2015, she helped her mother establish Maria de Luz wine company to sell grapes and also established Vanessa Robledo Wine Consulting.

— She is the founder and owner of Vintner’s Diary.

— The Vintner’s Diary website includes this quote from Sonoma Woman Magazine: “Vanessa is not only the American dream personified, she is reinventing that dream as she goes along, serving as a bridge over cultures, gender, wine industry, age, and family stereotypes.”

The Robledo family

Vanessa Robledo’s great-grandfather Luis came to the Napa Valley in the 1940s as part of the Bracero program that invited much-needed agricultural workers to come to the U.S. from Mexico during World War II.

“He and his sons lived in a camp in Calistoga run by the Christian Brothers,” Robledo said.

Her father, Reynaldo, following his grandfather’s path, came to Napa Valley in 1968, and in 1972, he was able to get papers for his wife, Maria, to join him.

Vanessa Robledo was born in 1977, the middle child of their nine offspring — seven boys and two girls — and said she learned early “I had to do something to stand out.”

She became the family translator.

“I learned English at 5 and it was something I could do, going to doctors’ appointments, opening bank accounts, going to school meetings with teachers. I loved it. As a little girl, I felt like I was doing something important.”

Her parents’ vision was to own land, and by 1984, they had saved enough to buy property in Carneros.

“He could speak English, but he didn’t like to repeat himself. So he would tell me in Spanish and I would translate. Without realizing it, I was getting my first lessons in the wine industry.” Vanessa Robledo

“They had to clear it of old trucks and other debris, and then they planted grapes,” Robledo said. “The children all worked in the vineyards; that was the tradition. But here is where I learned my first lesson. I watched my grandfather, a master grafter, at work. I know that 80% of the quality of wine comes from the vineyards. To have learned that as a little girl was my secret weapon.”

By the time she was 12, Robledo was accompanying her father to business meetings, translating for him in his vineyard management business.

“He could speak English, but he didn’t like to repeat himself. So he would tell me in Spanish and I would translate. Without realizing it, I was getting my first lessons in the wine industry.”

In 1982, a visiting professor invited her father to come to France to demonstrate the grafting techniques for which the Robledo family had become renowned.

“He went to Nice, and first he horrified the French with some of the things he did — like cutting off the heads of vines with a chain saw. They walked away. But when they saw that it worked and the vines began to bud, they welcomed him as a friend.

“When he came home, they sent a gift of wine glasses, one for each child. I was struck by the kindness of the French and became fascinated with the rosé wine of Provence. So, this began my dream of rosé.”

Despite her curiosity, intelligence and drive, she came up against the tradition of her culture — the role of women in the family.

“I knew the tradition was for me to get married. I heard, ‘You have to learn to clean and cook.’ We, all the children, would work in the vineyards and then come home. The men would be in the living room, and the women in the kitchen, cooking. I wasn’t that good at cooking. I was told, ‘That is the way things are,’ but I wanted something more.” Vanessa Robleo

“We were taught to honor and hold tradition. From the moment we stepped into the house, we could not speak English,” Robledo said. “We played Mexican music, and my mother was always in the kitchen cooking, always happy. Nothing fazed her. She fed everyone wonderful food.”

Every year, as well, the family would make a three-day drive to Michoacan, the Mexican state from which Maria and Reynaldo had emigrated.

“I knew the tradition was for me to get married,” she said. “I heard, ‘You have to learn to clean and cook.’ We, all the children, would work in the vineyards and then come home. The men would be in the living room, and the women in the kitchen, cooking. I wasn’t that good at cooking. I was told, ‘That is the way things are,’ but I wanted something more.”

In 1997,* her older sister, Lorena, married winemaker Rolando Herrara. Together they founded Mi Sueño (My Dream) winery in Napa.

That year, Reynaldo and Maria Robledo also decided to found Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma. Vanessa, at 19, became a key player in the project. She acquired permits, dealt with compliance issues, and helped with design, packaging, and creating a sales and marketing program.

She went on to establish a wine club, and organized events honoring Mexican American culture and showcasing the Mexican food prepared by her mother. She also opened the first Mexican American-owned tasting room established by vineyard workers in California.

She ran up against stereotypes for women. “I was running the company but I still had to take one of my brothers on business trips,” she said. “When I went to New York, my father said I had to take two brothers."

“I knew going in how it was going to be. My dad told me, ‘The companies will go to your brothers.’ I thought I could change his mind, but I couldn’t, no matter how hard I worked. He would say, ‘My seven sons are my pride and joy.’ It’s his culture and I had to respect it.”

After 10 years at Robledo Winery, she decided to leave. “I don’t have anything in my heart other than gratitude,” she said. “I knew the best decision I would have to make for myself.”

In 2008, she joined Black Coyote Winery — one of the rare Black-owned wineries in the Napa Valley — founded in 2000 by Ernest Bates, a neurosurgeon, and three partners.

As managing partner at Black Coyote, she increased production, grew membership in their wine club 100-fold, and garnered accolades for the winery. “I also learned a lot about the premium wine industry,” she said.

“It was a stroke of genius to hire Vanessa,” Bates says in one of the Vintner’s Diary videos.

By 2011, Robledo was majority owner at Black Coyote, but that year, Maria Robledo filed for a divorce from Reynaldo. Finalized in 2015, the divorce settlement gave Maria vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, but none of the Robledo businesses.

“They went to my brothers,” Robledo said. “And she asked for my help to set up a company to sell her grapes.”

Robledo left Black Coyote.

“There was no way to have helped my mom and worked there too,” she said. “We had to start from scratch. We had to replant vineyards that were diseased. My brother who had the vineyard management company helped. But it was challenge after challenge, starting over.”

She formed Vanessa Robledo Wine Consulting, and through it, helped her mother launch Maria de Luz Vineyards. In addition to the daunting task of replanting 45 acres of vineyards, Robledo manages day-to-day operations, negotiates and manages contracts, and sells the grapes.

By Christmas 2022, Maria de Luz Vineyards was on solid footing, selling grapes to seven wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. At a family gathering in Napa, Solis told her mother, “Grandma’s doing well. Now you need to do something for yourself.”

“I never expected to hear that from her,” Robledo said. “Her dad and I divorced when she was 3, and she never liked the wine industry because it took me away.”

Maria Robledo added, “You have helped me. Now I will help you. It’s time.”

Robledo decided that what she was a going to do for herself was finally to have her own wine. “I decided to start with a rosé, and I wanted grenache like the wines of Provence.”

When a winemaker friend, Rudy Zuidema, told her he had some grenache grapes he had made into a rosé wine, Robledo said, “I felt like angels were being put on my path.”

Solis helped design the label and took on the management of social media. She also decided to put her videographer skills to work making videos about the newly named Vintner’s Diary.

The star of the videos, they decided, would be Maria Robledo, a legend among her family and friends for her cooking.

“My mom is the queen of food and wine,” Robledo said. “The video was a stroke of genius.”

Robledo said her daughter’s videos are “a simple way for people to understand and enjoy wine. Wine still intimidates people. I’ve been involved in wine my whole life. I grew up with it. But there’s a disconnect between vintners and consumers. I want to open a door for people — all genders, ages and backgrounds.”

Solis’ first video, titled “A Latina’s Story in Wine,” is about her mother. The subsequent ones feature Maria, preparing dishes to go with her wines.

“My mother is going to try to give everyone else credit, but don’t let her,” Solis said. “She really is the backbone of all this. She is amazing.”

Maria Robledo nodded in agreement.

“She is a great daughter, a great mother, a great sister; she lifts everyone up. Now it is her time. She is climbing the ladder.”

*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct a previous version that had the wrong year for when Vanessa Robledo’s older sister, Lorena, married.

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