Winemaker’s Spanish heritage inspires new Sonoma winery

Gustavo Sotelo and his wife, Jackie, founded Orixe Sotelo in 2019.|

Born and raised in Mexico City, Gustavo Sotelo never thought much about his Spanish last name. But when some family members discovered they had a distant relative who’d emigrated from Galicia, Spain, to Mexico in the 1700s, his interest was piqued.

At the time, Sotelo had been living in New York and working at Simon and Schuster in business development. A recent graduate of Boston University, he was starting to realize publishing wasn’t his passion.

So he decided to take some classes through Instituto Cervantes New York, a Spanish language school and cultural center founded by the Spanish government.

That’s where he discovered Spanish wine.

“I thought a class on Spanish wines would give me an opportunity to learn more about my Spanish heritage through the world of fine wine,” said Sotelo, co-founder of Orixe Sotelo winery in Sonoma and head winemaker at Scribe. “After one class with professor Helio San Miguel, I was amazed by how much I could learn about Spain simply by studying its wine culture. I was hooked.”

A history buff, Sotelo was captivated by San Miguel’s teachings, which explored the history of Spain through its wines and producers.

“In the Old World, winemaking was closely connected to state building, and the Spanish wine industry was largely affected by the country’s politics,” Sotelo said. “It was fascinating for me to learn how the wine industry was tied to Spain’s history.”

As Sotelo’s interest in wine grew, it dawned on him that wine could be his future career. In 2010, after applying to 60 harvest internships, he landed at Etude Wines in Napa and has lived in California ever since.

Orixe Sotelo

Sotelo and his wife, Jackie Sotelo, founded Orixe (pronounced o-REE-shay) Sotelo in 2019.

The winery, inspired by Sotelo’s Galician heritage and passion for Spanish varietals, focuses on both the somewhat familiar (tempranillo, garnacha) and the fresh (godello, arinto, mencia, treixadura), with influence taken from Sotelo’s prior work at Bodegas Mauro winery in Spain.

He’s also using some traditional Spanish winemaking techniques, such as aging his rosé under flor, a yeast that forms on the surface of a maturing wine that’s often used in sherry production.

“There is a myth that flor only grows in Spain’s sherry regions. But it can readily grow all over the world,” Sotelo said. “As winemakers, we’re often taught that flor is bad because it will change the flavor and texture of your wine. But we wanted to create something new in California, so we age our rosé under flor for three months. It’s a tricky process, but it makes a very fun, delicious wine.”

Another wine that sings of Spain is Orixe’s Nebola, an arinto and albariño white blend that recalls the bright, lightly spritzed wines of Txakolina in Spain’s Basque region.

“Traditionally, the wine is made with hondarrabi zuria, a white grape not grown in the U.S.,” Sotelo said. “For now, the arinto and albariño make a delicious Txakoli-style wine.”

Shared climate

Given the similar growing conditions between parts of Spain and Northern California, it’s not lost on Sotelo that Spanish varieties grow well here. Many are drought-tolerant.

But he does believe some clonal selections could be improved, like tempranillo and albariño.

“Many of the first Spanish varieties that were imported into California were selected for commercial viability, meaning they grow large, healthy vines that can produce a lot of fruit,” Sotelo said. “But they don’t necessarily produce the most nuanced wines. We really want to improve the quality of California’s Spanish clones while also importing new varieties.”

But Sotelo’s greater goal, he said, is to broaden the conversation about what California wines can be.

“For the last four or five decades, there has been such a big focus on French and Italian grape varieties, and we think Spanish grapes grown on California terroir have a lot to say,” Sotelo said. “It’s really about being open to new possibilities, and that’s what we’re really trying to do.”

“For the last four or five decades, there has been such a big focus on French and Italian grape varieties, and we think Spanish grapes grown on California terroir have a lot to say.” — Gustavo Sotelo

Shared language

For Sotelo, Orixe doesn’t just represent his Spanish heritage. It gives him a voice to connect with the Spanish-speaking community in both his home country of Mexico and in California.

“I’ve lived in the U.S. half my life, but I still very much identify as Mexican and yearn for ways to connect with my home culture,” Sotelo said. “I want to give back to the community that raised me by sharing the beauty of wine and how much there is to learn and enjoy from it.”

Sotelo also believes there should be more Latinos in leadership positions in the wine industry and opportunities for farm laborers to learn about wine past the vine.

“Knowledge and expertise is meant to be shared to improve the greater community,” Sotelo said. “I want to help cater to those underrepresented people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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