Creators of Latinx Wine Summit make space for inclusion within the wine community

In 2020, four women landed on a big idea: bringing together Latino members of the wine industry from across the country to share experiences, bond and ultimately, feel seen and heard.|

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

At Migration Winery in Napa Valley’s famed Carneros wine region, Gabriela Fernández exuded confidence, matching a gold “Latina” pendant she wore proudly around her neck.

And why not? At 30, Fernández is ascending the ladder of an industry that fails at times to advance opportunities for its Hispanic and Latino labor force — much less recognize their historical contributions. There are about 45 Latino-owned wineries in California, including roughly 20 in Napa Valley.

Born and raised in Napa Valley, Fernández embodies these contradictions. She is the trade and marketing events manager for the publicly-traded Duckhorn Portfolio, which includes Migration Winery. Prior to that, she helped launch the U.S. market for Spain’s Felix Solis Avantis, among the world’s largest wine producers.

And yet, when Fernández pops into one of Duckhorn’s tasting rooms wearing her trademark thrift-store jacket she’s often greeted with quizzical looks from guests.

“It's almost like you are met with a, 'Oh, but where's the actual wine educator? Oh, I'm sorry, am I not skilled enough to be that person who carries the knowledge for you?' I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened,” she said. “You would think it would stop being shocking, but the crazy part is just how shocking it is every time. You wonder, ‘What exactly is it that makes you think I’m not that?’”

Fernández riffed on the subject during a Dec. 10, 2020, broadcast of the “Big Sip,” a podcast series she hosts on Napa’s 99.3 FM The Vine radio station. The series highlights, in her words, the “black and brown trailblazers, pioneers, risk takers, leaders and visionaries” in the wine, food and art worlds.

Her guests on the episode titled “It’s Never Too Late” were Maria Calvert and Lydia Richards, both 34 and co-founders of Hispanics in Wine, a national nonprofit that promotes Hispanic and Latino contributions in the wine and hospitality industries.

“Right now,” Fernández said on the 2020 podcast, “la conversaćion — the conversation — is so profoundly being highlighted (that) we need to amplify Black voices. We need to amplify brown voices. We need to amplify all people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community …”

She continued, “People who normally haven’t had an opportunity to operate in these spaces and say, ‘Hey, I love being a part of this industry and I deserve to exist and be shown in this industry, too.’”

Creating a space to share experiences

The conversation continued in subsequent days over Zoom, during the height of the pandemic, and included Angela McCrae, the founder of Uncorked and Cultured, a Harlem-based media publication that connects Black people to wine, wellness, culture and adventure.

The four women eventually landed on a big idea: bringing together Latino members of the wine industry from across the country to share personal and professional experiences, bond with one another and ultimately, feel seen and heard.

The Latinx Wine Summit debuted in 2021 and was held virtually due to the pandemic. The December 2022 event drew more than 200 people to Napa’s RD Winery. The women are now setting their sights on spring 2024 for an even larger gathering.

“There were so many people of Hispanic and Latin descent it almost felt weird,” Richards, with Hispanics in Wine, said of the 2022 summit. “I couldn’t believe there hasn’t been another organization or community that’s done this.”

Originally from Panama, Richards is a certified sommelier whose passion for wine was sparked while living in Paris. After moving to New York, she worked in public relations and marketing in a number of industries before pivoting to a career in wine.

Dismayed by the lack of diversity at trade events, Richards and Calvert launched Hispanics in Wine on Instagram to spotlight the contributions of this underappreciated demographic. The women now advocate on a larger scale with the nonprofit under the same name.

Becoming part of the local wine scene

Calvert, originally from Ecuador, is a public relations consultant who advises start-ups and established brands across the country. She divides her time between New York City and Washington, D.C.

Richards recently relocated to Santa Barbara after accepting a job as a public relations manager with Jackson Family Wines.

Richards knows from experience how hard it is to break into the wine industry. She noted the expense of learning the trade — whether as a winemaker, marketer or manager — and the relative low pay to start. But she’s proof that with hard work and a humble attitude, success can blossom like buds on a vine. It just may not happen overnight.

“Wine is seen as incredibly overwhelming to learn. People come with assumptions that it’s too complicated,” she said. “But it’s like any other industry. You get trained and you realize you don’t know everything.”

The 2022 wine summit included break-out sessions on building a legacy in wine, persevering through challenges such as pandemics and an allyship panel on diversity, equity and inclusion. At the conclusion of the day, guests enjoyed a La Grand Cata wine tasting featuring more than 30 Latino and Hispanic wine producers.

Roberto Melara, who attended the summit as the bilingual wine educator for Jackson Family Wines and who has four decades of experience working in the beverage and hospitality industry, said he was surprised at how much he learned about the history and sacrifices of previous generations.

For instance, Melara said he knew little of the Bracero Program, which brought millions of Mexican workers to the United States to address a labor shortage during World War II.

“I was like, in shock,” he said. “You don’t know how many times I cried when I was listening. It was the same immigrant experience I had. I was reflecting on that.”

As a boy, Melara’s family fled El Salvador’s death squads for a safer life in California. Over time, he built a successful career in the hospitality industry, including stints at Guaymas in Tiburon, Sazon Peruvian Restaurant in Santa Rosa and at Alexander Valley’s River Rock Casino, where he was the beverage manager.

Bringing awareness to Latinos in wine

Still, Melara, 59, has had to fight against stereotypes. He described one recent incident in which he took a small group of vineyard workers to a tasting room as part of their new employee orientation. As the group walked in, Melara perceived that guests at one of the tables were staring at the men with suspicion.

“They were like, ‘What are these people doing here?’ Like, we didn’t belong here,” Melara recalled.

Melara made a point of introducing himself to the guests. He told them the wine they were enjoying was made by men just like those he had brought to the winery.

“They put their glasses down and started clapping,” he said.

Fernández described similar frustrations as the eldest of two children born to a father from Mexico and a mother from El Salvador. She grew up near Lake Berryessa, in eastern Napa County, before moving to Angwin and attending high school in St. Helena.

Her father, Juan, was a migrant farmworker who worked his way up over three decades to become cellar master at Calistoga’s Clos Pegase Winery. While impressive, his daughter feels he could have gone further in his career if given the chance.

“Unfortunately, he’s never been given the opportunity to advance beyond that since he doesn't have a high school diploma or a college diploma, and English is his second language,” Fernández said. “But he knows the ins and outs and details of the entire winemaking process as great as anyone with a degree.”

Fernández’s first taste of the wine business was at the age of 15 when she worked a few hours a week in the office at Caymus Vineyards, where her mother was — and still is — the human resources director.

Fernández earned a business degree with an emphasis in marketing at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. But instead of following her heart, she took a job in corporate loss prevention, thinking that was more in line with what was expected of her as a first-generation American.

Her passions for wine and family eventually led her back home. In addition to her work with Duckhorn, she produces and hosts the morning show on Napa’s MegaMix Spanish language radio on 1440 AM / 96.9 FM. Recently, she moved in with her partner in Sacramento, which means her days begin early and often end late.

Fernández said she feels pressure to be successful and to always be “excelling.” But more and more she’s trying to find grace for herself.

“It’s taking time for yourself and unplugging, and if it doesn’t go as fast as you want it to, that’s OK, because you’re still pushing the needle forward,” she said. “It’s a marathon Gabby. It’s not a race.”

Despite her strong work ethic and rapid ascent in Napa Valley’s rarified wine world, she still feels, on occasion, the sting of feeling like she has to prove herself as a young Latina over and over again.

“We have to work twice as hard and come through twice as prepared just to be viewed as starting off on the same playing field, and that’s exhausting in and of itself,” she said.

Thanks to events like the Latinx Wine Summit and growing awareness around equity and inclusion, the old ways of thinking and doing business in the wine industry are evermore dying on the vine, replaced by a new vigor and vision.

One shining example of this new reality is 2022 summit presenter Miriam Puentes, who co-owns Sonoma’s Honrama Cellars with her husband, Juan.

The winery celebrates Miriam’s father, Honorio Ramirez Mata, who brought his family to the United States from Mexico so he could find work in California’s fields, including Napa Valley’s vineyards.

Charlie Wagner, of Caymus Vineyards, hired Ramirez Mata and eventually elevated him to cellar master of the storied winery. Ramirez Mata died in 1998 before producing his own label.

Puentes and her husband decided to honor that legacy by starting Honrama Cellars in 2008. She said she was gratified to share the family’s story with wine summit guests.

“It means a lot,” she said. “We are representing not just ourselves, and not just future generations, but the generations who were here before and built this amazing Wine Country. They were lost in the shadows.”

At Honrama Cellars on a recent sun-dappled morning, Alejandra Martin poured glasses of 2017 cabernet sauvignon for Mike and Mechelle Tuttle, who were visiting from Colorado Springs. The wine retails for $48 a bottle.

The couple are retired from the U.S. Army. Mike is a federal disaster resource specialist; Mechelle is a United Airlines pilot who flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on international routes.

Martin shared the story of Ramirez Mata coming to America, how he used to practice English in his truck after a hard day’s work at Caymus Vineyards, his untimely death and his daughter carrying on with his legacy.

“That is the American dream,” Mike Tuttle said, raising his glass as a toast.

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.