Meet the Latino winemakers making a splash in Sonoma County

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Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

September signals a unique time of the year in Wine Country: harvest. Warm days linger to produce juicy and robust grapes that will be crushed into barrels to produce remarkable wines. Latinos play a vital role in keeping the wine industry moving in the region, from planting, growing and picking grapes to involvement in the actual process of making the wine. Among the Latinos who have come of age working in the wine industry, some of them have moved into management and ownership. Here are some Latino winemakers and wineries that are making a splash in Sonoma County.

Robledo Family Winery

Sonoma

The Robledo Family has a long history in Sonoma County. Reynaldo Robledo immigrated to the Napa Valley from Michoacán, Mexico, at the age of 16, where he began working in the vineyards. After three decades of developing his skills and knowledge in the industry, he created Robledo Vineyard Management in 1996. They now own about 400 acres across Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties.

In October 2003, they opened the first winery established by a former Mexican migrant worker. The winery has become a family business, Robledo’s son, Everardo, is the current winemaker and CEO.

“I grew up in the business, and there are so many things I love about it,” said Everardo Robledo. “I love being in touch with the grapes, how they evolve into wine and the experience of watching people enjoy the wine we make.”

The Robledo Family Winery has become well-known in the community for hosting festive parties on their property, including their annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. As a Latino winemaker, Robledo has never felt inhibited by his heritage.

“If anything, it makes me want to do better,” he said. It has allowed him to thrive in the field by “speaking the language, knowing the culture and understanding the struggle of being in a country where you don’t speak the language,” he said.

Leading an established winery comes with difficulties as well. There is “a lot of hard work, time and money” that goes into having a business in this industry. For those who want to enter the wine industry, he advises they “understand the way the business works and have a good work ethic.”

The winery has created a wide variety of wines including merlot, cabernet sauvignon, rosé, pinot noir, sparkling wines, chardonnay and ports. They are particularly known for their sauvignon blanc. Their 2016 Robledo Sauvignon Blanc is a great wine to try. The tasting room at Robledo Family Winery is open seven days a week. To set an appointment, call 888-939-6903. robledofamilywinery.com. 21901 Bonness Road, Sonoma. 707-939-6903.

Aldina Vineyards

Santa Rosa

For Alberto and Dina Lopez, their love of wine is a team effort.

Their vineyards namesake is a combination of their respective names, creating Aldina Vineyards. The Lopez previously worked in design and publishing, eventually becoming owners of the well-known Lowrider Magazine. After selling the magazine, they relocated to Sonoma County in 1998, where Alberto established a 4-acre vineyard on his property and began his venture into winemaking.

“When we came up here, bought the ranch and planted the vineyards, it was all a very romantic idea,” said Alberto Lopez.

Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

He quickly realized he needed to learn more about winemaking and enrolled in the viticulture program at Santa Rosa Junior College. There, his passion for wine flourished.

In 2012, the Lopez family created their wine label and the rest is history. Aldina Vineyards is a family affair, with their children, Francisco and Monica Lopez, currently managing the vineyards.

“I’m glad that Monica and Francisco also got the bug and are expanding the business for us,” said Lopez.

As a Latino in the wine industry, Lopez has never felt held back by his heritage.

“Throughout by entire career, I have never felt hindered by being Latino,” he said. “My philosophy is to do the best and try to produce the best quality wine. Everything we do, we try to do the best we can.” He noted that he has seen Latinos contributing to all facets of the wine industry, including winemaking, distribution and advertising.

Monica Lopez, his daughter, advises those who want to work in the industry to continue with higher learning and to speak up for themselves.

“You must be your own advocate and insert yourself in the positions you want,” she said.

As for Alberto, he advises that they enter the field, “prepared” and with their “head held up high.”

While known for its cabernet sauvignon, the brand has dabbled with other grapes, creating a rosé and chardonnay in 2018. Their 2014 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon is a great wine to taste. The vineyard plans to open a tasting room in Healdsburg, with a target date in 2020. They currently host events on their property and are available for private tastings by appointment. For more information on tastings, email monica@aldinavineyards.com, 830 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa. 707-799-1821.

Valdez Family Winery

Cloverdale

For many, Ulises Valdez epitomized the American dream. Before his death in September 2018 at the age of 49, he was considered one of the most knowledgeable and respected vineyard managers in California. Valdez immigrated to the United States at age 16 and began working in the vineyards of Cloverdale. Valdez continued to master his skills in grape growing, eventually founding Valdez and Sons Vineyard Management, which now farms more than 1,000 acres. In 2010, they opened their winery. In May of that same year, their chardonnay was served to Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón at the White House. Since Valdez’s death, production of the winery has been taken over by his family.

While Valdez Family Winery currently does not have a tasting room, their wines are available online. A wine worth checking out is the 2016 Silver Eagle Pinot Noir. valdezfamilywinery.com. 595 Santana Drive, Suite D, in Cloverdale. 707-894-4002.

Chavez Family Cellars

Healdsburg

Carlos and Linda Chavez began their foray into the wine industry as a hobby at the turn of the millennium, creating small-batch wine in their garage in Healdsburg. The husband-and-wife team practiced their skills for six years while continuing to work in their careers, before launching their commercial wine brand in 2006. As Latino winemakers, they say “wine is the highlight” of their endeavor and that they enjoy being a part of the industry.

Their winery claims to the first Salvadoran-Mexican owned winery in Sonoma County. They focus on creating small production vintage wines with robust flavors. The Chavez Family Cellars is also very community-oriented, with their wines often featured at community events around the county.

“As winemakers, we like to craft wine to be enjoyed and shared — that’s the legacy we’d like to keep. Wine that is shared by our community,” said Carlos Chavez.

They have experienced challenges as a small winery in a competitive field. They do not have their own winery and rent space to make and store their wine. With smaller production numbers, they must work harder to brand themselves.

“The smaller you are, the harder it is to get your name out there,” he explained. “We built this from the ground up.”

A notable wine to try? Their 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which was selected as the gold medal winner of the 2013 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. While they currently do not have a tasting room, wines can be purchased by contacting them directly. chavezfamilycellars.com. 1470 Grove St., Healdsburg. 707-431-9920.

Guerrero-Fernandez Winery

Windsor

Martin Guerrero and Olga Fernandez came to Sonoma County in 1985 from Morelia, Mexico. Upon their arrival, Guerrero began working in the wine industry, where he developed a passion for the craft and worked his way up to assistant winemaker. Along the journey, his wife fell in love with winemaking, too.

“It was his dream, but it became my passion,” said Olga Fernandez. “When you see the process happen before your eyes, you see the fruit of your labor. It’s gratifying.”

In 2004, he and his wife decided to venture into the wine industry and founded Guerrero-Fernandez Winery.

“We love the industry because of the passion and love we have for making wine,” she said. “It’s a personal satisfaction to talk about the wines and the memories created while making them.”

According to Fernandez, if the winery had a slogan, it would be: “small quantities, high qualities.” The winery produces around 1,000 cases of wine a year, showcasing a variety of full-bodied red wines. The winery consists of a very small team (two to four people) and keeps a close eye on the results.

“It’s been an advantage to be a small winery,” Fernandez said. “We are better able to focus on our wines.”

As a smaller producer, they also have faced some challenges.

“It’s been hard in the sense that we haven’t taken advantage of the help that is available, like consultations and loans. We have done everything organically, on our own,” explained Fernandez.

She encourages younger generations who want to enter the field to “set goals, make a plan and make it happen. It’s not easy, and it takes time, but believe in your dreams.”

The winery is known for its reds, which typically are aged for 36 months. A favorite is the 2013 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be purchased online or in their tasting room. Their tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sundays. Appointments may be made in advance. gfwines.com, 7724 Bell Road, Windsor. 707- 953-7956.

Fathia Vineyards

Kenwood

Fausta Franco-Guerrero grew up surrounded by the vineyards of Sonoma, and always knew she wanted to stay in the Sonoma Valley.

“My grandfather worked in the Bracero program and my dad worked in the fields too. I didn’t, but I saw the work my father was doing and that built my interest in owning my own vineyard,” said Franco-Guerrero.

Luckily, she met a man who shared the same dream. She and her husband, Rogelio Guerrero, purchased a piece of land and planted their first vineyard in 2005.

In 2011, they bottled their first wine under the brand name, Fausta. As a winemaker, she loves the ability wine has to bring people together.

“When we harvest, the whole family gets involved, from the youngest to the oldest,” she said. “Harvest time has its own mystery and passion.”

After some years with the name Fausta, in 2015 the winery rebranded as Fathia, meaning victorious. The winery has struggled with finding locations in Sonoma.

“I wanted to stay in the area as I know the soil, vineyards and have roots in Sonoma,” she said.

Fausta advises future generations of Latinos to “study something that makes you happy and passionate for. Go ahead and try it. It’s better to say you tried and succeeded than wondering if you should have, because you will always have that inside of you.”

The winery produces a variety of wines including pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, viognier and rosé of pinot noir. Their current release, the 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a great wine to try. The Fathia tasting room is open from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday to Sunday, appointments are needed on Tuesday and Wednesdays. fathiavineyards.com, 8910 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood. 707-282-9419.

Ceja Vineyards

Sonoma

In 1983, the Ceja family purchased 15 acres of Carneros land in Napa, making them one of the more established Latino winemakers in the region. Ceja Vineyards became a family affair, and they celebrated their first harvest in 1988. In 1999, Ceja Vineyards Inc. was created and now owns 113 acres of wine-producing land throughout Sonoma, Napa and Petaluma. Co-founder Amelia Moran Ceja has been recognized as the first Mexican-American woman to ever be elected president of a winery.

The winery has become innovative in many ways. They share personal family recipes on their website, including almond flan and mole, Jalisco-style, paired with Ceja wines.

“Wine is a universal language, shared over meals with friends and family. At first, people thought we were crazy when we talked about frijoles and Cabernet Sauvignon, but it became popular!” she said, cheerfully.

As a Latina winemaker, she has only felt uplifted by her ancestry.

“I see my culture as a great advantage. We decided from the beginning that we were going to uplift it, because it’s so fabulous and welcoming. We have taken the best from our culture and our adoptive country, the U.S.,” said Moran Ceja. “Being bilingual has opened more doors.”

But as winemakers in a concentrated industry, they have experienced barriers as well.

“There is a lot of competition. It was difficult to penetrate this industry,” she said.

She advises those who want to become winemakers to seek higher education, but to get hands-on experience as well, or “you won’t have the intimate knowledge of the soil and grapes.” She also offered that it’s important to remember where you are from and never forget to support the next generations through assistance and mentorship.

The winery creates a diverse range of wines including pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, rosé, blends, as well as dessert wines. Their 2016 Carneros Pinot Noir is a great floral, full-bodied wine to try. The Ceja Vineyards tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Appointments are recommended for parties of more than six people. cejavineyards.com, 22989 Burndale Road, Sonoma. 707-931-6978.

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