For some time Latinos have been the labor force behind the most influential wineries fueling the wine industry in the U.S. However, quite recently there has been an emergence of Latinos from behind the scenes, with labels like Alex Sotelo, Ceja, Mi Sueno, Maldonado, and Robledo; and with rising star sommelier/wine director Jesse Rodríguez; or with radio host and associate member of the Napa/Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association, Sandra González…Latinos are finally stepping out from behind the curtain.
Most of their stories are the same: a Latino who came to this country to pick grapes, to make money, and put themselves through school. However, in the process they learned all about making wine – how to grow it, how to process it, the chemistry behind it, the best bottles and barrels, how to taste it, and how to make sure it’s the best, and incidentally, they became a winemaker. Through a combination of years of close proximity to the production and of strategical moving up through the ranks, numerous Latinos are now being recognized for their winemaking talents.
Ramon Sandoval relates very much to this story, and although he didn’t become a winemaker himself, he founded Vino Latino in California, which works to highlight and promote the Latinos that do live this story.
Intrigued by wine and in pursuit of his own personal cultural context, Sandoval left his corporate job just over a year ago to commit fully to uncovering the hidden world of Latino winemakers; to explore their past and present contributions to the industry; and to share his findings, their stories, their struggles, and their wine with the world.
The American wine industry, he says, was built on the backs of Latinos, and now, after years of hard work, Latino vintners and winemakers are at the forefront of the wine industry. Where they once worked the vineyards, they now own the vineyard. Where they once worked the cellars, they now claim the name “winemaker.
Sandoval did not start out as passionate about wine as he is now. “In Mexico we drink tequila and beer,” says Ramon. “We don’t drink wine. When I first tasted wine I didn’t like it. But then 20 years later, when I met my wife, she introduced me to the wine world, and I realized ‘wow, this stuff is pretty good.’”
“Ramon made the comment one time,” says his wife, Becky Sandoval, as she described how she introduced him to the wine world, “that, ‘Mexicans don’t drink wine; we just pick that grapes.’”
As Ramon explored his new interest in wine, he learned this wasn’t the case. When he noticed he wasn’t meeting Latinos in tasting rooms, he would wander out to visit the Latino workers in the fields. “I liked hearing their stories,” says Ramon, “their struggles.” It was in this way that Ramon learned that a lot of them are winemakers, winemakers with skill and knowledge, but perhaps without the capital to start or own their own vineyards.
“There are a lot of Latinos making wine under an estate, who don’t get exposed,” says Ramon. “For instance, there could be a Latino winemaker making wine for Sutter Home, but you’re not going to know a Latino made your wine until you go more in depth. And a lot of these Latinos who work for other vineyards also make their own wine, but they’re having trouble marketing it. They don’t know how to go out and sell their wine. And I said , ‘I want to go out and help Latinos bring their product to the consumer.’”
One winemaker that the Sandovals work with is Cesar Toxqui. He is a Latino who came to the U.S. to work and put himself through school, when he stumbled into the wine world. After finding that he had a passion for wine, he began to pursue it with all his energy and today runs his own vineyard, producing wines he is proud of and that reflect who he is as a winemaker.
“One of the labels that we have is called Immigrant,” says Toxqui. “Part of the Immigrant wine came about because, as you may know, the word or the name immigrant has a really bad definition. So, part of what I am trying to do with that label is refresh the history. You know we are all immigrants. The point is we’re not going to make it a big deal, it’s not good or bad. The point is, is that what made this country great is all the different kinds of people coming here and working hard and doing great things. That’s what makes this nation great; the diversity. So, at the end of the day, don’t make it a big deal. Have a glass of wine and think about the positive contributions your ancestors have done for this country.”
Toxqui is one of many of Latinos making great headway in the wine world and producing wine that has proven to be a great contender among the rest of the line up in Napa and Sonoma counties.
“I think a really great thing for Latino winemakers to do is to enter the contests,” says Toxqui. “While many people may still be unsure of a Latino label at the contest, it is a blind tasting, so your wine can speak for itself.”
Toxqui believes in this way it is easier to eliminate any stereotypes people may have when it comes to wine being produced by a Latino winemaker. And he hopes that as he continues to receive high acclaim, people will realize that – not only with his wine, but with all wine – that the quality is not associated with someone’s ethnicity, but rather with their passion and their talent.
To learn more about Vino Latino visit: http://vinolatinousa.com/