The changing face of the California wine industry

The changing face of the California wine industry

Tina Caputo

Remember when the most “ethnic” winery principals in California were a couple of Italian guys who came over in the ’50s to make cheap Zinfandel? Oh sure, there were lots of Mexican and Central American workers around, too–but it was unusual to see them outside of the vineyards.

Well, not anymore.

Ethnic and racial diversity (with a capital “D”) has slowly been making its way into the California wine scene. Today we’ve got winemakers and winery owners from Mexico (Gustavo Thrace; Robledo Family Winery; Cejas), Persian winery owners (Darioush) and yes, even African American female winery owners (Rideau Vineyards).

And for many people in the industry, that’s a change for the better.

“Diversity in high level wine industry positions is the best way to reach across ethnic boundaries and court new wine drinkers,” says Darryl Roberts, publisher of Wine X magazine. “Peer-to-peer is the strongest marketing tool available, whether it’s age, ethnicity or environment. People are always more willing to buy something from a person they have something in common with.”

Sandra Gonzalez, member relations manager for the Wine Institute, agrees.

“Diversity increases the opportunity to share new ideas, perspectives and histories, which translate into alternative solutions,” she says. “By increasing the number of ethnically diverse people at the management, executive and ownership levels, the wine industry has an opportunity to share an interesting story with consumers.”

To find out what that interesting story is, I spoke to Reynaldo Robledo, Iris Rideau and Gustavo Brambila, three people from very different backgrounds who have found success–and a home–in California’s ever-changing wine industry.

Reynaldo Robledo, owner, Robledo Family Winery

Like many young Mexicans, Reynaldo Robledo began his wine industry career in the vineyards. In 1968, at the age of 16, he came over from Michoacan, Mexico to work in the fields of Calistoga, Calif. It was there that his destiny as a viticulturist and winery owner began to unfold.

“When I was a young boy, I worked alongside my father, who was also a farmer in Mexico,” Robledo says. “I knew then that my future was to be a farmer. I would have never thought that I would own a winery in California. My dream was to make a better life for my family and myself.”

Robledo started out earning $1.10 an hour as a vineyard worker and quickly worked his way up. After honing his skills at wineries like Sonoma Cutrer and St. Supery, Robledo grew into a highly respected vineyard manager and viticulture consultant. In 2000, he founded Robledo Family Winery, fulfilling his very own American Dream.

“In my experience, other people in the wine industry feel proud to see a Mexican American succeed in this country,” he says. “I have been blessed to work for and with fellow Americans that appreciate my culture and heritage and who recognize that Mexicans contribute a lot to the wine industry. Not only as farmers, but also as winery owners.”

Today Robledo works together with his wife and nine children to make the family winery a success.

“When I arrived in this country, I devoted my life to learning everything there was to know about the wine grape,” Robledo says. “I am 50 now, and I couldn’t be happier for contributing nine intelligent people–my children–to the future of the wine industry. The wine industry is part of who we are and who we will become. I feel so proud that five of my children are currently attending college. They are all taking diverse majors with one common goal: to continue to work together.”

Robledo Family Winery produces limited production Chardonnay and Merlot from the family’s Carneros vineyards and will release its first Pinot noir in 2003. The wines are made by Rolando Herrera, an experienced winemaker and consultant who is also Robledo’s son-in-law.

Iris Rideau, owner, Rideau Vineyards

When Iris Rideau bought the abandoned property in front of her house in Solvang, Calif., in 1996, she hadn’t planned on becoming a wine pioneer. After 30 years in insurance and pension planning, she purchased the 25-acre plot of land with retirement in mind. Rideau had no idea that she was about to become the nation’s only African American female winery owner.

“The closer I got to retiring, the more I realized that I wasn’t ready to quit working,” Rideau says. After mulling over the options, she decided to start a business based on her love for wine and food.

“I’m originally from New Orleans, and I have a Creole heritage,” she says. “When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you have to cook. I grew up with this culture of good food and good wine, so starting a winery was kind of a natural for me.

After restoring the historic farmhouse that came with the property, she had the winery built and recruited James Rutherford to produce Rhone-style wines under the Rideau Vineyards label.

“James is from the Rutherford family in Northern California, and he had been an assistant winemaker in this valley for 10 years. As it turns out, he’s part black! We’re probably the only two in the whole world, and we both ended up at the same place.”

Though she knew that her background was unusual for the wine industry, Rideau says she never thought of it as a selling point.

“I have gotten so much support from the black community,” she says. “But I didn’t expect it. I didn’t even think about it in the marketplace. The people just started coming– now they come in buses! We have a bus come out from Los Angeles just about every month, either with a sorority or a club or just a group of friends. People come out with different things to present to me; they’ve given me awards, plaques and books. They tell me they’re so honored that I’ve done this. It’s wonderful.”

According to Rideau, many of her African American guests have never visited a winery before arriving at her doorstep.

“Some of the people are aficionados, but for the most part they’re new to wine,” she says. “I guess we (African Americans) haven’t had the exposure to it. I try to open them up to different wines and encourage them to visit other wineries while they’re here, which is something they probably wouldn’t normally do. We pour six to eight wines and I tell them how to taste and what the wines will pair with, and I ask them to tell me what they can pick up. A lot of people sign up for our Cellar Club, and we send them educational information about the wines they wouldn’t get if they just went into a wine shop and bought the wines.”

Rather than trying to blend in with the crowd, Rideau celebrates her unique background by hosting a Creole-style open house at the winery each year. More than 350 people flocked to Solvang in September 2001 to sample Rideau’s homemade Creole fare, paired with the appropriate wines.

“I served the red beans and rice with our Tempranillo because the wine has a spiciness that goes extremely well with it,” she says. “And the Viognier goes beautifully with my gumbo and fried chicken.”

Gustavo Brambila, co-owner & winemaker, Gustavo Thrace Winery

Many in the industry still think of Mexicans and other Latinos strictly as vineyard workers, but Gustavo Brambila broke the mold more than two decades ago. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Brambila moved to Rutherford, Calif., in the late ’50s when his father began working for Beaulieu Vineyard. It was during his adolescence in Rutherford that his fascination with wine began.

“When I was in the ninth grade my father brought home some grape juice that was in the early stages of fermentation,” Brambila recalls. “I tasted it and really liked it and wanted to save the rest for the next day. So, I capped it tightly and placed it in the refrigerator. The next morning the fermentation had reached the stage that when the bottle exploded, the force was so strong that it blew the refrigerator door open. Just the sheer power fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more about it.”

This fascination led Brambila to pursue a degree in fermentation sciences at UC Davis. While at Davis, he also gained a “tastebudson” experience with wine.

“My family did not drink wine while I was growing up,” he says. “I began drinking it while at UC Davis in the enology program. I belonged to a tasting group whose members all went on to become winemakers at prestigious wineries. We would taste as a group every two weeks.”

Though Brambila was the only Mexican enrolled in the UC Davis enology program at the time, he says that he did not notice any real discrimination.

“Remember that I started in this industry 30 years ago, and perhaps I was viewed more as a novelty in the business,” Brambila says. “Once people got to know me, they knew how serious I was.”

With degree in hand, Brambila began his wine industry career at Chateau Montelena in 1976. The following year, Mike Grgich recruited him to help start his new winery. At Grgich Hills, he learned every aspect of the business, from vineyard management to distribution. He has been making wine there for more than 20 years. In 1996, he met Thrace Bromberger, who was selling wine for Cakebread Cellars at the time, and together they started Gustavo Thrace Winery.

Over time, Brambila says he’s noticed a change in the status of Latino winery employees, though some misconceptions still exist.

“Once you start to know the workers you will find that a high percentage of the people that are viewed as Mexican are really from South American or Latin American countries,” he says. “I believe that given a choice, management will choose (people from) those nationalities because of their work ethic. If you look at the numbers from 20 years ago, I think there are the same percentages of minority workers in the valley, it’s just that now they are second and sometimes third generation. They are now taking on the more professional/management roles where their parents were the ‘workers.’ The bias may perhaps be more gender based in this ethnic group. While we are starting to see a growing number of Mexican males emerge at the upper echelons, the number of Mexican females has not kept pace.”

When it comes to reaching out to potential wine drinkers in Mexico, Brambila says it’s more a matter of overall education than the ethnic makeup of those in the industry.

“I believe that any time the education level of a country goes up, there will be a difference in the population’s eating and drinking habits,” he says. “That includes the consumption of wines with meals. If you look at the growing number of first-rate wineries being opened in Baja, Calif., you realize there has to be an expanded consumer base for fine wines in Mexico.

After three decades in the industry, Brambila says he’s achieved his ultimate goal: he owns a winery, has his own brand and his name is associated with a truly fine product. That’s quite an achievement in this business, no matter where you’re from.

“It’s a heavy load to carry because the expectations are high, and it still remains true that you have to work harder, better and smarter than the next guy, be he Mexican or not, to advance. The best way is through education.

But despite the progress made by wineries like Robledo, Rideau and Gustavo Thrace, there are some that say we have a long way to go before achieving true diversity.

“Just about every wine magazine, wine event and wine company is filled with middle-aged white men, Roberts Wine X publisher, says. “Sure, there are a few exceptions, but very few. I’d love to see more of a melting pot, so to speak, of winery owners, growers and winemakers. But I think that the wine industry has dug itself such a deep hole with the image that ‘wine is a rich, white man’s playground’ that most people from other ethnicities don’t even consider it as an investment or vocation. Many will argue that the lack of ‘other’ ethnic groups is due to their non-wine heritage. But how many of us really have any wine heritage? We’re a country founded by Puritans, for chrissake.”

However slowly the tide is turning, even skeptics have to admit that the California wine industry has come a long way since the ’50s, or even the ’90s. And that’s something we can all benefit from.

(Tina Caputo reports on the wine industry from San Francisco. She is a frequent contributor to Wines & Vines

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