Hispanic winemakers still rare but finding success

Reynaldo Robledo was 16 when he arrived from his small hometown in Mexico's mountains to work for $1.10 an hour in the vineyards of Northern California.

Now 59, Robledo is among a handful of Latinos who have built their own wineries on modest acreage and are catering in part to Hispanic wine drinkers interested in quality and a connection to their heritage.

"I would work my regular shift and then pester the vineyard manager with questions until I knew everything he knew," Robledo said in Spanish.

Robledo Family Winery near Sonoma now sells 20,000 cases per year through a wine club, its website and independent shops, bringing in about $1 million. It has a 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for $150 while wines from more recent vintages are priced starting at $20.

Esau Herrera of the Hispanic Vintners Association, a loose-knit marketing group with about a dozen members in California and Florida, said the number of Latino vintners is small but is growing. Part of that success comes from making a connection with Hispanics.

"There are people like me who are very proud of our roots and don't mind plunking down $125 for a bottle of wine," Herrera said.

Wine consumption among Hispanics has increased more than any other ethnic group, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Wine Market Council, a nonprofit trade association.

The report also found that Hispanic wine drinkers chose imported wines in greater proportion to other ethnic groups - specifically from Chile and Argentina. Vintners in the U.S. hope they can make that connection closer to home.

"There's room at the table for wine, as long as it's good wine," said Amelia Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards in Napa. Like Robledo, Ceja and her husband worked in the vineyards as children.

Half of the Ceja Vineyard's wine club is Hispanic, a very loyal market, Ceja said. She often promotes her wine through dinners, pairing traditional dishes with Ceja Vineyard reds and whites.

"Mexican cuisine is one of the world's most sophisticated," she said. "We're erasing the elitist attitude that persists around wine. And we are shaping the industry."

Many Latinos consider wine a drink for special occasions, but U.S. Latino vintners are trying to move it into the realm of more common drinks based on tequila and rum.

In September, the Robledo Family Winery held a celebration for Mexico's bicentennial where visitors ate in an outdoor patio, listened to live Spanish music and socialized at the foot of Robledo's hilly vineyards. Two new wines dedicated to heroes of the Mexican revolution were unveiled: a Riesling and a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot.

Mexican Consul General Carlos Felix traveled from San Francisco for the event.

"California and Mexico were born together," Felix said. "One of the profound elements we have is this bicultural relationship. This family illustrates that precise example.

Fabiola Sotomayor, originally from Mexico City, saw a flier for the event at a park in Sonoma near her home and was intrigued by the family's history.

"Part of it was just that there was this Mexican family and they weren't just working the land," Sotomayor said. "You get used to the same immigrant story you always hear, but they are more than that. It's powerful."

Many immigrants dream of owning land, but property in wine country doesn't come cheap. Robledo worked other people's land for decades. He eventually started a vineyard management company with his children, and they saved enough to buy 14 acres of Pinot Noir.

In 1997 - with nine children and almost 30 years after he came to the U.S. - Robledo sold his first bottle of wine under his label.

A formal education helped Ceja's husband, Armando Ceja, achieve his goal. After years of work in vineyards, he earned a degree in enology and viticulture from the University of California, Davis, and worked as a vineyard manager for other wineries.

In 1983, he, his wife and his brother's family pooled their money to buy their first 15 acres in the Carneros region. They had their first harvest five years later. The Cejas now grow on 113 acres.

At Robledo Family Winery, you can still see Robledo's Stetson cowboy hat bobbing through 300 acres of grapes, as he checks on his crop. Displays in the tasting room include Mexican art, family photos and a framed menu from a White House dinner earlier this year that featured Robledo wine.

But Robledo said his greatest pride is still his family, which now includes 17 grandchildren. They all live within 15 minutes of each other, and many of the 26 wines bear their names.

"We're not only carrying on the name, we're carrying on the business," said Jenaro Robledo, 31, a son who runs the vineyard. "We hope it grows generation after generation."

© 2010 The Associated Press.

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