Living la vina loca: Hispanics make their way in Washington's wine industry

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 15, 2012 

For decades, the Washington wine industry has depended on the back-breaking, underappreciated work of Hispanics.

Recently, they have begun to step beyond the vines and into more prominent roles as vineyard managers, viticulturalists, enologists, winemakers -- even owners of vineyards and wineries.

Here are a few of their inspiring stories.

Victor Palencia

In many ways, it makes sense that Victor Palencia's first memory of life is riding on the shoulders of his father at the age of 2 as their family crossed from San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, into Arizona.

"And I still remember the bus ride that changed our lives forever," he said.

The next stop was Prosser, Wash., for Palencia, who has been fast-tracked and hand-picked by leaders in the wine industry.

However, the 27-year-old gives credit to his family for the inspiration, work ethic and emotional support that helped him -- by the age of 23 -- become head winemaker for one of the state's largest wineries.

"I have eight brothers and sisters, and our family has great stories of going out in the vineyard to work and putting us in the picking bin, using it like a little playpen. So at an early age, you definitely learn to appreciate the vineyard canopy because of the shading," Palencia said with a chuckle.

"But my family led me to become a dreamer, and I will always cherish them for that," he said, turning serious. "We didn't have much, so they were not able to help me a whole lot financially, but they kept telling me to just try and give it a go and always pick yourself up. To have that backing, that support? I can't tell you how much that has meant."

His talents are obvious as Jones of Washington in Quincy earned Wine Press Northwest's 2012 Washington Winery of the Year, but his path to the world of wine began at Willow Crest Winery in Prosser with Dave Minick.

"I will always give him credit for giving a 16-year-old kid access to his winemaker," said Palencia, whose older brother worked in the vineyard for Minick. "Dave was the guy who helped me piece this together and make the bond between the winery and the vineyard. I must have exhibited a level of maturity, and he really helped me find this passion."

He took that back into the classroom at Prosser High School, where he graduated in 2003.

"I've always enjoyed the chemistry and the science," Palencia said. "I wasn't quite a nerd, but I loved exploring, and I applied everything I learned in the winery to school during my junior and senior years."

Minick was the first of his many mentors. Just as important to his career path was his high school counselor Suzanne Strausz, who also introduced him to legendary wine instructor Stan Clarke.

"She gave me a letter of recommendation before I graduated, and I have it framed hanging in my office to this day," Palencia said. “I’ll never forget her.”

He does admit to “skipping school a couple of times” to meet with Clarke, who helped Palencia get into Walla Walla Community College’s winemaking program.

“He was my mentor through college and the only person who was not afraid to introduce me to the wonderful world of wine and all the people in it,” he said.

Those days in Walla Walla were especially trying times for Palencia.

“That was a challenge, the relocating, because mine is a tight family,” he said. “For us, making a trip to Seattle was a big deal. But my biggest challenge, naturally, was my age. I really couldn’t do much until I hit the 21-year age mark.”

That didn’t stop fame from finding Palencia. He began to taste success in 2005 before he could legally drink it as a graduate of the college’s winemaking program. A local newspaper feature on him led to a profile in the New York Times.

“There was a lot of really fun exposure, but I didn’t know if I was going to get into trouble, not being 21,” he said. “It really felt good to know how well the story was welcomed. Then I became Dave’s full-time winemaker. It was harvest time with full fermenters, and I had a job to do.”

Not long after that, Clarke died unexpectedly, leaving a significant hole in the Washington wine industry.

“I keep and display a bottle of Clarke’s Red on my work desk today,” he said.

Palencia’s family continues to work the vineyards and orchards of the Yakima Valley, and he said his background helps him in the field to work with other Latino vineyard managers to create better wines. And getting them to drink world-class wine is an important factor.

“It’s a way for me to share and help enrich Washington’s wine industry,” he said. “If my guy in the vineyard appreciates a good glass of Cab, that insight when he’s out there will help him make better strategic decisions with the vines year after year.”

Palencia also realizes that it’s important for him to take a leadership role in the Hispanic community, serving as an ambassador for the Washington wine industry and helping to grow the market.

“There is definitely a missed opportunity, and I think about the Latino market all the time,” he said. “So I stay in contact with the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Seattle. People forget that we stick together, Latinos do, and we are having more of a presence in wineries. More and more are becoming involved and working up the ranks.”

However, not everyone in the Hispanic community was so supportive when he was growing up, saying that “winemaking is a white boy’s job.”

“I never let it get to me,” he said. “There were and are too many good people in this industry who believed in me and my dreams.”

And few winemakers tell their story as well and with as much dis- arming charm as Palencia.

“At a public tasting, people pick up on my personality, come over to ask a question and they love the story and my upbringing,” he said. “I love pouring my wines, and I’m out there to share them. I will be hollering at you to come over and taste them. If I need to, I’ll do my chicken imitation to get your attention!”

Wine education, perception and economics are obstacles that Palencia said he constantly deals with.

“My biggest challenge is that people are intimidated by wine,” he said. “We need to make it more available and affordable, and my big thing is talking about food and wine pairings. It’s amazing what’s out there. Things like Riesling and a ripe Syrah are wines that can be enjoyed every day and go with almost everything.

“And the seriousness of wine has to be taken out of it,” he continued. “Maybe the question I get asked the most is, ‘Why does wine dry my mouth out?’ I really enjoy explaining that, and I see the wine market growing and evolving.”

He said he also tries to stay involved with the horticulture and winery programs at the community colleges in the Columbia Valley, reaching out as a keynote speaker and leading tours of the monstrous winemaking facility the Jones family operates in Quincy.

“I love to share my story and my knowledge, and I love to help the colleges in Walla Walla, Yakima and Wenatchee,” he said.

His responsibilities for the Jones family are enormous. He makes 10,000 cases of award-winning wine for Jones of Washington and a mil- lion cases for J&S Crushing, owned by Jack Jones and Dick Shaw.

Operating his own winery and vineyard in the valley where he grew up would be the next step in that pursuit of the American dream — and a generation removed from his native Villa Jiménez in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

“I hit 27 this year, so I’m getting up there. It’s time to start thinking seriously,” Palencia said with a laugh. “Yes, I have dreams and I’m still working toward them. As I continue to grow, my dreams continue to get bigger, and I want to take them back to my roots.”

Amy Alvarez-Wampfler

Amy Alvarez-Wampfler grew up in Washington’s Yakima Valley as the daughter of fruit pick- ers, and she always hoped to stay close to agriculture.

She never saw herself as winemaker, though, and neither did her parents, who have roots in Mexico.

“My mom, she loves it, but she can’t believe I’m actually a winemaker,” said the winemaker and general manager for Sinclair Estate Vineyards in Walla Walla. “My dad is very excited and proud of me. He just wishes I would make sweeter wines!”

At this point, a stylish yet dry Chardonnay is the only white wine she produces. That’s no surprise considering her résumé, even though her career began pouring for tourists in the tasting room at Columbia Crest in Paterson, Wash.

“It was back in 2003 when I was living in Hermiston (Ore.) and someone said Crest was hiring,” Alvarez-Wampfler remembered. “I needed a job, and I just had a feeling. I started out in the tasting room and fell in love with wine.”

Soon, the graduate of Eisenhower High School in Yakima enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s viticulture and enology program while continuing to work at Columbia Crest. Before long, she began receiving some of the best on-the-job training the Pacific Northwest wine industry can offer.

“As I was finishing up my viticulture internship in 2005, an enology intern position opened up, and (winery staff) thought I should interview for it,” Alvarez-Wampfler said.

She wasn’t sure she was prepared to become a winemaker, but the folks at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates — parent company of Columbia Crest — knew better.

“I thought, ‘Well, this is awesome,’ ” she said. “I just got through spending September in the vineyard and then to help make the wines was great.”

She never looked back and became the lead assistant for Columbia Crest white winemaker Keith Kenison. Among her duties was shepherding 10,000 barrels of Chardonnay.

“Working at Crest, we’d taste more than 100 samples twice a week,” she said. “After a while, you get sick of Chardonnay.”

Still, Alvarez-Wampfler, 32, makes some of the best Chardonnay in the Northwest for Tim and Kathy Sinclair, who hired Alvarez-Wampfler in 2010 straight from Columbia Crest for their young 1,500-case winery.

“What I learned in one year at Columbia Crest would have taken me five years at a small winery,” she said. “We worked with 50 different cooperages. We did yeast trials. You learn everything you need to learn.”

“I definitely owe most of what I’ve accomplished to Ste. Michelle,” Alvarez-Wampfler said. “They gave me the opportunity to do what I want to do, and they’ve done so much for the whole industry.”

Hard work is something Alvarez-Wampfler grew up with. Her mother was picking berries in the Skagit Valley when she went into labor, so Amy was born in Mount Vernon, but the family returned to Yakima because that’s where her parents grew up. They tended the fields and picked pears, cherries, peaches and worked with hops, but never grapes.

“Having parents who were hard workers, you learn that nothing is handed to you — you have to work hard for it,” she said. “They were leaders for me. They taught me to take responsibility for my life, be proactive and not be afraid to fail.”

And she says she hasn’t encountered any issues being a Latina winemaker, whether it be culturally, in the vineyard or in the winery.

“A lot of people say that’s a problem, but I’ve never found it to be too macho,” Alvarez-Wampfler said. “For the most part, they are hard workers who are pretty quiet and keep to themselves. And I grew up in an environment that was quite modest.”

She admits that her ability to speak Spanish could use some work.

“I’m not too bad, and I still know a lot,” she said. “My mom mostly speaks English, and it was that way for me growing up. My dad, though, oh, he hates it. He’s always on me about speaking Spanish, and he only speaks to me in Spanish.”

A little Riesling goes a long way with her padre, though. Her husband, Daniel Wampfler — a former co-worker at Columbia Crest — fills that niche as winemaker for Dunham Cellars.

“Dad’s drinking a lot of the late harvest that Daniel makes,” she said with a smirk.

The Sinclairs have plans to plant about 15 acres of vines. While none of it will be Riesling, returning to the vineyards is something Alvarez- Wampfler looks forward to. It’s in her blood, and she has fond memories as a child in the orchards.

“My initial thought about being in the wine industry was that I wanted to be a viticulturalist, but things turned around on me,” she said. “Being a viticulturalist takes me back to my roots. I’ve always enjoyed working with fruit, and it’s so relaxing being outside. As a winemaker, though, it’s nice to be able to do something artful with the fruit.”

Sergio & Andrew Martinez

Mexico-born Sergio Martinez was 26 years old when he saw the potential of wine grapes in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills.

That was in 1981, and he was in the minority, but he went and put down 4 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon below his modest rambler among the Horse Heavens. His cuttings came from the area’s first vineyard, planted by the Mercer family under the auspices of Walter Clore.

“Everybody pooh-poohed Sergie. They pooh-poohed him,” remembered his wife, Kristy. “All of them thought he should plant apples instead.”

Over the years, the neighborhood grew up around the couple that met in Prosser, not long after Sergio came from Modesto, Calif., to harvest Washington apples.

Across the road is Champoux Vineyards, viewed by many as Washington’s premier planting for Bordeaux varieties. Behind the Martinez backyard is Phinny Hill Vineyard. An outfielder’s throw to the south is Palengat Vineyard, owned by 100-pointer Quilceda Creek Vintners and managed by Paul Champoux.

And three decades after that derided decision, there’s Martinez Vineyard. There may be no finer region in the Pacific Northwest in which to grow Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Remember, we paid something like $200 or $300 an acre for this?” Sergio said to Kristy with a smile.

He’s now the grape production manager for nearby Alder Ridge Vineyard, working for the Baty family and Precept Wine, but Sergio and his winemaking son, Andrew, own and operate their own winery in Prosser — Martinez & Martinez. While only the second Hispanic-owned winery in the state, it’s the first to use estate grapes.

“I’d had in my mind all these years this almost impossible dream,” said Sergio, who entered the U.S. through Tijuana and is now a permanent resident. “It makes me feel like a celebrity knowing that my kids are involved in it and involved with customers all over the United States, and sometimes from all over the world every now and then.”

Ironically, he was born in Morelia, Michoacán — a neighboring town to Villa Jiménez, which produced Jones of Washington winemaker Victor Palencia.

“I was around 11 or 12 when we arrived for good, and ever since then I started going to school and working out in the fields right away,” Sergio said.

“I broke off from the family in Oroville, and then I started dating Kristy. That’s how I got stuck here in Washington,” he added with a laugh.

His sense of timing kicked in again when the family started the winery, using the spectacular 2005 vintage for those first bottlings.

Four years later, they moved into The Winemaker’s Loft in Prosser. Monica Tudor-Martinez, Andrew’s wife, serves as the winery’s general manager, and she’s slowly grown the brand from 200 cases to an estimated 1,600 cases for the 2012 vintage.

Over the years, Sergio sold his grapes to Walla Walla wineries such as Cadaretta and Three Rivers. No more. Andrew makes sure they are devoted to the Dominio de Martinez Cabernet. The 2009 vintage ($45) resulted in a mere 40 cases and earned an “Outstanding!” rating from Wine Press Northwest this spring. Other wines are sourced from Alder Ridge.

Andrew is a dental hygienist by day. Monica — his high-school sweetheart at Prosser High — runs the day-to-day operations, but expect to find the whole family at the winery on Saturdays. Sergio doesn’t seem to mind the 70-mile roundtrip required to work weekends at the winery.

“If I went back to Mexico, I wouldn’t survive very well,” he said. “The pay is not near the same as here, and it’s easier to find work here. I see people who go back home, and when they come back up here the next year, they don’t look the same. It’s much tougher living.”

Monica, whose relatives operate Tudor Hills Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, hopes to reach Hispanics with the Martinez & Martinez story.

“The only reason I started and want to make wine is because it’s my dad’s fruit and his hard work in the vineyard,” Andrew said. “I’ve seen it my whole life, so putting that into the bottle, sealing it up, presenting it to people and having them enjoy the same thing is pretty special. It’s an easy story to tell, one that comes second-nature for me.”

Victor Cruz

Success in the wine industry came swiftly to Victor Cruz, yet he still gets a bit bashful when someone refers to him as “The Latino Leonetti.”

“It’s been a fantastic ride, something that I never envisioned, and it keeps happening,” said Cruz, owner/winemaker for Cañon de Sol Winery in Benton City, Wash. “It’s hard to imagine, but this year will be our 14th crush.”

He launched his winery in 1999 and immediately became one of the region’s premier producers of Syrah. His 2000 and 2002 vintages each took best in show at the Northwest Wine Summit, the largest and most prestigious wine competition in the Pacific Northwest.

“At that time, mine was the only Hispanic-owned winery in the Northwest, which brought us a lot of attention,” Cruz said. “A ton of people started coming to me and I got to know them, and we’ve had a lot of success within the Hispanic community.”

In the Tri-City area, Cañon de Sol has served as the longtime venue for the Fiesta Foods Annual Fundraiser, but Cruz’s outreach extends to the Puget Sound and beyond. His connections grew quickly and more tightly after Cañon de Sol opened a tasting room in Woodinville three years ago.

“It’s not necessarily what’s going through the cash register, but what happens after that,” Cruz said. “It’s led to private pourings for corporate executives, events at the Columbia Tower (in Seattle) and opportunities to talk business on an Argosy ship in Puget Sound. Drinking good wine, having good food and talking with good people? Life doesn’t get any better.”

Then there’s been mingling with celebrities such as actor George Lopez and presentations for the Hispanic National Bar Association. Cañon de Sol earned a Minority Business of the Year award from the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Cruz now sits on the UW Business and Economic Development Center advisory board, and Cañon de Sol serves as a sponsor of Bothell-based Crear Poder, a new statewide group of Hispanic business leaders.

“Being a part of those have opened up a lot of doors and functions with the Hispanic community, but none of this would have happened if we hadn’t opened up in Woodinville,” Cruz said. “It was a gamble, but once the Hispanic community hears about you and gets to know you, they commit to you — and they are very, very loyal.”

This is Cruz’s second career, and each afforded him a much different life than that of his father, a farm laborer in the Yakima Valley town of Wapato. Hard work and the value of an education were drilled into Victor by his parents, who inspired him to graduate from Western Washington University with an engineering degree. That allowed him to work not far from his hometown, spending 15 years as a project manager at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

And the grandson of immigrants said he has quite a bit in common with some of Cañon de Sol’s fans.

“A lot of my Hispanic customers are their family’s first-generation graduates of college, and their parents worked hard for them,” Cruz said. “They are very well-educated, they know the wines they like, and seem to love my big, full-bodied wines. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Caucasian or Hispanic — what I make is very, very well received.”

It’s created a cult-like following for Cruz, and the demands and requests for his time and talent have reached critical mass.

“So I’m bringing on my 26-year-old son Nicholas to handle all the marketing and sales in Seattle,” he said. “He’s joined the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Seattle instead of me because I wouldn’t have been able to attend the meetings as much as I should.”

And it was Nicholas who also helped set a trend in Washington wine country by getting his folks to hire a taco wagon from Pasco to cater special events at Cañon de Sol.

“He was graduating from high school, and we were having a big function at the winery, so he wanted Mexican food and made arrangements for the taco wagon,” Victor said. “That was eight years ago, and we still bring them out to the winery all the time. And we field a lot of calls from people wanting to hire them.”

Early on, renowned winemaker Charlie Hoppes helped his high school chum as they made Fidelitas and Cañon de Sol wines side-by-side at Cruz’s converted barn in Badger Canyon. Now, Cruz serves as consulting winemaker for two small wineries, one in the Tri-Cities and the other in Boise. He enjoys those relationships but does not plan to add clients or increase production for Cañon de Sol, which holds steady at about 4,500 cases.

“It’s hard to say, ‘No,’ but I’ve stepped back from a few functions and potential clients because I’ve got to really make sure I focus on our wines and the others’ wines,” he said. “It means I won’t make as many trips on the other side of the mountains, but it will be great to have the next generation involved in the business.”

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