KENNEWICK, Wash. — Victor Palencia wakes up every day thinking about the American Dream.
Palencia, a rising star in Washington wine country, was born in Villa Jimenez in Michoacán, a state in western Mexico. His father wanted a better life for his family. When Victor was 2, they came to America. His uncle was living in the Yakima Valley, so the family worked its way up the coast, settling in Prosser. His dad found work in the mint fields, later in row crops, then orchards, and eventually in vineyards.
Victor, 34, grew up in the cradle of the Washington wine industry just as it was coming of age. His first job was working after school in the vineyards. His first job as a winemaker soon come along. He was the first in his family to go to - and graduate from - college. He was featured in The New York Times and now oversees a winemaking operation that exceeds 1.5 million cases annually. All while successfully running his own operation that includes two fast-growing labels. His wines are adored nearly universally by critics and consumers alike.
He gets to wake up every day and make wine that makes others happy. That is his version of the American Dream.
Palencia is a big, athletic guy who grew up in Prosser, a town with a high school known for its football prowess. Little doubt the football coach had his eye on getting him on the gridiron in a Prosser Mustangs uniform.
But Palencia already had his eye on the wine industry, and his after-school job as a cellar rat at Willow Crest Winery kept him in the student section on Friday nights rather than under the bright lights of Art Fiker Stadium.
In 2003, he met Stan Clarke, a legend in the Yakima Valley who passed away in 2007, who helped start wineries, plant vineyards, wrote a wine column for the Yakima newspaper and taught in the Grandview School District. Palencia met him as he was getting involved with the fledgling winemaking program at Walla Walla Community College, which Clarke encouraged Palencia to consider. Young Palencia moved to Walla Walla in 2003 to start college. Graduating in 2005, he moved back to Prosser, where he took over winemaker duties at Willow Crest, becoming a U.S. citizen that same year. This is when he gained his first taste of fame, landing in The New York Times, which featured the underaged 20-year-old winemaking wunderkind.
"That was a lot of fun, what a way to break into the industry," he recalls.
This publicity got the attention of J&S Crushing, a startup custom-crush facility in Mattawa, Wash., where Palencia was hired as director of winemaking in 2008, overseeing an operation that made more than 1 million cases of wine annually for various clients. One of those was Jones of Washington, owned by the Jones family, which Palencia turned into a perennial gold-medal winner and Wine Press Northwest's 2012 Washington Winery of the Year.
A year later, Palencia created his own project, Palencia Wine Co., at the Walla Walla Airport. The launch included a second brand, called Vino la Monarcha, a lower-priced line of wines that paid homage to his heritage. He started with a few hundred cases, which has since grown to several thousand.
The monarch butterfly begins its journey in Michoacán, migrating north through North America, sometimes taking more than one generation to make its journey to Canada. Metaphorically, the brand has completed its journey, as Monarcha wine, on the strength of the many gold medals it has earned in international competitions, now is being imported into Canada, a process fraught with paperwork that has paid off with 500 cases of Vino la Monarcha wines being sold in western provinces and Toronto.
Last year, Palencia moved the Monarcha label into the Port of Kennewick’s new Columbia Gardens complex in downtown Kennewick, where he has a production facility and tasting room overlooking the Columbia River. In 2015, his Rosé of Pinot Noir from the Ancient Lakes region won best of show in the Cascadia International Wine Competition. A year later, he repeated the feat, winning top honors for his Vino la Monarcha Albariño, a Spanish white for which he has quickly gained a reputation.
The Monarcha label includes a Monarch butterfly's wings. When two bottles are held together, they show the complete creature.
On his Palencia label is a line drawing of his father, David, leaning on a shovel, working the soil of a Yakima Valley mint field. His Palencia wines are higher-end, both in style and price. While the Palencia tasting room and production facility are still in an incubator facility at the Walla Walla Airport, Palencia is looking at an opportunity to relocate to a facility in the Tri-Cities, not far from Red Mountain, leaving him with a shorter commute as well as much closer to his fruit sources - and two tasting rooms in a community of more than a quarter-million potential customers.
Palencia's wines have shined most brightly in Wine Press Northwest’s annual Platinum Judging, which only includes wines from the Northwest that have won gold medals in any of more than 50 competitions held around the world. Between Palencia, Monarcha and Jones of Washington brands, Victor has won an impressive 36 Platinums.
The Palencia label focuses on Rhône and Bordeaux varieties, using grapes from several American Viticultural Areas of Eastern Washington.
Monarcha wines lean more toward Bordeaux varieties, with several white wine choices.
His style could be described as fruit-driven, marked by a minimalistic approach that avoids new oak to allow the fruit to shine in the glass. It’s a style that has rung true with consumers and critics alike.
Palencia being Hispanic brings its own unique opportunities. There are few Latino winemakers and winery owners in the region. Being born in Mexico and immigrating here provides Victor with a rich life experience that helps him relate to Latinos who toil in Washington vineyards and work in the cellars. His life experience and his ability to speak Spanish both help him.
WIth his success come additional responsibilities. Others look up to him as a mentor and role model to those in the Latino community, rather heady stuff for a kid who grew up in the Yakima Valley and who now is realizing the American Dream.
ANDY PERDUE is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine and now is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and the wine columnist for The Seattle Times.