With every bottle of wine he makes, Victor Palencia’s belief in the American Dream strengthens.
His journey from being born in Michoacán, Mexico, to being recognized as one of the top young winemakers in Washington is equal parts arduous and inspiring.
For these reasons and more, Palencia Wine Co. is Wine Press Northwest’s 2015 Washington Winery to Watch.
Palencia was born in 1985. His father, seeking a better life, picked up his family and brought them to the United States in 1987. They settled in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser, where he found work in mint fields, orchards and vineyards.
“It’s the best upbringing I could have had,” Palencia said. “My best memories are of getting up early with Dad to help in the mint fields.”
While a lot of high schoolers find after-school jobs at fast-food restaurants, Palencia headed to the vineyards. He began working for David Minnick, founder of Willow Crest Winery, when he was 14. The hard, honest work helped build the young man into one of the strongest at Prosser High School. The football coach began recruiting Palencia to play for the Mustangs — a perennial state power — but by then, he had a job in Willow Crest's cellar.
“I was too busy doing punchdowns to make it to practice,” he said with a laugh.
After graduation, Palencia became the first person in his family to go to college when he entered the Center for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. He was able to attend thanks in part to a scholarship from famed Leonetti Cellar. While he was attending school, he was given the opportunity to work at such Walla Walla Valley wineries as Zerba, Saviah, Basel and Sleight of Hand.
After graduating in 2005, Palencia headed back home to work as assistant winemaker at Willow Crest. During this time, he landed on the pages of The New York Times, which wrote a feature on the young Hispanic winemaker who wasn’t yet 21 and, thus, couldn’t legally taste what he was making.
After two years at Willow Crest and a brief stint at nearby Apex Cellars, Palencia was hired by J&S Crushing, a custom-crush winemaking facility in Mattawa on the remote and arid Wahluke Slope. J&S is a partnership of grape growers Jack Jones and Dick Shaw, and as director of winemaking, Palencia now oversees production of more than 1 million cases of wine production annually.
Some of this is for Jones of Washington, an award-winning winery owned by Jack Jones (and our 2012 Washington Winery of the Year), while the rest is made for various large winery clients.
Palencia loves working at J&S, but he also knows he is destined for more. To fulfill his American Dream — and to honor his father’s sacrifices — he decided to put his own name on the bottle. So in September 2013, he created Palencia Winery. To do this, he headed back to Walla Walla, launching his brand at one of five incubator winery buildings on the east side of the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
He began with a mere 350 cases in 2013, and the wines were met with critical and consumer acclaim and quickly disappeared from store shelves. This year, he will produce a more robust 2,000 cases to slake the thirst of his growing legion of fans.
The wines are made at J&S Crushing, alongside the other client wines. Palencia lives in Richland, the midpoint between Mattawa and Walla Walla — and an hour’s drive to either. Paula Ramirez manages the tasting room, as well as a new tasting bar he opened last fall in Walla Walla.
He has created two labels for his winery. The premium brand is Palencia, and on the label is a drawing of his father digging with a shovel. His second, less-expensive wines are called Vino La Monarcha and depict the monarch butterfly on the label. This is especially significant for Palencia because the monarch butterfly begins its migration north from the mountains of Michoacán. It takes multiple generations for the butterfly to make the journey north and achieve its goals.
Palencia is reaching his goals at a young age, achieving far beyond what was thought possible for a migrant kid in the Yakima Valley. He also knows that everything he builds is on the shoulders of his father, who had the courage to seek out a better life for his children and the strength and fortitude to create the foundation.
“He is my hero.”
ANDY PERDUE is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine ( www.greatnorthwestwine.com) and wine columnist for The Seattle Times.
This story was originally published March 16, 2015 12:00 AM.