New World cultures influenced by Spain and Portugal have long played a vital role in the Northwest’s wine industry. While historically, Latino immigrants were most prevalent in the more physical vineyard roles, many have moved into management, winemaking and ownership roles.
In Oregon, interviews with three women winemakers show their culture continues to have an influence on their winemaking and how they overcome the obstacles they’ve encountered navigating the wine industry.
Ximena Orrego: Co-Owner/Winemaker Atticus Wine
Ximena Orrego was born in Peru and raised throughout Latin America. Combined, she and her husband have lived in more than 10 countries. So while she’s of South American heritage, she sees herself as more international, bringing a rich history into her winemaking.
For her, family influenced her winemaking more than her culture.
“I feel that I have inspiration from several strong women in my family who I adore and admire,” she said. “They are strong, yet elegant, and that is what I am always striving for in our wines — that balance between power and elegance.”
Ximena got her winemaking start in 2007 as a harvest intern at Raptor Ridge Winery. She recalls that during that year’s fall, though she was constantly wet and cold, any discomfort would be completely forgotten when it was time for tank punchdowns.
“I fell in love with the aromas of the Pinot Noir grapes as they were going through primary fermentation,” she recalled. “I was completely seduced by that experience, even though it was hard. To this day, one of my favorite things to do is to smell the fermenters every day and see the various expressions of our fruit as they develop.”
When asked about her experience with the wine industry, she said it’s been very positive.
“I don’t think being a woman or being of a South American background impacted the opportunities or the welcome I received when I joined the wine industry,” she said.
When they first moved to Oregon 16 years ago, she was invited to join the marketing committee of the Yamhill-Carlton Wine Growers Association.
“Those were the early days of the AVA, and it was a great way for me to learn, share and meet some of the pioneers in our area,” she said. While she was a harvest intern for Raptor Ridge, owners Annie and Scott Shull were very helpful, inviting her to events and suggesting opportunities for her to get involved, meet more people and expand her knowledge.
She said the biggest challenge she faced while establishing Atticus Wine was simply balancing the needs of a small business with the demands of having a family and holding a corporate job in the tech sector. Some aspects became easier, but she did not retire from the corporate world until 2017.
“Although I really loved my last ‘day’ job and the people I got to work with, it has really been great to just focus on our family and Atticus,” she added.
She loves that she’s creating something that she hopes will bring people joy.
“It is really humbling, and it makes me so happy to see people choosing to share our wines at their dinner tables, or as gifts or at special occasions to celebrate with their friends and families,” she said. “I also love that every vintage is different, and that I am always learning. There is always the question: What can I do differently to make our wine even better?”
Ximena recognized that as the industry continues to grow there are many aspects and opportunities — winemaking, vineyard management, sales and marketing and more. She believes education is key and would advise those wanting to pursue a career as a winemaker to complete a degree in winemaking studies, work harvests in different parts of the world, visit different wine regions to learn as much as possible and be ready to put in a lot of long hours of hard work.
“As in everything, it is also important to find mentors or role models that can support you and can provide inspiration,” she added. “All these things will enrich you and lead to more opportunities and success.”
Aurora Coria: Winemaker Coria Estates
Aurora Coria grew up in the vineyard, but never thought she would go into winemaking. She originally chose a path that led her to a completely different career in public health administration. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University and working in that field for more than a year, she and her mom flirted with the idea of starting their own label.
“It seemed like a logical next step for us as our vineyard was a mature 14 years old at the time, and I was at a bit of a standstill in my job.” She decided to go back to school and begin a degree in winemaking. “I absolutely fell in love and never looked back!”
Coria Estates bottled its first vintage two years later under a custom-crush contract with Eola Hills. And in 2017, they moved the winemaking home to their own facility. Her goal is to make wine in a way that feels true to herself, their estate vineyard and their family brand.
“My winemaking style is Old World stylistically, driven by expressing the vineyard, not by manipulation,” she said. “In a way, my family values parallel this ideology, to be naturally and uniquely yourself.”
Though Aurora experienced fewer cultural challenges, perhaps because of her bicultural family that’s Mexican and American, she acknowledges that there remain some barriers she’s had to overcome.
“I feel I have always had to work harder at being taken seriously as a young woman entering this industry on the production side.”
That still happens today, she added. “Someone will arrive at our facility for a delivery and ask if there’s a man around to unload something with the forklift. I say, ‘I can do it!’ and jump right on!”
Women must speak louder and work harder to overcome some prejudices facing them, particularly in production.
“I have felt looked down upon or perceived as I should be in a different position because of my gender,” she said. “I feel that by simply doing my job every day, I am helping push through boundaries that women are facing by getting my hands dirty and working hard and showing other women they can do this, too!”
Aurora loves the challenges she’s found in winemaking.
“Mother Nature calls the shots in farming, and as a winemaker I choose to bend to her will and let the vintage direct what happens with the wine,” she said. “We never know what any year may bring and what the vineyard will do, but during harvest there are so many decisions to make that help shape the wine.”
She embraces that excitement and challenge of crucial and time-sensitive decision-making.
“It’s a passion and love affair that keeps on growing.”
Gabriela Vignes: Winemaker Anne Amie Vineyards
Gabriela originally studied agriculture engineering where she grew up in Santiago, Chile, where she discovered that growing fruit just for the color or size was not as interesting as growing fruit that can create a product with great diversity of flavors and aromas. She appreciated that fruit can be so different, depending on the region, climate and the people who worked to make it happen. Because each region is different, you can see a cultural aspect in the wine as well, she believes.
She studied winemaking in both Chile and France. She worked in Casablanca and Leyda in Chile, in Central Otago and Marlborough in New Zealand, in the Barossa Valley in Australia, in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley in France and in Napa Valley before bringing her experience to Oregon.
“Most of my experience is a mix of different places and cultures and winery sizes, and I am still discovering and trying to learn new things,” she said. She’s discovered that different wine regions have their own character. Exploring them makes a person more tolerant, able to see things, open-minded and more creative, she has found.
The multi-cultural experiences from being in different wine regions made her realize there is no single good way to do things.
“That opened my mind to feel that there are so many options and ways of creating in this industry,” she said. “I also like that the appreciation of the wine is related to where you live and what you drink more often; it makes it more subjective and personal to each wine and each person.”
Her interest in cooler climate regions led her to the Willamette Valley. She liked that Oregon offers many other good things — beautiful forests, amazing hikes, tons of outdoor activities. It made her think Oregon is a great place to live and to make and enjoy good wine. She likes the connection with nature, the infinite ways of doing things and the necessity of people to create a fine product.
She says she fortunately hasn’t had many challenges because of her culture or gender.
“I’ve worked mostly with men in this industry that shows that it used to be more a male industry, but I feel like it is changing drastically these days and more women are involved. In Chile, there are still difficulties; they would prefer a man over a woman in most situations, but I am hoping this is changing.”
TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.