Children of Mexican Vineyard Laborers Now Vintners

It's the classic American success story, with a twist: A new generation of wine producers in Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California are the children of Mexican immigrants who once labored in the same vineyards. Reporter Andrea Kissack of member station KQED in San Francisco profiles the Mexican-American vintners.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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First...

(Soundbite of slurping noise)

CHADWICK: ...cleanse your pallet for a story about California wine. California's full-bodied wine reputation rests, in part, on the backs of Mexican migrant farm workers. They tended the vines for decades. Now many of their children who grew up in the vineyards are finding their own place in the industry as wine makers. As Andrea Kissack reports, these Mexican-American wine producers are also able to tap an emerging market: Latino wine drinkers.

ANDREA KISSACK reporting:

Looking over her field of chardonnay vines in southern Napa, Amelia Ceja can remember her first harvest in California.

Ms. AMELIA CEJA (President, Ceja Vineyards): The first time I picked grapes, it was Merlot--very succulent--and that is where I met Pedro and Armando, and we knew that we were going to have a vineyard someday.

KISSACK: Amelia Ceja is president of Ceja Vineyards, a small, family run winery located in the heart of the Carneros wine district at the edge of southern Sonoma and Napa counties. The story of how this Mexican-American family went from picking grapes to making award-winning wines is the stuff novels are made of. Amelia Ceja left her village in the state of Jalisco when she was 12 to join her parents in Napa. In those hot, dusty vineyards, she met her husband-to-be, Pedro Ceja. His father had arrived in Napa through the bracero migrant worker program. As Amelia Ceja recalls, they spent long hours picking grapes.

Ms. CEJA: Oh, no, it was backbreaking work. Think about picking a ton of grapes, bins that weigh typically 40 pounds, and you do it all day. It's pretty hard work.

KISSACK: But the work paid off, and the family sent their children to college. Now a generation later, the Cejas own more than 100 acres of vineyards. Even with their success, they retain a deep appreciation for the work that goes on in the fields. It's the Mexican farm workers who train and prune the young vines and pick the grapes in the fall.

Ms. CEJA: It is highly skilled labor. The true artisans in our industry are the farm workers. Without the farm workers, there will not be a fabulous wine industry in California.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

KISSACK: The Cejas recently took their handcrafted wines to San Jose to pour for the 50th anniversary of the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Dozens of Mexican-American business owners tasted the Cejas' Pinot Noirs, chardonnays and Cabernets.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Unidentified Man: Mmm, delicioso.

Ms. VIOLETA BARROSO (Founder, Mar y Sol Vineyard; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce): I grew up as a migrant farm worker child, and we grew up in immigrant tenements and, you know, I worked really hard. That was part of the ethic that my parents instilled in us. And I went to Stanford and studied biology there.

KISSACK: Violeta Barroso is a Hispanic Chamber member and founder of Mar y Sol Vineyards in the Central Valley town of King City. Her winery is one of 18 now owned by Mexican-Americans in California. Among the first in her family to receive a college education, Barroso took what she learned back into the wine industry. She specializes in high-quality, low-cost wines that pair well with Latin foods.

Ms. BARROSO: Being in the wine industry, I would bring bottles of wine home and my parents were, you know, very complimentary, but not that enthusiastic. So that gave us the idea that there was a need for a tailored style of wine for the types of food that we ate.

KISSACK: Recent surveys show Latinos' taste for wine is growing, but the industry has struggled with how to market to Latinos. Now these small Mexican-American-owned wineries, like the Cejas, are stepping into that marketing challenge and are learning how to cater to this growing demographic.

Ms. CEJA: There are 35 million Hispanics in this country. It's like a country within a country, of which--Oh, about--What is it?--three and a half million have a household income over $100,000. Do I want to invite them to a table? Oh, you betcha.

KISSACK: `Mi casa es su casa' is the motto at Amelia Ceja's relaxed tasting room in Napa.

Ms. CEJA: This is our Ceja 2002 Single Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.

(Soundbite of wine being poured)

KISSACK: Wines are poured with passionate descriptions of what went into making them. And next to the tasting room is a long farm table where she hosts home-cooked Mexican meals to show of her Ceja wines. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Kissack.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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