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Mexican-American Winery Owners Honor Heritage and Farm Worker Roots

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A growing community of Napa vintners who started as migrant workers have now established vineyards in the renowned wine region, and their family businesses are thriving.

A 2013 survey found that over 95 percent of farmworkers in Napa are from Mexico, but more than half permanently call Napa home.

Amelia Ceja, who came to the U.S. when she was 12 from Jalisco, picked grapes for world-renowned vineyard Robert Mondavi, and told her father that she wanted to own her own vineyard. Her father was the president of the local United Farm Workers chapter, and Ceja marched with him during the labor movement of the 1970s led by César Chávez. Now, Ceja and her family own over 110 acres, producing 8,000 cases of wine a year.

Ceja celebrates her heritage through her wine, sharing traditional Mexican recipes and cooking videos she pairs with her own blends on her website. In 2017, she lobbied in Washington for labor protection laws for workers that had not been updated since 1992. Ceja is the first Mexican-American woman to ever serve as the president of a winery. 

Hugo Maldonado also came to the U.S. as a young child from Michoacan. His father, Lupe, had come to California 20 years earlier to work in agriculture before bringing his family to the U.S. Hugo grew up tending vines after school, and in the 1990s the Maldonado family bought their first vineyard.

Maldonado Vineyards now makes up to 10,000 cases of wine every harvest, including their own label Napa red, Farm Worker.

“A lot of us, when we were growing up, never thought we’d be winery owners,” Maldonado told the Washington Post. “Winery owners were rich people. We’re not getting rich, but it’s nice to have some security for our kids.”

Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueño Winery carved out a similar path for himself. Also from Michoacan, Rolando’s father brought his family to Napa when Rolando was 8. And like the Maldonado family, Rolando pays homage to his heritage through his work: his cabernet sauvignon-based red, El Llano, is named after his hometown in Mexico. In 2010, when Herrera was invited to pour at the Michoacan state fair, he collaborated with 10 other Mexican American winemakers.

“I hated that we were competing and bickering at each other instead of supporting each other,” Herrera said to the Washington Post. “This was an opportunity for the people of Michoacan to see the sons of Mexican farmers becoming growers and winemakers.”

Out of that collaboration grew the Sonoma Mexican American Vintners Association, which now has 16 members. The organization’s annual Harvest Festivals support local nonprofits that uplift the community.

“The continued progress of MAVA is a testament to the idea that when we all come together as one and speak with one voice for the benefit of all, great things can be accomplished,” MAVA’s site reads.

This article is brought to you through a nonprofit, newsroom partnership with our friends at Revolution English.

Kaley LaQuea is an award–winning print and digital journalist who’s been creating content since 2008. She’s passionate about economic, environmental and social justice. She has an unhealthy relationship with caffeine and two cats: Totoro and Mononoke.