Mexican Families Make Name in Wine Business After Toiling in the
By Paul Franson
Long the hidden heart of Napa Valley’s wine business, Mexican immigrants have
recently started to make a name for themselves with their own wine labels.
At least five families of Mexican origin in Napa Valley have introduced their
own wines, all to excellent reviews. And their success is setting an example for
others to follow in their same path.
Like so many other vintners in the Valley, four of the families ― Ceja, Frias,
Robledo and Rentaria ― started producing wine as a natural extension of their
existing grape growing. Gustavo Brambila, by contrast, was a long-time
winemaker who struck out on his own.
The families’ stories are similar, rooted in the desire to own land and provide
for their families: An immigrant patriarch starts as a field worker, begins
managing vineyards, then buys unappreciated land that turns out to be excellent
for premium wines.
In 1967, Pablo and Juanita Ceja and six children immigrated north to St. Helena
from Michoacán, working in local wineries before finding a modest house in
Carneros. In 1983, they bought 15 acres there, and the family harvested its first
Pinot Noir fruit in 1988. They encouraged their now-ten children to go to college.
Pedro studied engineering, Armando enology and viticulture at UC Davis,
becoming a respected vineyard manager and winemaker, first at Domaine
Chandon, which encouraged the family’s first planting. He manages the 113
producing acres owned by the various members of his family.
In 1998, Pedro and his wife, Amelia Morán Ceja, and Armando and his wife
Martha Bramila Ceja (Gustavo’s sister), started Ceja Vineyards, Inc. Armando
acts as winemaker as well as vineyard manager, and petite sparkplug Amelia is
president, an unusual position for a women in a traditional Mexican family.
They source fruit from family vineyards in Carneros, Sonoma and near Stags
Leap District, though most of the grapes are sold to other wineries.
The family has released its first Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot, all selling in
the $30’s, with Cabernet soon to follow. The Pinot, in particular, is winning raves,
unfortunate since the first year’s 150 cases are almost gone.
There’s another generation of winemakers in the works, too. Pedro and
Amelia’s son Navek studied viticulture at Napa Valley College, and was recently
chosen as the college’s first Hispanic Student Trustee and now studies at the
University of California at Davis, the nation’s premier wine school.
“We come from humble origins, but we have a strong and deep commitment
to contribute,” says Amelia.
Robledo Family Winery
In 1968, Reynaldo Robledo, Sr., also made that long trip from Michoacán to Napa
Valley, where he quickly learned to prune and graft vines in Napa, then in
Sonoma. Soon he was managing other workers, but a highlight of his early days
was traveling to France to teach the art of grafting to French vineyard workers.
Eventually he supervised 700 acres of vineyards with 120 employees for
companies like Windsor Winery and Sonoma-Cutrer.
Moving to Napa, he managed vineyards for St. Supéry until 1996, starting his
own vineyard management business on the side. His Robledo Vineyard
Management now manages 400 acres in Napa and Sonoma, and four of his seven
sons work in that business, as do his two daughters. Daughter Vanessa serves as
president of the operation. The other children help at his vineyards.
In 1984, Robledo bought 13 acres in Carneros where his home now stands,
planting it to Pinot Noir when many said the area was unsuitable. He now owns
three vineyards in Carneros totaling 30 acres.
The wines, however, are quite new. Robledo Family Vineyard recently
released its first wines, a 1998 Chardonnay and 1999 Merlot, with a Pinot Noir to
come. The wines are made by Reynaldo’s son-in-law Rolando Herrera, who is
married to his oldest child Lorena. Producing less than 2000 cases, they intend to
keep production small to ensure high quality. They’ve renovated a barn at one of
their properties in Carneros into a winery to welcome visitors.
“It’s great to have lived my dreams,” says Robledo, “My own family, my own
ranch and my own wine.”
Salvador Renteria arrived at Sterling Vineyards in 1962 from Jalisco, working up
to become a vineyard supervisor, where he gained a reputation as an innovator.
In 1987, he started Renteria Vineyard Management, one of the first Mexican-
owned companies in the area.
In 1993, his son Oscar assumed management of what is now the third largest
vineyard management firm in Northern California. It manages 1500 acres for
wine companies such as Etude, Mondavi, Caymus, Rombauer and Duckhorn.
The family also has 80 acres of vineyards in St. Helena, Stag’s Leap, Carneros,
Mount Veeder, the Russian River and the Wooden Valley region and started
producing wines under the Renteria Wines label in 1997.
Winemaker Karen Culler makes about 2000 cases yearly of Cabernet, Merlot,
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Renteria vineyards.
The company’s next move is a winery in Stags Leap District, where it expects
to ramp up to 2000 cases annually.
Manuel Frias took a bit different route to starting a winery. The Jalisco native
(like Amelia and Martha Ceja) was raised in San Francisco’s scruffy Mission
District, and wanted a better environment for his own children.
In 1977, he traded three homes he owned there for 100 acres north and west
of St. Helena. For 24 years, he tended the grapes on weekends while working as
an administrator at San Francisco City College, only retiring last year.
In 1985, Frias planted a few acres of vines ― he now has 13 ― and started
making wine commercially in 1991, first with Bob Levy, now winemaker at
Harlan Estates, then with Ballentine winemaker Jim Moore. He now makes about
2500 cases of Cabernet selling for $60, and hopes one of his four children may
join him in his wine adventure.
Gustavo Bramila of GustavoThrace Winery
Alone among the five Mexican natives who now have their own wine labels,
Gustavo Bramila started his business as a winemaker rather than vineyard
owner. Also from Jalisco, he immigrated in 1955 with his father, who worked in
vineyards in Oakville. As a boy, Gustavo met wine figures like André
Tchellitscheff and Tom Selfridge, and experimented with making wine.
After high school, he took courses at Napa Valley College, then turned down
a baseball scholarship to attend UC Davis and study fermentation science; his lab
partner was Mike Martini. He joined Mike Grgich at Chateau Montelena in 1976,
then following him when he started his own winery. He spent 22 years at
Grgich-Hills, then became general manager and winemaker at Peju Province two
Meanwhile, he teamed up with wine marketer (and lawyer) Thrace
Bromberger to form GustavoThrace Winery in 1996. Their first wine was a
Zinfandel made from second crop, but they’ve come far since then. They now
have their own winery in downtown Napa on Vallejo Street, where they make
about 2200 cases of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Asteros, a
white blend. The Chardonnay comes from his sister Martha Caja’s extended
family, but the $60 Chiles Valley Cabernet has generated the greatest buzz.
The partners hope to develop their own vineyards, reducing their
dependence on other growers. “I want to control every aspect of the wine,” says
― end ―