Robledo Family Winery

From Braceros to Patron in Just One Lifetime

Robledo Family Winery

Today, just 25 wineries in California are owned by Latin American immigrants. Considering that the wine industry depends for its very existence on thousands of vineyard and winery workers, especially from Mexico but also from Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua among other countries, an observer might expect that more Latinos would have reached positions of influence to the point that they could develop wineries in California. Born in Mexico, Reynaldo Robledo is actually the first. In 1997, he founded Robledo Family Winery, located in the heart of the famous Carneros appellation, which straddles the county line between Napa and Sonoma. Reynaldo believes that a critical mass of Latinos has now achieved sufficient expertise, and he predicts that within five years, 40 percent of California winemakers will be Latin American immigrants. At that point, many will become employers rather than employees.

“Many Latino people who work in wineries are now assistant winemakers. These people are learning. In five more years, a lot of them will be winemakers. And anyone who works in a winery has contacts. They know the owners of other vineyards. If they’re planning to make wine, they can buy five tons of fruit here and five tons there. Pretty soon, they’ll able to do 20 tons and make 1000 cases. One thousand cases represent a lot of money, but they can start with 100 cases like I did. Today, I’m making 20,000 cases.”

The story of Latin American immigrants in the California wine business has been very different from that of earlier waves of immigrant winemakers from Europe, where growing vines and making wine was embedded in the culture. Anyone who made wine learned from his father, and both viticulture and enology were practiced on very basic levels that had existed for hundreds of years. Almost any Italian immigrant at the turn of the 20th Century would have been able to put a vine in the ground and make rudimentary wine from its fruit, whereas in Latin America, tequila and rum are the common alcoholic drinks.

Nor were Latin Americans a stable population here as were earlier immigrants. During World War II, the U.S. government invited Mexican farm workers to replace Americans who were fighting the war abroad. They worked the harvests and then returned home. The program ended in 1964, but a certain number of agricultural workers were granted visas and eventual citizenship as was Reynaldo Robledo. At 16 years old, he followed his grandfather and father from a mountain town in Michoacán, Mexico to the Napa Valley in California. Within months of his arrival, Reynaldo’s employer, legendary grower Frankie Barbera, put him in a supervisory position because he was willing to work 16 hours a day. But more important, Reynaldo displayed extraordinarily keen observational abilities that allowed him to understand the plants that he was tending. And he learned from others as much as they were willing to teach him. Ten years later, Reynaldo had become vineyard manager for Sonoma-Cutrer properties in Sonoma, Napa, and Russian River Valley.

In 1981, Reynaldo moved to Curtis Ranches. At the time, Northern California wineries were engaged in feverish experimentation, trying to match rootstock, grape varieties, and clones of those varieties to vineyard sites. Grafting plants from one variety to another or one clone to another was common practice. Reynaldo had developed formidable grafting abilities to the extent that his employer sent him to an affiliate winery in France to teach the skill. As Reynaldo explains, the French farmed small vineyards with varieties and clones that were typical to their locations. They had very little experience with grafting. In this particular French vineyard, the vines were old, not producing, but the owners didn’t want to eliminate them. Reynaldo showed the incredulous owners how to graft different clones onto their existing rootstock. Furthermore, their vineyards were familiar to him because, at the time, Napa was full of French clones. “I was one of the first to ever graft plants in France. Today they are doing more,” he says.

Reynaldo learned his craft through direct experience over time. He has enormous respect for that type of learning rather than what now takes place in viticulture and enology departments at universities. He cautions against the hasty decisions that he sees other farmers make simply because they don’t research their intentions. “You need to check before you do anything in a vineyard. And it’s easy to do. Asking questions doesn’t cost anything. You need to talk to people who have been in the vineyard for a long time, not people who come from school. Those people have experience in books but not experience in the vineyard. I work there daily and learn. When you make a mistake, you learn from the mistake.”

A common error that farmers make is to ignore the relationships between soils, climate, rootstock, and grape clone, he explains. A farmer may have planted Cabernet but wants the next hot variety, for example Pinot Noir, and grafts the vine over without understanding that the existing rootstock may be incompatible with the varietal or that the climate may be inappropriate. “A lot of people never consult, never ask questions. When you make mistakes with grape vines, you make a mistake for a long time.”

Soils are very important to grape quality too, he adds. The farmer needs to dig a hole and observe the soil strata. “If the best soil is at three feet, you want to use a rootstock that grows only three feet, not past that level, because the plant needs those minerals. If the plant doesn’t grow to that level, the fruit will be different. You don’t always have good weather, but at least you can have a good foundation.” Reynaldo is respected for his superior knowledge in this area just as he is for his grafting skills.

Pruning and cropping the fruit are important, he explains. Pruning controls the amount of fruit that the vine must ripen. The less fruit on the vine, the sweeter and more flavorful it will be since sugars are made in the vine and migrate to the fruit. The variables that produce good fruit seem infinite, but at 60 years old with 44 of those years spent in Northern California vineyards, farming, teaching, and consulting, Reynaldo is a master of both science and practice.

Today, he owns 350 acres in prime Northern California appellations, 45 acres in Napa, 85 acres in Lake County above Napa, and the rest in Sonoma. In 1997, Reynaldo opened his winery in Carneros, and last year he opened another winery on his property in Lake County. He continues to operate his vineyard management company, farming for other people, and to consult. He devotes just 20 percent of his grape production to his own wineries and sells the rest to notable producers like Gloria Ferrer and Kendal-Jackson’s La Crema.

Reynaldo’s expertise and success have taken him to high places, including the White House. He named one of his wines “Los Braceros” and told the story of his family’s experience as migrant workers on the bottle’s back label. The wine came to the attention of Mexico’s President Philippe Calderón, who visited Reynaldo at the winery during one of his trips to California several years ago. Later when President Calderón and his wife visited the White House, Reynaldo was also invited and met with both Presidents Obama and Calderón. This June, Calderón gave the commencement address at Stanford University and once again asked to meet with Reynaldo. He was interested in what Reynaldo thought of Mexico’s potential as a wine growing nation.

Reynaldo feels that the Mexican climate is overly tropical for grapevines. “Grapevines like to sleep,” he says. They require cold weather in the winter so that the vine can go dormant for at least four months. The vine also needs cool nights so that fruit has a prolonged period on the vine to develop deep flavors. In a consistently warm climate, the vine won’t shut down during winter months, and without cool night-time temperatures, the fruit will ripen too quickly.

Because vines are currently planted near the ocean, Reynaldo has detected salt in many Mexican wines. He says that this is a problem in California’s Carneros appellation as well. The remedy in California is to irrigate with water that is totally devoid of salt so that it cleans the soils. Another problem that Reynaldo has noticed is that Mexican winemakers are aging wine for too long in old barrels so that wines are often oxidized. In other words, he’s generally not enthusiastic about the nation’s winegrowing potential.

Reynaldo owns 200 acres in Michoacán, where he was born, and currently leases the land to farmers, who are growing row crops. Eventually he might try to plant vines there. “I can’t do everything,” he says. But his greater ambition is to export wine to Mexico City and its population of 21 million people, to start small and eventually increase his production here and sales there.

Soft-spoken with a gentle demeanor, Reynaldo and his wife Maria have nine children, seven sons and two daughters, all of whom work together in their father’s various enterprises. With hard work, dedicated attention, vision, and intelligent decision-making, Renaldo Robledo continues to expand his ambitions. “I need to do my best,” he says quietly.

California Wines of the Month


Artisan Series

Robledo Family Winery – 2006 Los Braceros, Sonoma Valley

Winemaker Everardo Robledo’s Notes

Aged for 18 months in American oak barrels, the 2006 Los Braceros is a blend of 33.3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33.3% Merlot, and 33.3% Syrah from our Sonoma Valley vineyard. A bright red garnet color, the wine blends typical aromas and flavors of each grape variety and produces rich aromas and flavors that linger on the palate (alcohol 14.5%, pH 3.73, total acidity 5.9 g/l).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Reynaldo Robledo named this Los Braceros blend or “strong arms” in English to honor others like himself, who participated in the migrant worker program that originally brought him to California 44 years ago. The wine is a beauty and honors the experience.

Robledo Family Winery – 2008 Seven Brothers Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County

Winemaker Everardo Robledo’s Notes

Made from Sauvignon Blanc that was harvested from our Lake County vineyard, the 2008 Seven Brothers shows grapefruit and herbal notes that turn to melon and ripe passion fruit on the mid-palate. Aromas of honeysuckle and mango and concentrated flavors of green tea and citrus create a rich and complex wine with a tang of lemongrass (alcohol 13.85%, pH 3.35, total acidity 0.72).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Named for his seven sons, this wine was made from fruit that Reynaldo harvested from his 85-acre vineyard in Lake County, situated close to Clear Lake borders. The vines benefit from the Lake’s cooling effect that drops 100 degree F. daytime temperatures to the low 40s at night, prolonging the time that the fruit remains on the vine. This is a perfect wine for summer sipping and light foods. Serve chilled.

Winemaker Series

Robledo Family Winery – 2007 Pinot Noir, Los Carneros

Winemaker Everardo Robledo’s Notes

Typical of Pinot Noir, the wine is a translucent ruby red with aromas of cherry and rose petals, and anise and white pepper. On the palate, the wine is medium-bodied with delicate plum and blackberry flavors and a hint of smokiness. The finish lingers with bright acidity and a touch of toasted walnuts and oak.

Anna Maria’s Notes

The Carneros appellation straddles the border between Napa and Sonoma, with most of its territory on the Sonoma side. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in its cooler climate as you’ll see when you taste this wine. The flavors and textures of this 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir will complement your most elegant summer meals like grilled salmon and white meats.

Robledo Family Winery – 2005 Syrah, Napa Valley

Winemaker Everardo Robledo’s Notes

Made from fruit harvested at the Rancho Rincon Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap appellation, this wine has a beautiful deep garnet color with aromas of black currants and juicy ripe plum, followed by rich flavors of ripe black fruit and cedar. Aged in French oak barrels for 19 months, the 2005 Syrah is medium bodied with spice and pepper on the finish (alcohol 14.6%, pH 3.91, total acidity 6.4).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Everardo Robledo made just 169 cases of this delicious Syrah. Waves of flavor and texture sweep the palate with ripe berries and smooth tannins. This wine will complement a spicy lentil salad and grilled red meats like skewered lamb, marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and garlic.

Menu of the Month


 

Outdoor Dining

First Course

A platter of sliced red and orange heirloom tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes,
white mozzarella balls, & green Castelvetrano olives,
drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh basil leaves,
served with freshly baked country bread

Main Course

Grilled lamb burgers with herbed aioli, served with halved and toasted whole-wheat English muffins

Salad

Arugula salad with crumbled fresh goat cheese and lemon-olive oil dressing

Dessert

Grilled peach halves with a scoop of vanilla gelato

Recipe of the Month


Grilled lamb burgers on whole wheat English muffins

Adapted from Jennifer Fiedler’s recipe in Wine Spectator, this lamb burger is a wonderful outdoor meal for the summer season. When a recipe in Wine Spectator recommends whole wheat English muffins instead of regular burger buns, we know that whole wheat has gone mainstream and manly. In fact, these tasty and lean muffins complement the lamb burgers surprisingly well and altogether create a delicious and original version of the burger.

Ingredients

1 pound ground lamb

1 clove garlic, minced

5 sprigs of thyme, minced

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

4 whole-wheat English muffins, halved

Directions

In a large bowl, gently mix the ground lamb and salt and pepper to taste. Form four balls from the mixture, and then flatten each to 3/4 of an inch. Grill over medium-high heat or sauté in a pan with a little olive oil. Cook until medium-rare, about 3 minutes a side. In the meantime, toast the English muffin halves, and mix the garlic, thyme, and mayonnaise together. When the patties are done, assemble the burgers with the mayonnaise mixture.