Meet the new generation of Latino winemakers in CA trying to make a name for themselves

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Friday, October 7, 2022
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Meet the new generation of Latino winemakers in California trying to make a name for themselves in a very competitive field.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The Salinas Valley is known as one of the most productive agricultural regions in California. The warm weather combined with the cool coastal breezes makes it an ideal place to harvest grapes for wine.

It's here where we met 35-year-old Miguel Lepe, whose parents came from Mexico as farm workers.

"I think that's where I get my hard work mentally from," said Lepe, who supervises a crew also invested in making great wines.

"Vamos a seguir con los punch downs." (Let's continue with the punch downs.)

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"Me puedes ayudar con estos cajones? Vamos a trabajar con la uva." (Can you help me with these boxes? Let's work on the grapes.)

Those are some of the instructions, in Spanish, given to his workers, as he pays great attention to detail.

Lepe is the assistant winemaker at Wrath Wines, but he also makes wines for other people and has his own brand, Lepe Cellars, all made in one custom crush facility.

"Most of our clients, they just have a vineyard or they source from other vineyards as well, so some don't even have their vineyard. But we take care of the entire wine-making process for them," he said.

After the grapes are crushed, the magic begins with the fermentation process.

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In this case, because Lepe is making Pinot Noir, the juice is combined with the grape skins.

"During fermentation, the berries and all the solids rise up, because of the CO2 created by the yeast added. So they are doing punch downs to mix it back in," Lepe said.

The process of punching down is done two-to-three times a day for about a week. A larger amount -- in this case, 300 gallons -- requires large steel tanks. The wine is then circulated, a process called "pump over."

From here, the final product will be stored in either French or American Oak barrels.

The difference between French Oak and American Oak?

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"The flavor," Lepe said. "So different flavors, profiles, in terms of profiles or vanilla, so it really does vary."

It was somewhat serendipitous that Lepe became a winemaker. As a business major, he happened to take a wine production class.

"And that one class completely changed my entire life," Lepe said.

Lepe then enrolled at Cal Poly and later interned at Figge Cellars where the owner allowed Lepe to make his own wine. That led to Lepe Cellars in 2015.

But he is only among the 46 or so Mexican American winemakers registered in California.

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U.C. Berkeley professor Alex Saragoza is writing a book about some of these winemakers and why they have been late to the game.

"Acquiring the money to first lease and then maybe buy a plot and then buy another plot, meanwhile you're managing the vineyard of others, making for a steady income in order to be able to actually make your wine," Saragoza said.

Only a few have had the kind of family expertise to know about winemaking. Belen Ceja's grandparents arrived in 1967 and eventually went into the wine business.

"You'll hear my cousins say we have wine in our veins, and it continues to the next generation which is myself," said Ceja, who is 35 years old.

But being part of the Ceja family didn't guarantee her a job at the winery.

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"No, you have to go to college, you need to get an education, you need to do something else. You're not going to go out and work in the fields," she said.

After college, Ceja interned with another winemaker and today runs Heirs of My Dream Winery, a custom crush facility with about half a dozen clients.

Her father Armando and his brothers own Ceja Winery. They now process their wine at the facility.

But being a woman winemaker hasn't been all that easy. At first, a few clients wanted to deal only with her father.

So now Ceja never refers to him as "dad" in front of others at the winery. He is simply Armando, just another client.

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"Like anything, there are hurdles in any job, you just kind of figure it out and either jump over it, or go around it and just make it work," Ceja said.

Professor Saragoza says these young winemakers are trying hard to make a name for themselves in a very competitive field.

"People expect it to be cheap. That's the part that really galls me. Oh I would, but it but it's really expensive and it's freaking good," Saragoza said.

But Ceja is optimistic about the future of women winemakers.

"I actually just spoke to the director at Fresno State and they have about 11 future women winemakers coming out," she said.

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Miguel Lepe is currently mentoring two interns and has this advice for anyone starting out.

"Meet as many people as you can, ask a lot of questions, and you have to let people know what you're interested in," he said.

Seeing winemakers like Lepe and Ceja succeed will hopefully motivate an even younger generation to move forward.

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