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Achieving the American Dream

posted on March 2, 2007

Though some view today's border-crossers as a burden, there was a time when Latino workers were welcomed with open arms. In 1942, with much of America's workforce fighting overseas, the U.S. government instituted a guest worker initiative called the Bracero Program. The comprehensive plan stocked farm fields with hard-working Mexican immigrants. Known to Latinos as "Los Braceros," the program officially ended in 1963. While Latino immigrants continue to be the predominant labor force in America's fields, farm ownership is out of reach for millions of migrant workers. But as Laurel Bower Burgmaier discovered last fall, there are exceptions to the rule -- including one former migrant worker who achieved the American dream through hard work personal sacrifice, and award-winning wine.

Achieving the American Dream

Beginning in the late 1800s, California developed a wine industry that today produces 90 percent of all wine in the nation. And since that time, Latino workers have been the backbone of the state's vineyards, but for many, the idea of actually owning a winery seemed only a dream. That's why Reynaldo Robledo is such an inspiration. In 2003, he became the first Mexican migrant worker to open a wine tasting room in the United States.

Vanessa Robledo, Robledo Family Winery: "We received a proclamation from the mayor, which that type of recognition for my father was just the ultimate. He was very emotional about it. Along with my eight siblings, we stood in front of the winery and opened the doors formally and it was just incredible."

Nick Frey, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission: "I think it's a wonderful story. It's somebody that started at the bottom of any given industry...they have just grown and prospered due to hard work and it's truly a family enterprise."

Reynaldo Robledo arrived in California from western Mexico in 1968 at the age of 16, working six days a week for $1.10 an hour and sending his earnings home to his family. His employers immediately took notice of his work ethic, unique skills and ability to learn quickly. Within months, Robledo, just a teenager, was put in charge of crews of 35 people, including his father and other relatives. While the work was hard, he says it took him only one day to realize he had found his true calling.

Reynaldo Robledo, Sr., Robledo Family Winery: "I think you need to like the work. See, if you like the work, you can do a wonderful job."

While he has taken courses in viticulture, Robledo believes working in the fields is the best way to learn. Over time, he developed a unique technique for grafting new varieties of grapes onto old vines that would produce a healthy harvest of grapes after just one year --typically a process that takes up to five years.

In 1984, he had saved enough to purchase his first 13-acre plot for $126,000. It was where Robledo and his wife Maria would teach their nine children viticulture. At very young ages, they learned their responsibility in the family business with hands-on labor. Looking back, Vanessa Robledo, the youngest daughter, remembers others criticizing her father for having the kids work after school and on weekends. But, she says her siblings never complained, they all knew it was the only way their family would reach its goals.

Vanessa Robledo, Robledo Family Winery: "We learned this is what it takes for us as a family to stay together. We always did work together and help each other out. We learned what it was to sacrifice something to be able to grow for the future."

For the last 40 years, Robledo has traveled a long journey from field worker to winery owner. In 1994, he started Robledo Vineyard Management where he planted, developed and farmed vineyards for private clients. A few years later, he became a U.S. citizen and soon after that, he started producing his own wines under the family name. Today, Robledo Family Winery encompasses approximately 220 acres located in Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties. Starting with one hundred cases of wine, the business now produces more than 12,000 cases.

Vanessa Robledo, Robledo Family Winery: "I'm proud of everything we've accomplished because it hasn't been easy. The respect we've built, even though my dad's always had it in the fields, it's been full circle. We're able to say, "Yeah, we produce quality grapes, but also now fine wines." It's good when you get the third party endorsement. It's so rewarding to see all our hard work is paying off."

The Robledos say 25 percent of their grapes are for their own wines, and the rest is sold to local wineries. The fruit is yielding rave reviews with their chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot all garnering gold medals in wine competitions nationwide.

Nick Frey, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission: "People like a well balanced wine and the Robledo wines have good balance. They have good acidic ties so they have good structure and will pair well with food. They also have good fruit, so that you really do get that burst of fruit as you take it into your mouth, so that combination of structure, balance is what consumers want and I think the Robledo wines will deliver that on expectation."

Reynaldo Robledo, Robledo Family Winery: "I like it when people come and drink my wine."

The entire family is involved in the business --Reynaldo Sr., Maria, his wife, their nine children, a son-in-law who is the winemaker and a dozen grandchildren. The Robledos are a very traditional Mexican family, so when they chose their youngest daughter, Vanessa, to be the winery's president, some were surprised.

Vanessa Robledo, Robledo Family Winery: "I remember growing up and my dad would always talk about his seven sons and I'd be like, hey, I'm special too, dad. He never says it, but I think he appreciates it. I think he's learned a girl can do the work a man can."

Vanessa says her father created the business so the family could stay together, all working towards their own American dream. The Robledo name seems to reflect these sentiments. In Spanish, it means oak tree, strength, longevity and grace.

Reynaldo Robledo, Robledo Family Winery: "It's very important to walk in the vineyard, and to look at the leaf. It's good and this is the thing I like to walk in my vineyards and see the color, the healthy leaves. This is the same as a family. You have a healthy family, you happy. I have a healthy vineyard, so I am very happy."


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