Speakers at Savor: Fabiola Sanchez, Dolores Torres, Mario Bazan, Gustavo Avina, Steve Velasquez

Great Wine is Made in the Vineyard

It has often been said that great wine is made in the vineyard, and it is very true that high-quality grapes are a fundamental ingredient for producing excellent wine. However, the people who tend to the vineyard are often overlooked.

The Robert Mondavi Institute, in partnership with the UC Davis Library, recently hosted a Savor lecture on food and wine to help tell some of these untold stories. The event, “Viticultores: Mexican American Perspectives on Grapes, Community and Resilience” highlighted three prominent Mexican American and Chicanx viticulturalists contributing their knowledge and expertise to California’s wine industry.

The event was moderated by L. Steve Velasquez, Curator for the Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institute. Moderator Velasquez noted the lack of migrant workers’ stories in wine scholarship despite their fundamental roles in the wine industry, and he shared his current research focuses on telling the stories of Mexican and Mexican American vineyard workers in Napa.

Mario Bazán, founder of Mario Bazán Cellars and Mario Bazán Vineyard Management, detailed his move from his family’s cornfield in Mexico to the United States 50 years ago. Having worked at prestigious wineries like Joseph Phelps and Stag’s Leap Cellars, Bazán also shared how he worked his way up as a vineyard laborer and tractor driver at Robert Mondavi Winery to eventually managing iconic vineyards like Opus One and To Kalon. Robert Mondavi Winery was his “school,” and Bazán remembers meeting his first bosses and thinking he wanted to become one someday. With a desire to excel and a love of learning, Bazán now owns his own companies and farms several hundred acres of vineyards throughout Napa Valley. He “never dreamed [he] could have this kind of life,” and his most proud accomplishment is the friends he made along the way.

Dolores Torres, the vineyard supervisor at Harlan Estate, shared via translator how she got her first vineyard job over 28 years ago out of financial necessity but fell in love with the vineyard work, particularly pruning. She has even placed in the top 3 in the annual Napa County Pruning Contest many times! Torres shared her pride that there are now more women involved in viticulture than when she started, and she credits the foreman at her first job for patiently and thoroughly teaching her the ways of the vineyard. Torres strives to empower her employees through her trainings, giving them 7,000 vines to adopt and tend to by themselves. She loves getting to know her employees as individuals and says that it is the people who motivate her.

Gustavo Aviña, who initially helped his father farm tomatoes in Mexico, recounted his experiences in the United States over the last 35 years. Aviña now serves as the Viticulture Director at Pine Ridge Vineyards. He said his most proud accomplishment in his career is working his way up the ranks to become a director after beginning as a vineyard worker. When he started working in vineyards, his mindset was always that “if you learn, you grow.” Aviña never stops learning about the vineyards he manages today, walking each vineyard, block by block, every single week.

As a wine drinker, I felt blessed to hear the stories of the people behind the wine, and this event certainly gave me a deeper appreciation for the knowledge and skill that contribute to each bottle. If you missed the event, it is worth a watch!

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