Washington Hispanics blaze trail as winemakers

Eric DegermanOctober 7, 2012 

Hispanics long have been the backbone of the Washington wine industry, but Victor Cruz blazed a trail when he opened award-winning Caon de Sol Winery in 1999 in Badger Canyon.

"At that time, mine was the only Hispanic-owned winery in the Northwest, which brought us a lot of attention," Cruz said. "A ton of people started coming to me, and I got to know them, and we've had a lot of success within the Hispanic community."

Caon de Sol has served as the longtime venue for the Fiesta Foods Annual Fundraiser, but Cruz's outreach extends beyond the Tri-Cities and the Yakima Valley.

Caon de Sol earned a Minority Business of the Year award from the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Cruz now sits on the UW Business and Economic Development Center advisory board and helps sponsor Bothell-based Crear Poder, a new statewide group of Hispanic business leaders. Much of that acclaim in Western Washington came after he opened a tasting room three years ago in Woodinville.

"It was a gamble," Cruz said, "but once the Hispanic community hears about you and gets to know you, they commit to you -- and they are very, very loyal."

Winemaking is Cruz's second career, but both afforded him a different life than that of his father, a farm laborer in Wapato. Hard work and the value of an education were drilled into Victor by his parents, who inspired him to graduate from Western Washington University with an engineering degree.

"A lot of my Hispanic customers are their family's first-generation graduates of college, and their parents worked hard for them," Cruz said. "They are very well-educated, they know the wines they like, and they seem to love my big, full-bodied wines. It doesn't matter if it's a Caucasian or Hispanic -- what I make is very, very well received."

Cruz, a former Hanford project manager, immediately became known as one of the region's premier producers of Syrah. The Caon de Sol 2000 and 2002 vintages each took best in show at the Northwest Wine Summit, the largest and most prestigious wine competition in the Pacific Northwest. It prompted one wine critic to dub Cruz as "The Latino Leonetti," a tribute to the world-famous Walla Walla winemaker. It's a moniker Cruz stills seems bashful about.

Early on, renowned winemaker Charlie Hoppes helped his Wapato High School chum as they made Fidelitas and Caon de Sol wines side-by-side at Cruz's converted barn in Badger Canyon. During the years, Cruz developed his own consulting winemaking business, but he now works with just two -- Anelare in the Tri-Cities and Telaya near Boise.

"It's been a fantastic ride, something that I never envisioned, and it keeps happening," Cruz said. "It's hard to imagine, but this year will be our 14th crush."

Victor Palencia

In many ways, it makes sense that Victor Palencia's first memory of life is riding on the shoulders of his father at the age of 2 as their family crossed from San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, into Arizona.

"And I still remember the bus ride that changed our lives forever," he said.

The next stop was Prosser for Palencia, who has been fast-tracked and hand-picked by leaders in the wine industry.

However, Palencia, 27, credits his family for the inspiration, work ethic and emotional support that helped him land the job as head winemaker for one of the state's largest wineries by the age of 23.

"I have eight brothers and sisters, and our family has great stories of going out in the vineyard to work and putting us in the picking bin, using it like a little playpen. So at an early age, you definitely learn to appreciate the vineyard canopy because of the shading," Palencia said with a chuckle.

His talents are obvious as Jones of Washington in Quincy earned Wine Press Northwest's 2012 Washington Winery of the Year. His path to the world of wine, however, began at Willow Crest Winery in Prosser with owner Dave Minick.

"I will always give him credit for giving a 16-year-old kid access to his winemaker," said Palencia, whose older brother worked in Minick's vineyard.

Palencia, a graduate of Prosser High School, began to taste success in 2005 before he could legally drink it as a graduate of Walla Walla Community College's winemaking program. A Tri-City Herald feature on him led to a profile in The New York Times.

"There was a lot of really fun exposure, but I didn't know if I was going to get into trouble, not being 21," he said.

Palencia received a lot of support from Stan Clarke, who helped run the winemaking program at Walla Walla Community College before he died in 2007.

Not everyone in the Hispanic community was so supportive, telling Palencia "winemaking is a white boy's job."

"I never let it get to me," he said. "There were and are too many good people in this industry who believed in me and my dreams."

Martinez and Martinez

Sergio Martinez was 26 years old when he saw the potential of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Horse Heaven Hills, so in 1981, he planted 4 acres of his own.

Now, his home near Alderdale is surrounded by vines that produce some of the world's most coveted red wines, and he's the grape production manager for nearby Alder Ridge Vineyard, working for the Baty family and Precept Wine -- the state's largest privately owned wine company.

And there's also Martinez & Martinez in Prosser, founded in 2005. It's the second Hispanic-owned winery in the state, but it's the first to use estate grapes.

"I'd had in my mind all these years this almost impossible dream," said Sergio, born in Villa Jimenez, Mexico, and now a permanent resident. "It makes me feel like a celebrity knowing that my kids are involved in it and involved with customers all over the United States, and sometimes from all over the world."

His son, Andrew, makes the wines. The portfolio includes the 2009 Dominio de Martinez Cabernet Sauvignon, which earned Wine Press Northwest magazine's top rating this spring.

"The only reason I started and want to make wine is because it's my dad's fruit and his hard work in the vineyard," Andrew said. "I've seen it my whole life, so putting that into the bottle, sealing it up, presenting it to people and having them enjoy the same thing is pretty special."

Amy Alvarez-Wampfler

Amy Alvarez-Wampfler nearly was born in a Mount Vernon berry field as the daughter of fruit pickers, and the graduate of Yakima's Eisenhower High School always hoped to stay close to agriculture.

She had no dream it would be as a winemaker when she began pouring for tourists at Columbia Crest in Paterson.

"It was back in 2003 when I was living in Hermiston and someone said Crest was hiring," Alvarez-Wampfler said. "I needed a job, and I just had a feeling. I started out in the tasting room and fell in love with wine."

Soon, she enrolled in Walla Walla Community College's viticulture and enology program but continued to work at Columbia Crest. Promotions elevated her to assistant white winemaker for the Northwest's largest winery, where her duties included overseeing 10,000 barrels of Chardonnay.

Now, Alvarez-Wampfler, 32, makes some of the best Chardonnay in the Northwest at Sinclair Estate Vineyards in Walla Walla. Her husband, Daniel, is the winemaker at nearby Dunham Cellars.

"My mom, she loves it, but she can't believe I'm actually a winemaker," she said. "My dad is very excited and proud of me. He just wishes I would make sweeter wines!"

Alvarez-Wampfler hasn't encountered any issues being a Latina winemaker, she said, whether it be culturally, in a vineyard or in a winery.

"A lot of people say that's a problem, but I've never found it to be too macho," she said. "For the most part, they are hard workers who are pretty quiet and keep to themselves. And I grew up in an environment that was quite modest."

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