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Horatio Alger Lives In California Vineyards

By Stephen Eliot

We hear it in almost every discussion of fine wine; that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. It is an observation that has become a mind-numbing cliché and is carelessly tossed about in the meandering prose of many who have never set foot in a vineyard but who bow deeply before the altar of holy terroir. It is one of those endlessly invoked homilies that I have wearied of hearing even though I would not for a second dispute its essential truth. Would anyone really argue with the idea that good wine is necessarily dependent on good grapes coming from well-tended vineyards? But, exposure and aspect and soil composition are only a part of the wine-growing equation, and meticulous, experienced, sometimes intuitive farming is at least as important in the calculus of vinous success.

California’s rise to one of the world’s great winemaking cultures is often attributed to a handful of visionaries who dreamt of what might be, but it is impossible to ignore the significant contributions of the Latino farm laborers who have worked in and managed the state’s vineyards for generations. I spent Wednesday afternoon in the company of dozen Mexican-American grower/producers from Napa and Sonoma whose families have climbed the ladder of success from farm workers to owners of their own labels. A few years back, they established the Mexican American Vintners Association (MAVA) as a means to promote their wines, and those that they proudly poured at the association’s Spring Tasting in San Francisco are eminently worth knowing. Each member had his or her own story, but the stories were essentially the same; perseverance, hard work, sacrifice and strong families. These are family-owned businesses whose proprietors have quite literally worked their ways from the ground up, but theirs is a viticultural ground that they know far better than most. For those obsessed with “authentic” wines, I can think of few that are more authentic than these.

Now, I admit that in an era of sometimes staggering wine-country wealth I find special meaning in wines born of patient experience and the wisdom of years rather than multi-million-dollar investment that comes with expectations of instant fame, but it ultimately comes down to what is in the bottle, and I was impressed with the MAVA wines and their makers without exception.

The Pinots Noirs from Ceja, Encanto, Renteria, Robledo and Mi Sueño were particular standouts, and from among a raft of accomplished Cabernet Sauvignons, the refined 2011 Coombsville from Scalon, the 2012 Honrama (an exceptional value at $48.00) and the just-released 2006 from tiny Delgadillo Cellars ranked as favorites. Also of special note was a pair of remarkably well-crafted bottlings by Llamas Family Wines, the 2010 Syrah and the 2010 Cabernet sourced from a small block of the renowned Stagecoach Vineyard.

Most of the member wineries are still fairly small, and their labels are far from familiar, but these are serious producers that deserve to be known. The long and important role that Mexican Americans have played in California’s wine history looks to be slowly and quietly expanding in very good ways. It is about time.

Check out the MAVAs website for more information and a list of wineries very much worth watching, but, more importantly, make the effort to check out their wines.

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