This past February marked 50 years from the day that Reynaldo Robledo immigrated to California from Michoacan, Mexico, the place he left when he was only 16 years old. Since then, he has dedicated his life towards working in vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. He now owns Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma. This is his story.
— Tell us about yourself? Where are your origins from?
I was born in 1951 in Atacheo, Michoacán a little town aside from the city of Zamora where I lived until I came to the U.S. at the age of 16.
— What made you want to come to the U.S. at such a young age?
I come from a very big family. We are a total of 13 and at the time I saw how difficult it was for my father to support the entire family on his own so I told him to take me with him to the U.S. to be of some help.
— Was this also your father’s first time in the U.S.?
No. He first came to the U.S. in 1950 as a labor worker for the Bracero program and stayed until 1964 when the program ended and that’s when he legalized his papers.
— Did you ask him for permission to come or did you just come with him?
After asking him to go with him, we came together and I crossed the border on February 25 1968.
— At 16 years old, how did you start making your first earnings?
At that time, I arrived in the city of Calistoga in Napa County. I earned $1.10 an hour and made $11 a day. While it was not much, I also worked three to four hours of overtime each day and made $1.50 an hour which I gave to my father to help him support the family.
— Was that an agreement between you and your father?
No, that was a decision I made on my own.
— How would you describe your first years in the U.S.? Did you visit Mexico often?
While I did visit Mexico quite often, I would always make sure to not last over a month because I was aware of the work responsibilities that I had back in the U.S.
— What did you dedicate your time during those years?
I began managing workers ever since I arrived to the United States; at first I was in charge of 5 workers, then it went up to 10 and that’s how my responsibilities began to grow. Later on, I ended up being in charge of 18 of my family members plus another 18 who helped us with grafting.
— What kind of grafts are you referring to? Grape grafting?
In the seventies, there was a lot of work in the vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties.
— Do you feel like you had a lot of responsibilities at such a young age?
I feel that my responsibilities began to increase after I turned 17. By the time I was 19, I was the manager of a company called Sonoma-Cutrer and that’s why I decided to get married at such a young age because I felt that if I was alone I would not fulfill my responsibilities.
—Maybe you would be out partying?
— How old were you when you got married?
I got married when I was 19 years old.
— How did that work for you?
I had nine children with my first wife and five with my second wife.
— Did you meet her here or in Mexico?
I met both of them in Mexico.
— That means you had 14 children, which means you beat your father!
I did, I beat him by one.
— When did the transition between being an employer and starting your own business begin?
My goal was to work hard so that my children would not have to work for anyone. In a marriage where there are two people, there is a future. When my children were young, my wife took care of the house and everything else, which gave me the courage to continue doing my projects. I believe that the willpower that existed from the beginning was what kept me motivated.
— In regards to your family, what value do they have in your life?
As a parent, you have to teach your children right from wrong and I am very happy because all of my children are very hardworking which fills me with a lot of pride. In the old days, I used to hear that it was typical for an 18 year old to move-out of their parents’ house, but in my case it’s different. My perspective is that my children are going to be my children until I die which is why I make every decision regarding my family with them in mind. They each have the right to choose whether they want to work with me or not and if they do it only means we have to grow together as a unit.
— How did Robledo Family Winery start?
I got my first piece of land in 1984, it was 13 acres. I started making wine in 1992 with 100 boxes. I wanted to attract Mexicans to try my wines because during my first years of production not much of it was sold which led me to give it away for free. And I drank them too, sometimes they got me sick!
— Did you learn from that experience?
I did. I learned many things that both God and the community taught me. I have to admit that I’ve had a lot of support from the community.
— When did the winery begin to take its business form?
I started selling my wines in 1995 with about one thousand boxes. Sales began to escalate after 1997, but unfortunately the money flow was not enough to pay employees which meant I had to produce more wine. I increased production to five thousand boxes which seems like an adequate amount, but still there were no profits. In 2003, I opened the Tasting Room in Sonoma which allowed us to boost the wine production a little more. By 2005 I already had about 20,000 boxes and now I produce 30,000.
— How much has your business grown since then?
In the 90s, while my oldest son managed a company called Robledo Vineyard Management, where we did work for other people, I was buying land to increase my business. Today we have about 450 acres in Sonoma, Napa and Lake County.
– What assortment of products do you currently have?
We currently have 30 labels. While I had the opportunity to dedicate a wine bottle to each one of my older children, I have not yet been able to do so for my younger ones. We produce a variety of wines including sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, pinot blanc, pinot noir, moscato and chardonnay. I also have merlot, cabernet, tempranillo, zinfandel. In portos I have four varieties: cao ink, wood ink, national touriga and crossed. I also have a champagne, which is highly popular among our customers.
— When do you like to enjoy wine? Which one is your favorite?
I personally like to enjoy my wine any time after 4 p.m. My favorite wine is the one that’s open!
— Why don’t you drink before 4?
I can’t before.
Because that’s when I do business.
— Some studies say that it is healthy to have a glass of wine or two a day, what are your thoughts?
I think everything is healthy with measure. I drink both white and red wine on a daily basis because I believe that you have to educate your palate in order to detect any change in your wine. Many times we destroy our palate by drinking stronger wines. Before bottling the grapes, I have to taste the wine in order to determine if a barrel was done correctly which can ultimately help prevent mixing the wine and will avoid destroying the entire wine source.
— It was common to hear that because wine is of such high quality it could not be paired with Mexican food, now the perspective has changed. What are your thoughts on this subject?
There will always be a pretext. Before it was in fact said that wine could not go with Mexican food and now everyone thinks differently. Mexican food is one of the most appetizing cuisines in the world and it’s well recognized. The wines that we make here can be perfectly paired with Mexican food that we also serve here.
— You are a role model for the immigrant community, what keeps you motivated?
I always make sure to remember where I came from. I grew up not being financially stable due to my family’s economic situation and when I came to the U.S. I had to deal with a lot of discrimination. But what has kept me motivated is the aspect of keeping the traditions of the Bracero program alive by hiring Mexicans who are willing to work.
— It’s been 50 years since you started working in the agriculture industry, how does that make you feel?
I feel very happy. While time has passed, that does not mean that I am ready to die, in fact I want to be able to continue to share my wines with everyone for years to come.
— By the way, how many members are there in your family currently?
I have 14 children and I want 100 grandchildren. I only have 30 right now which means my children have a lot of work to do…
Translated by La Prensa Sonoma Intern Milagros Gomez.
Noticias y eventos desde la región vinícola del norte de California para la comunidad latina.
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