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A Winemaker's Journal

An unexpected path to winemaking

By Elias Fernandez

It was a pleasure to meet many readers of this column at the Latino Leaders summit in Dallas last August, where on a panel I talked about my background – a life that began as the child of farmworkers and has ended up giving me the privilege of making wines that are enjoyed around the world. Many at the summit urged me to recount some of this in the column. Perhaps after writing in this space for three years it’s time for a quick-sketch version.

My parents met in the tomato fields of the San Joaquin Valley and later moved to Napa Valley. Some of my earliest memories are of working by their sides in orchards and vineyards.

I know what it’s like to fill picking bins with fruit in the hot sun and to get stung by wasps and have to keep working. I’ve pruned grapevines in early morning light while my fingers ached with cold.

Throughout all this my mother made sure that I remained in school and with her encouragement I enjoyed lots of activities including playing the trumpet, little knowing how important that would be later.

In high school I worked summers at local wineries, learning about cleaning barrels, operating pumps and working on the bottling line. But for me this was just about making extra cash. I had no aspirations to work in the wine industry. In fact Napa Valley was a place I couldn’t wait to leave.

Just prior to high school graduation I was thrilled when my trumpet playing landed me a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Nevada Reno in their Jazz program. Music was everything wine wasn’t – cool.

After my first six months at college, though, any romantic ideas I had about a life in music started wearing off. I came home for a visit and realized I’d grown up in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In 1981 I transferred to UC Davis to major in winemaking. It was tough tackling all the math and chemistry requirements, but it wasn’t all uphill. Our viticulture instructors would take the class out into the teaching vineyard to introduce us to the basics of training the vines on trellises, how to prune the vines, etc. I already knew this stuff. Everyone else would be looking at the teacher saying, “Wait, how do you do this?” And I’d be halfway done pruning the first row.

In 1984 I graduated with honors– the first Hispanic to earn a winemaking degree at Davis – and secured a job with Shafer Vineyards as assistant winemaker.

The early years at Shafer were challenging because we were all learning how best to make wine, cultivate fruit and run a winery. By the early 1990s we were making the kind of wines we’d aspired to – richly aromatic and full of flavor.

In 2002, I was named Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine magazine and at the same time – completely unconnected – I was honored at the White House with a group of leaders in the Hispanic community. As I received honors from the President of the United States, with my mom and my wife looking on, I realized that sometimes dreams do come true.