News Column

Alchemist Among the Vines

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Reynaldo Robledo proves he has a Midas touch when it comes to grapes, wine, and the family business.

By Scott Williams
HISPANIC BUSINESS® magazine
April 2002


Producing grapes for California’s wine industry doesn’t happen overnight. Plant a crop today, and years later you might see your first harvest, provided you work hard and understand the science and art of viticulture. Reynaldo Robledo, a Mexican immigrant who rose to become owner of his own vineyard, winery, and vineyard management company, understands that as well as anyone, so it’s only fitting to draw parallels between the fruit of his labor and the great success story that is his life. Like the grapes he knows so well, Mr. Robledo’s success didn’t reach fruition quickly, and like the delicate vines he carefully tends, his triumphs have been the product of hard, steady work. The oldest of 14 children, Mr. Robledo left the town of Zamora in the Mexican state of Michoacan at age 16 to join his father on a work crew headed for Calistoga, California, in the northern edge of the Napa Valley. Today, he owns 31 acres in the California wine country and leases another 80, producing grapes for the family winery and others in the region. He also owns another 70 acres in Lake County, a two-hour drive from his home, producing grapes on nine of those acres. The 1998 production of a Chardonnay and a Los Carneros Merlot under the Robledo Family Winery label fulfilled a longtime dream. “When I started having my own property, I wanted to have my own wines,” says the 50-year-old vintner. “You want to possess everything – you want to produce and make your own.” Mr. Robledo arrived in the United States in 1968, beginning his career pruning Petite Sirah and Carignane grapevines. “The first thing I learned about pruning was that you can control the plant in the pruning, and I liked that idea,” he recalls. “I found that a person who understands pruning can control the amount of fruit the vine will produce.” He also learned to train a vine to its trellis, to graft a bud, and to control mildew and pests that can damage fruit and leaves. His hunger for knowledge and for new opportunities was quickly noticed, and within three months he was promoted to crew manager, overseeing 18 to 30 workers. A few months later, Mr. Robledo went to work for Sonoma Vineyards in Healdsburg, California, pruning, tying canes to trellises, grafting, and training young shoots to their proper positions. He supervised a crew of 30 to 35 men, including his father, and worked 14 to 16 hours a day, every day. “When I started working here I made very little money – $1.10 an hour – and that made me work hard, because I wanted to make more and I wanted to send more money to support my family in Mexico,” he says. Mr. Robledo sent money to family members until 1985, by which time they had earned residency, enabling them to work in the United States. In 1974, Mr. Robledo took a job with Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, tending the winery’s estate vineyards in the Russian River Valley – the renowned Les Pierres vineyard near Sonoma, California. Wine from Les Pierres vineyard is considered among the best in California’s wine country, selling for $60 a bottle or more. Overseeing the winery’s estate vineyards, as well as a 90-acre ranch near Oakville in the Napa Valley, was a prestigious job, especially for a former field hand. Mr. Robledo used every job opportunity to improve his skills, and he added to his knowledge through viticulture courses at the University of California at Davis, something he continues to this day. “I want to learn more every year, and that’s the reason I still go to classes,” he says. “I don’t care if classes repeat the same things – they remind you of your work.” Mr. Robledo used his skills to develop a technique for grafting new varieties of grapevines onto old roots to produce a healthy harvest in a single year. In 1982, he demonstrated his technique in France, prompting ridicule from local viticulturists when he brought out a chainsaw to begin pruning. His technique involved cutting the trunk 18 inches from the ground and grafting two buds of the new variety just below the cut, one on each side. “I think they had never seen anything like that, and I don’t think anybody had explained it to them,” he says. The French experts’ skepticism quickly evaporated when they returned to the vineyard a week later and observed that both budswere growing from the existing trunk. “The first week, they didn’t accept me very much,” says Mr. Robledo. “The second week, they invited me to restaurants – invited me to drink beer and cognac.” Mr. Robledo realized his dream of owning a vineyard when he put down $10,000 to purchase 13 acres in the Los Carneros region in 1984. The land he purchased had been used as an unofficial junkyard, and Mr. Robledo had to haul 17 truckloads to a nearby landfill. He planted his first crop that year and produced 22 tons of grapes two years later. The following year he produced 66 tons on the same land, and another year after that 100 tons. “I sold them for champagne at that time, and I didn’t have any complaints,” he says. “Since I bought the place, I’ve sold the grapes every year. I don’t want to say my grapes are the best, but I think a lot of people like them.” Ralph Zingaro, owner of Bioscape.com, a business that promotes integrated pest management for vineyards, says the Los Carneros region is considered one of the best. “It’s a very prime region, in an area that is in high demand,” he says. “If you can produce grapes in that region, you’re in the big leagues. The climate is such that it yields a superior grade – very hot days and cool nights. If the weather stays too warm at night, you don’t get good quality in the grape. You need the moderating influence of the ocean or some other body of water.” In 1996, Mr. Robledo formed his own vineyard management business, Robledo Vineyard Management LLC, to help others grow grapes on their property. His success in producing grapes attracted the attention of some neighbors who had decided they wanted to start their own vineyard. Ivan and Amelia Belanger own 12 acres near Mr. Robledo’s property, land they used for recreational purposes until they decided to start Belanger Vineyards in 1993. “My husband said, ‘Look at this neighbor of ours. Where does he get all these grapes?’ I said to my husband, ‘This is the guy we should talk to,’ ” says Amelia Belanger. That’s exactly what the Belangers did, dropping in one day to meet Mr. Robledo and his family. “The moment I met him, I felt, ‘This is an honest guy, a good guy.’ Just that day, we decided we’d ask him if he could help us,” she says. Mr. Robledo began cultivating their land for grapes, soon producing 7.8 to 8.8 tons per acre. Others in the area produce as little as 3 tons per acre, Ms. Belanger points out. He treats everything with as much care as if it’s his own, she says. And for the first five and a half years, he didn’t charge the Belangers for his work. “We took the best step in our lifetime when we decided to go see him,” she says. Mr. Robledo has encouraged his nine children to become involved in the family business. The sons work in vineyard management and the daughters work in administration. He says his goal is to make his company a business in which the entire family can participate. Lorena Robledo Herrera, 30, who is married to the family’s winemaker, says she and her siblings worked in the vineyard as children. “We’ve done it all our lives, so we all love it very much,” she says. “It’s in our blood.” Mr. Robledo doesn’t plan on retiring, despite the hard labor that goes into running a winery. He thinks too many immigrants lose sight of why they came here in the first place – to work. “I know a lot of people who come to the United States and then don’t follow the work,” he says. “They do other things that aren’t important. When you come to a different place, you need to grow.” And growing is something Mr. Robledo knows about.

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