Ximena Orrego, Carla Rodriguez, JP Valot ##Photo by Michael Carey Photography
Sofia Torres-McKay, Sam Parra, Cristina Gonzalez ##Photo by Michael Carey Photography

LatinX Leadership

Hispanic winery owners making waves in Oregon

By L.M. Archer

Historically, career paths for Hispanics in the U.S. wine industry branch one of two ways: vine tender or bottling line worker. However, recent trends toward greater diversity translate into better opportunities for Latinos. Oregon already leads the way in this arena, from increased winery and vineyard ownership, to leadership roles.

“Oregon’s Hispanic wine grape growers, winemakers and business professionals have enriched every aspect of our statewide community for six decades so far,” said Tom Danowski, Oregon Wine Board president. “They have brought their global experiences, innovative techniques, inspiring energy and collaborative instincts to help elevate Oregon to its position among the world’s most esteemed viticultural areas.”

Meet some of Oregon’s most dynamic LatinX power players contributing to their wine communities today:

Honoring Ancestors

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” wrote Shakespeare. For many Oregon LatinX wine industry leaders, honoring ancestors also proves important. “I was inspired by my family back in Argentina and, now, Oregon,” said Juan Pablo “JP” Valot, owner of Valcan Cellars. “Everything started with my nonnis (grandfathers). They showed me the importance of hard work in the vineyard and in the winery industry, and the importance of the grapes and wine quality. My father instilled in me the love for having my own business and passing this legacy to my children.”

Valot’s father hails from French immigrants; his mother from Italian, and many of his family members worked for one of Argentina’s largest wineries in Mendoza. Valot and his wife, Doris Cancel, moved to Oregon in 2003, where producers like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Soter Vineyards and Dobbes Family Estate employed his talents.

In 2012, the late Liz Chambers tapped Valot as winemaker at Silvan Ridge Winery. The concept for Valcan — a mashup of the couple’s last names — followed shortly thereafter. For Valot, family constitutes the cornerstone to his achievements. “My wife and children are my engine; their love and support are my pillars when things get complicated.”

Fellow Hispanic winemaker Sam Parra, proprietor of Parra Wine Company, also attributes his success to heritage. Parra’s grandparents immigrated from Mexico to Napa through the former Bracero Program.

A harvest opportunity brought Parra from St. Helena to Oregon, and he never looked back. Next, a chance encounter at a 2019 Oregon wine industry tasting prodded Parra to establish Parra Wine Company. “The inspiration was meeting regular, everyday people who did not have a lucrative financial background but still took the risk of what they are passionate about,” he explained. “These are the stories that motivated my goals to succeed.”

Thanks to small business connections garnered at Salem Latino Business Alliance, Parra developed a business plan through the Chemeketa Small Business Development Center. Later, Willamette University Law School Center helped Parra trademark his logo. “Oregon has great community plus education resources for small business owners,” Parra stressed.

However, starting a small business brings challenges, such as cash flow. “I overcame this by seeking extra labor work,” said Parra. “In my case, it was hard, labor work of bottling at different wineries.”

Yet ownership also presents leadership opportunities. “This is not a position that I sought,” admitted Valot, who serves on the Oregon Wine Board. “I just wanted to work, and produce beautiful wines. In the process, I noticed the need for LatinX voices in the industry and for more inclusion.

“I realized I was an Oregon wine industry leader the day other Oregon wine industry leaders wanted me to be involved with them,” recalled Parra. “In the summer of 2018, Jesús Guillen (beloved winemaker at White Rose Estate who died of cancer in November 2018) came to visit me at my previous employer in the Dundee Hills to invite me to the first meeting of what would eventually become AHIVOY. This was truly an honor.”

Parra, whose name in Spanish and Portuguese means “grapevine” or “trellis,” encourages others to pursue their dreams. “Find in life what makes you happy, plus share time in your life with others who are like-minded,” he added.

“There are many stories to be made like mine,” concluded Valot. “Many of us need that one person who is willing to bet on you, to let you grow. Liz Chambers was that person for me. Now I want to pass it forward. I want my children to experience a wine industry that is diverse, inclusive, environmentally sustainable and thriving.”

Helping Others

For LatinX women in the wine industry, the road to winery ownership often proves even steeper. “One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced has been access to capital and being taken seriously as a Latina winemaker and small business owner,” said winemaker Cristina Gonzales of Gonzales Wine Company. 

Completely self-financed, Gonzales still struggles to find a lender willing to fund her small-margin, 400-case production. “Secondly,” she added, “being a woman of color, and petite, in an industry dominated by white males, I’ve had to consistently go the extra mile and work that much harder to prove that not only do I know what I’m doing, but that I can DO the physical work, and my wines stand up to those of my white male counterparts.”

“A big challenge to me, as a Mexican and Latina, was for people to take me seriously,” agreed Sofia Torres-McKay, co-owner of Cramoisi Vineyard & Winery in the Dundee Hills. “I felt it was more a very male-oriented business, so no place for a Latina woman in important conversations. I felt insecure sometimes, and frustrated.”

Regardless of the struggles, Gonzales always envisioned owning her own business, even while working a bottling line. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” she explained, “so starting my own business was always in the cards. It really wasn’t until I moved back to the United States after living in Mexico for three years, and my marriage started to fall apart, that I started to really focus on my business. I’ve been at this on my own for 10 years, but it’s really only been in the last year that I’ve begun to see this success manifesting.

“Becoming a single mother has had a major impact on my journey as a person, but also as a Latina winemaker and small business owner,” Gonzales added. “I had no other option but to keep moving forward and forging my path because I still want to be a mother to my son and, now more than ever, I need the flexibility to be able to homeschool. There are many women in the same position: We keep going. We keep working, because we have to — we’ve got small humans depending on us!”

 Meanwhile, Torres-McKay worked 19 years in sales and marketing prior to entering winemaking. In 2011, she moved from British Columbia to Oregon with her husband, Ryan McKay, and their two sons to establish Cramoisi — “crimson” in French — so named for the clover dotting the vineyard in spring. Since 2017, Torres-McKay has focused entirely on the winery, while her husband works full time in the corporate world; the couple engages talented winemaker Drew Voit to produce their wines.

Torres-McKay, desiring to give back to her community, co-founded AHIVOY, Asociación Hispana de la Industria del Vino en Oregon Y Comunidad, a nonprofit empowering Willamette Valley Hispanic vineyard stewards through education.

For her efforts, Wine Business Monthly recognized Torres-McKay as one of “50 Wine Industry Leaders in 2020,” honoring changemakers and influencers. “To become a leader, you need to have empathy with people around you, especially with people who work for you and who are involved in the community,” said Torres-McKay. “I think I realized I was becoming a leader in the Oregon wine industry when people start recognizing my passion about not only my business but helping others.”

Leaving a Legacy

Like many boutique winery owners, most LatinX players balance work, home and more work.

“The biggest challenge I faced while first establishing Atticus Wine was juggling the needs of starting a small business with the demands of having young children (a baby and toddler), holding a corporate job in the tech sector and having just moved 3,000 miles from any family support structure,” admitted Ximena Orrego, co-owner and winemaker at Atticus Wine, and founder of Celebrating Hispanic Roots.

Peruvian-born Orrego and Parisian-bred husband Guy Insley collectively lived in 10 different countries before purchasing their 50-acre property in Yamhill in 2004. While planting a vineyard in 2005, building a home in 2007 and raising a family, Orrego continued balancing corporate and winery demands through 2017. “Some periods were extremely hard,” she acknowledged.

Similarly, Carla Rodríguez, co-owner of Beacon Hill Winery & Vineyard with husband George Hillberry, also “juggles.” She explains, “For me, I balance a day job at a high tech company that is pretty demanding, plus raising two elementary-aged kids, running Beacon Hill and trying to find some time to be a good wife and friend; it can be a lot.”

Ironically, Rodríguez considers her day job a bonus. “For me personally, having a day job as an executive in high tech has been a blessing,” she said. “I learn every day from incredibly smart people who coach, mentor and teach me every day, and I benefit from that not only for my day job, but I also apply those learnings to running our small business. It all comes down to prioritization, focusing on the things that matter and removing the noise — much easier to say than do.”

Both Orrego and Rodríguez cite Oregon’s welcoming attitude to newcomers as crucial to their success. “My experience with the wine industry, and the way we were welcomed into this new world 16 years ago, has been very positive,” Orrego said. “When we first moved to Oregon, and I was taking a sabbatical from the corporate world while learning as much as I could, and setting up our business, I was invited to be part of the marketing committee of the Yamhill-Carlton Winegrowers Association. The AVA had just been created, and it was a great opportunity to learn, provide some of my skills and meet some of the pioneers in our area.”

Simultaneously, Orrego also served as a harvest intern for Raptor Ridge Winery. Owners Annie and Scott Shull invited her to industry events, offering networking opportunities.

Again, leadership for Orrego and Rodríguez was never a destination but a journey. “When you sit in a room and you assume everyone else knows more, and slowly, you find yourself speaking up — and then it hits you that you have something to say, that your point of view is heard and agreed to, and that you can ultimately start to influence others toward similar objectives and goals,” Rodríguez said. “It builds confidence that you’re on the right path and you can bring others along, willingly.”

Both winemakers credit the pandemic with sharpening their business skills, as well as deepening their commitment to community. “As a business owner, COVID has made me work even harder, be more creative and pushed me to be more adaptive than ever,” Orrego said. “It also motivated me to create Celebrating Hispanic Roots, as I wanted to do something that would be uplifting and joyful, but also help my peers and our local Hispanic community.”

“I don’t see myself as a leader, but I like to drive positive change,” she added. “I have ended up in leadership positions or as a board member of various organizations not because I wanted to lead, but because I wanted to contribute, get things done, help my peers and my community.”

Speaking Your Truth

Ultimately, the burgeoning success of Oregon’s Hispanic winery, vineyard and small business owners honors not only their families, peers and community, but the leaders themselves.

“Two summers ago, Bertony Faustin of Abbey Creek Vineyard found me on Instagram, and bought some wine,” Gonzales recalled. “When I went to deliver his wine, we sat down, and he started asking me about my story: how I got started in wine, where I came from, what kept me going. No one in the wine industry had ever asked me that before ... One thing he said to me that I will never forget is, ‘Speak your truth and tell your story. People want to know YOU.’ It’s something that I try to live each day now, and I hope that by sharing my story and why I do this, it inspires others to pursue their passions and dreams; nothing is out of reach.”

Tom Danowski sums it up another way: “Our Hispanic leaders are illuminating the path ahead for their peers and successors through their work with AHIVOY and Celebrating Hispanic Roots. They are adding new chapters to Oregon’s wine history and reinforcing the industry’s reputation for lifting everyone who steps up to be a part of Oregon’s emerging and continuing traditions.”

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