Many years ago, Javier Castañeda Ordaz, left his home in Cojumatlán, Michoacán and traveled some 2,400 miles north to Oregon. Ordaz’s background was in agriculture so he found work in the vineyards. For the past 21 years, he has tended the delicate, prized clusters that become Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
The work demands finesse, attention, sensitivity. During the low, wet days of January and February he “walk[s] the vines, checking the height and diameter of the canes. You choose a plant similar to those around it, then cut the branches, leaving two in the center.” This first pruned vine becomes a model, a living pattern replicated row upon row.
Each stage of the growing season requires precision management; pluck only the leaves on the east side of the grape clusters in certain blocks, to protect the berries from the afternoon sun; in a humid block, strip the foliage to promote airflow and reduce the risk of fungus.
Ordaz’s work is carried out by vineyard stewards and laborers in every vineyard in Oregon. Wine grapes are no respecters of technology. Their care requires human hands and ingenuity. This arduous, year-in-year-out work is largely invisible. As are the people who do it.
This is something AHIVOY would like to change.
Ahí voy means ‘There I go’.
AHIVOY stands for Asociacion Hispana en la Industria Vinicola de Oregon – a non-profit dedicated to education and empowerment for Hispanic and Latinx vineyard stewards like Ordaz. After more than two decades of honing his craft in the vineyards, he was one of the first students to complete its educational program.
“I saw a lot of Hispanics in the vineyards,” said AHIVOY president DeAnna Ornelas, recalling her introduction to the Oregon wine industry, “but otherwise, there was a lack of representation.”
Ornelas, who hales from Wichita, moved to the Willamette Valley several years ago. She got a job in the tasting room at Winderlea Vineyard and Winery, where she is now Communications Lead.
She wasn’t alone in noting a dissonance between the importance of Latinx workers in the vineyards and their absence in other areas of the industry. Sam Parra, now co-chair and head of procurement for AHIVOY called Ornelas, said some folks were getting together to see what could be done.
AHIVOY’s founding team comprised winemaker Jesús Guillén, his wife Yuliana Cisneros-Guillén, vineyard owner Sofia Torres-McKay and Miguel Lopez.
“We wanted to do something for [vineyard] stewards. Education was what we’d all benefited from,” Ornelas said. “I wanted to lift up people in my community.”
Their mission suffered a tragic loss at the outset – Jesús Guillén died of cancer, aged just 38. Yuliana and the rest of the founders determined to carry on.
Each year for 16 weeks – January to April – stewards step out of the vineyards and into the classroom, to learn about viticulture, farming practices, oenology, marketing, tasting, Oregon wine history and job opportunities. Students earn the WSET Level 1 certificate and an Oregon Liquor Control Commission servers license. They meet and talk with people from all walks of the industry.
It is a leap of courage. According to Ordaz, the toughest part of the course was learning to taste wine like a professional. (Imagine a sommelier trying to manage the sun exposure of individual clusters in a vineyard.)
Program facilitator Elena Rodriguez knows about such leaps. She was a nurse, working in Texas, when her father called to say he might have to sell the family vineyard. “He was a farmer and rancher in Mexico, when he immigrated to the States his dream was to continue.” After laboring for more than 20 years, Baudelio Rodriguez and his wife bought a piece of land. A few years later, in 2004, a friend suggested he grow wine grapes. For a decade, Señor Rodriguez grew and sold Pinot Noir. Then, health fading, he called his youngest daughter.
Unwilling to see her parents’ hard work slip away, Rodriguez returned to Oregon, found another nursing job and began to learn vineyard management. When someone suggested she make wine she laughed off the idea. But, at the gentle insistence of mentors including Chris Barnes of Chris James Cellars, she began. In 2019, Rodriguez made Alumbra Cellar’s first commercial vintage,
“I wanted to give back,” she said. “When AHIVOY launched, I wanted to help in any way I could.”
As the facilitator, Rodriguez attends classes with the students, helps them navigate the language barrier (the program is English immersion, most are native Spanish speakers). “I answer any questions they have, I mentor them, they can come work at my winery. It feels inclusive, we’re taking action.”
The instructors include Bryan Berenguer, chair of the Vineyard Management program at Chemekta; Master of Wine Bree Stock; Rex Hill/A to Z Winework’s head director of sales and education Carrie Kalscheuer; and Mexican-American sommelier Miguel Marquez Garcia.
“Miguel teaches wine hospitality – how to open a bottle, how to pour a tasting, what each glass is for,” Rodriguez explained. “This seems far-fetched from what the [students] do, but he connects it with the vineyard. He presents wine as honorable because the workers take so much time to care for the fruit.”
This respect is fundamental to AHIVOY. Students set the goals. Some want to move into new roles in the industry, others want to hone their viticulture skills, others are exploring. There is no pressure to take a particular path following the course. Ordaz’s long-term goal is to become an assistant winemaker but first, he wants to grow grapes more efficiently.
In a similar vein, Ornelas would like to see AHIVOY spread to other wine regions in the United States. But first, to align more closely with local colleges and become accredited. There is a long road to walk from here to there – fundraising, development, organization, planning, publicity, supporting current students and alumni. It will take seasons to ripen but the aim is clear: “To make our community richer, more confident, more educated,” she said. “To create more opportunities and jobs within the industry.”