Leo Rodriguez throws the tractor into reverse and maneuvers it into the narrow gap between vine rows without setting down his 24-ounce iced coffee. Tent canvas quivers in the breeze, echoing the off-white undulations of the adjoining field of wild radish. Beneath a makeshift shade, chef Maylin Chavez (a native of Baja California) sorts oysters.
“Hola. Como va?”
“Bien, gracias. Y tu?”
Alumbra Cellars has a Sunday hush. The July heat is rising, promising a torpid afternoon. Green stretches in every direction, lulling the eye: grape vines, grasses, cover crops. Cicadas hum and birds chatter.
Wine-maker Elena Rodriguez invited us to Alumbra’s vino y mariscos (wine and seafood) event. Called out of state to tend a sick relative, she passed host duties on to brother Leo.
He clasps our hands, repeats the greeting in English. “We want Alumbra to be a place our community can come and hear Spanish,” he explains. “We want people who don’t necessarily speak English to be able to taste and enjoy wine.”
The Willamette Valley’s world-class wine industry would not exist without the largely invisible labor of Hispanic agricultural workers. Elena and Leo’s father, Baudelio Rodriguez, a native of Durango in central Mexico, is one of countless immigrants who dedicated his life to farming in the valley. Their mother, Helen, the US-born daughter of immigrants, dedicated herself to caring for its people as a nurse.
Elena followed her mother into nursing. Leo (short for ‘Baudelio Junior’) studied business. In 1996, after more than two decades of working and saving, their parents bought a few acres near Dayton, Oregon, beneath the flight path of the McMinnville Municipal airport.
“My dad raised livestock [in Durango] so he bought cattle. Over the years he did different things, like raise sheep and hogs,” says Leo. “Then in 2004 a friend, originally from Oaxaca, suggested he start a vineyard.”
The tortilla-flat land wasn’t ideal. Vines love hills for the drainage and aspect (direction they face). Advantageous aspect such as south, in cool climates, or east, in warmer climates, supports optimal ripening temperatures and sun exposure. Slopes also offer wind protection.
But Senor Rodriguez had not been a farmer all his life to shirk a challenge. With the financial support of Helen, who dug into her retirement fund to buy vines, they embarked on viticulture. Leo, who was in college at the time, would help out in the vineyards during the summer.
Hispanics working the land was a trope. “When we went to sell the grapes, people would take one look at us and say no hay trabajo (there’s no work). We’d be like, no, we’re here to sell you something.”
Leo chuckles at the recollection but the expectation that brown-skinned men belong toiling under the sun, not indoors making business deals, carries a sting.
Nevertheless, the Rodriguez vineyards bloomed into a successful enterprise, supplying Pinot Noir to local wineries.
The next tipping point was 2014, when Baudelio decided to hang up his boots. “His health wasn’t the best, he’d been farming his entire life, so it was sell the property or see if one of his children wanted to take over,” Elena recounts in a phone conversation. “I saw how hard my parents had worked, so I moved back [from Fort Worth, Texas] and started learning how to manage a vineyard.”
Of 30 acres, 11 are planted, with plans for more. Mario Rodriguez, Leo and Elena’s uncle and co-owner of Alumbra, supervises the farm. When Leo excuses himself to greet guests, we strike up conversation.
Despite the ‘kitchen’ being two outdoor tables, Chef Maylin (whose runs fine dining pop-ups all over Oregon) plates up ostiones (oysters) flavored with cilantro and lime while Leo pours sparkling rose. The visitors, who include the owner of LatAm-influenced McMinnville restaurant Pura Vida Cocina, chat and laugh.
Mario tells us about the evolution of Alumbra’s vineyard management. It is dry farmed, and moving towards biodynamic practices. “The first few years, I mowed between the rows. Then I stopped and you know what, it doesn’t affect the fruit. It’s fine.”
Similarly, he and Raymundo, the vineyard steward, shifted from spraying to holistic pest control. “See those?” Mario points to a patch of lacy white weeds. “The flowers attract ladybugs, which eat mites that attack the vine leaves.”
Another organic change, Mario notes, is a trend towards local labor. The stereotype of migrant workers is, by and large, just that. “People who work here live here,” he says. “They’re part of the community.”
Celebrating and spotlighting this is part of Alumbra Cellars’ mission. The Hispanic/Latinx community, which has poured so much effort and energy into wine country, deserves to savor it on equal terms.
Leo pops over with a bottle of Mitote, a red blend that is making its debut today. It is silken and balanced, with ripe Tempranillo fruit punching up the acidity of Pinot Noir. It’s an unfamiliar coupage but the subtle weave of fullness and freshness is irresistible. And remarkably sophisticated for a young winemaker.
Alumbra Cellars’ first commercial vintage was 2019; it produces around 700 cases. But there is more to come.
Leo and his family are building a home on the property. Alongside grapes, they raise grass-fed Red Angus cattle, continuing the family tradition of rearing livestock. They have plans to build a loop of road to connect our current location, which is a stone’s throw from from the elder Rodriguez’s home, with a winery and tasting room.
“My dad said to build it on the other side so they don’t get traffic by the house,” Leo chuckles. In addition to the building projects, he manages compliance, licensing, taxes and the rest of the endless admin that comes with running a vineyard and winery.
Along with wine-making, Elena is the facilitator for AHIVOY, an education program for vineyard stewards (read about it here). “I want to encourage and mentor people,” she says. “Owning a vineyard, I see a lot of people pass through, I ask what they do, if this is their main job, I want to pique their interest in education.”
The sky is deepening in hue as the sun approaches its zenith. “Mario, do you have the rose?”
“It’s at the house, in the freezer.”
“I need it.”
Mario excuses himself, vaults into a John Deere buggy and rattles off toward his brother and sister-in-law’s modest white house. Leo gestures to Maylin, hold off a minute.
Forty-odd years ago, all Willamette Valley wineries were upstart and informal. It is a privilege to see the rise of a new generation, buoyed by the same dedication to craft, loyalty to family and drive to create. In a few years, there will be an air-conditioned tasting room instead of a breezy tent, the wine will live in fridges instead of Yeti coolers. I can’t wait to see that, but it is a greater privilege to witness the beginning.
Alumbra Cellars is one of a coterie of Hispanic owned wineries, including Cramoisi Vineyard and Guillen Family, reshaping Willamette Valley viticulture and perceptions about who wine is for, and how to enjoy it.
Soon, hopefully, it will be commonplace to hear Spanish in tasting rooms as well as in vineyards, and to pair wine with ceviche instead of charcuterie.
“We want our wine to be accessible to our community,” says Leo. “To everyone.”
- Maylin Chavez, chef/owner Olympia Oyster Bar