Sunday, October 13, 2002

Winemaker's roots extend from fields

Hispanics making progress in grape-growing industry

By Michelle Locke
The Associated Press

NAPA, Calif. - Moving briskly up the sunny slopes of Shafer Vineyards' premium hillside lots, winemaker Elias Fernandez samples a handful of purple-black grapes and pronounces judgment: “You guys should try these!”

Mr. Fernandez has 18 years experience making Shafer's highly prized wines, but his vineyard roots go deeper than that.

The child of migrant farm workers, Mr. Fernandez learned grapes the hard way, picking berries in the 100-degree heat of harvest, pruning vines in the hand-numbing chill of winter.

Thirty years later, Mr. Fernandez is helping to change the face of an industry in which Hispanics are still much more likely to work in the fields than the front offices. He's been named Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine, honored by the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and has a Shafer wine named to reflect his work ethic: Relentless.

At 41, Mr. Fernandez can talk to enthusiasts about a wine having “nice vanilla on the mid-palate” and tell vineyard workers, in Spanish, how to pick the grapes so they don't get leaves mixed in.

Workers new to Shafer are sometimes surprised by the award-winning winemaker who looks and talks like them.

“One of the advantages I have over a lot of winemakers is that I can speak the language. I understand them; they understand me - exactly what we want,” he said. “They respect me and I respect them because I know what it's like to work out there.”

Ask Mr. Fernandez the secret of his success and he's quick to point to his parents, who came to the Napa Valley in the 1960s to pick prunes and walnuts.

His father taught him vineyard skills. His mother made sure he stayed in school.

He decided to study winemaking at the University of California at Davis.

After graduation in 1984, Mr. Fernandez heard of an opening at Shafer, a small winery in Napa Valley.

Doug Shafer was winemaker then and Mr. Fernandez was his first hire.

It was something of a milestone. “Most of the Hispanics were out picking grapes,” said Mr. Fernandez.

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