by Laura Sanchez
Photography by Fran Collin
You’ll never see their names on a bottle of wine or find them pouring samples at a swanky event. But theirs are the hands that tend the vines, pick the fruit, drive the forklifts and guide the juice down its alchemistic path. They are the unsung heroes of harvest and the heart and soul of Santa Barbara County’s wine industry.
Wine is of enormous importance to our community. The wine industry’s local economic impact in 2010 is estimated at nearly a billion dollars. And according to the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, viticulture and wine production directly employ 5,000 local residents in addition to many more as seasonal help and contract laborers. By sharing the stories of three individuals, representative of the thousands who emerge each evening from the vineyards and cellars, our hope is to recognize the efforts of many—and offer them our heartfelt gratitude.
At 3am on a misty autumn night the deep diesel rumble of a tractor echoes in the darkness at Stolpman Vineyards and a multitude of tiny blue lights emerges over the hill. The twinkling cluster approaches, accompanied by the clipping sounds of harvest, and slowly the silhouettes of vineyard workers picking grape clusters by headlamp come into focus.
Among these harvesters walks Ruben Solorzano, the barrel-chested vineyard manager for Coastal Vineyard Care and Stolpman Vineyards. His smile is warm and his translucent green eyes are alive with ideas—even at this early hour.
If you ask people in the wine industry who their harvest hero is, 90% will name Ruben Solorzano. From late August to mid-October, the 41-year-old literally works around the clock. As the agricultural manager for several vineyards, he coordinates harvest crews, picking times and fruit transport for all of the different vineyards he oversees. And here is where the heroics happen: Many of the vineyards he cares for harvest during the daytime hours, while others, like Stolpman, pick during the cool of the nighttime. For Ruben, that means very little sleep for the eight weeks of harvest.
As the blackness gives way to crepuscular blue, we load into his pickup to get workers started picking a neighboring vineyard. During the drive Ruben tells me that he came to Santa Barbara County from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1989 not knowing a word of English. He was familiar with agricultural work—in Mexico he had raised tomatoes, corn, peppers, cows, chickens and turkeys—so he began working with his brother Marcos as a vineyard worker. During these years he put in long hours trying to learn all that he could about grapevines and their care. He asked questions, observed and eventually began suggesting ways to improve farming practices. In 1994, Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care recognized his passion and offered him a vineyard position. Twelve years later, he was offered partial ownership in the company—a role that he considers a great honor and responsibility.
Today he and his wife, Lupe, and their children Marissa and Omar live in a beautiful home on Stolpman Vineyard.
He’s humble about his accomplishments. Ruben firmly believes that his experience as part of the vineyard crew offered him an intimate connection with the vines as well as sensitivity to the crew’s perspective. “I’ve been in their shoes,” he says. As a result, he has their respect. When crewmembers ask him for advice on how to achieve success, he shares his personal credo: “Work hard and believe in what you do.”
Ruben is an innovator. “If I never make a mistake, I’m not learning anything,” he wisely states, pointing out a section of the vineyard in which vines grow upright on tipi-shaped trellises rather than the standard long rows. Ruben learns and develops practices through experimentation—observing vines closely and adapting farming practices to address specific needs. Ruben began several vineyard trials after the Stolpmans sent him to Europe’s wine regions with winemaker Sashi Moorman. The most successful was the upright, Côte Rôtie-style trellising method he tried with Syrah clone 470. The head training and angled shoots offered even sun exposure and efficiency from a labor perspective. Now an entire acre (5,808 vines) is designated “Ruben’s Block” and the fruit is of such extraordinary quality that Stolpman bottles a special Ruben’s Block Syrah. “The wine is delicious,” Ruben says with a modest smile.
If you listen and follow the low murmur of voices and rustle of leaves, you can always find Blanca Rueda somewhere amid the vines at Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards. The 34-year-old mayordoma, or crew manager, oversees a 12-person vineyard team and affectionately tends the property’s vines. As we walk row-by-row, she continues thinning fruit—plucking off green clusters of Cabernet grapes—and shares her story in lyrical Spanish.
At 18, soon after she emigrated to Paso Robles from Oaxaca, Mexico, Blanca began working with her brothers in the strawberry fields of the Santa Maria Valley. After four years of back pain and frequent chemical irritations, she decided to take a vineyard position in Santa Maria. She hired on at Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, where today she appreciates the sense of community as well as the benefits of environmentally sensitive farming. “I enjoy being a part of the entire process—working with the vines, tending fruit and harvesting. And someday,” she explains, “perhaps I’ll work in the winery too.”
Blanca explains that for her, tending plants comes as naturally as caring for her children. And the way she touches the leaves of a Petit Verdot vine reveals the maternal love and pride she feels for every tendril. In fact, Blanca is representative of many women in the wine industry who gracefully balance careers caring for both vines and family. She and her husband, Nahu Herrera, have two children, Josue, 13 and Jercahin, 9. On the weekends she loves to make pancakes for her children, take them shopping and spend time as a family at church.
Blanca has never tasted wine. But her kind brown eyes—the only part of her not covered by layers of protective clothing—light up when she samples a few Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for ripeness. Though she doesn’t consume alcohol, she likes to use excess fruit—especially Sauvignon Blanc grapes—in fruit salads. Her children’s favorites are the homemade sweet corn tamales and arroz hervido she makes with the raisins.
When I ask Blanca what one thing she couldn’t live without during the grueling days of harvest, I expect the obvious: a hot bath or a hearty breakfast. Instead, her response is the tractoristas or tractor operators. Since the operators move between groups, she explains that she can leave word with a tractorista to prompt crewmembers to pick a different section of the vineyard—perhaps one that has ripened earlier. “They facilitate communication and make it easier to manage the crew efficiently,” she says with a smile. In helping her find balance in supporting the people she works with and ensuring the highest fruit quality, they have created a sense of community. And for that, Blanca Rueda is incredibly grateful.
Junio Vargas Ojeda
“Hard work is just part of the game,” Junio Vargas explains with a wink as he tops off barrels of Chardonnay. The mere mention of harvest time makes the 31-year-old cellar master’s muscles twitch. Junio oversees wine production at Terravant Wine Co., where he coordinates the transformative process—from crush to bottle—for more than 20 different wineries. He is also assistant winemaker at Summerland Winery. Besides cleaning a lot of sticky equipment, according to him his job requires strategy and tremendous teamwork—two things that come naturally to the avid soccer player.
Junio was raised in Nipomo and attended Santa Maria High School. His father, Fidencio Vargas, has worked for Tolosa Vineyards in the Edna Valley for over 25 years. In 1999 Junio decided to try vineyard work to see if he was cut out for the wine industry and took a job at Edna Valley Vineyards. He earned his degree and viticulture and enology certificate at Alan Hancock College and began his career as a cellar worker at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria. His wife, Luciana, is an enologist at Central Coast Wine Services. In 2004 he connected with Etienne Terlinden, winemaker at Summerland Winery and also began working part time with him. “Etienne’s passion is catching,” he says. “That’s what made me fall in love with wine.”
In 2009, Junio moved to Terravant Wine Co. in Buellton, where he is equipment operation specialist/team leader and is in charge of running all the high-tech Memstar units and filters. That same year Etienne Terlinden was called to serve with the US Navy. Junio stepped in to help. “Junio was able to run the winery in my absence and make a great 2009 vintage,” Terlinden says. “I’m thankful for his support.” And it’s precisely this sense of teamwork that Junio thrives on during harvest. He compares coordinating the wine’s elevage (the art of maturing the wine) to passing the ball up the field. “Everybody gets very united,” he explains. “It’s an intense time of year. We have to communicate and work really hard together toward a common goal.”
During harvest he strategizes over a 6am cup of black coffee, looking over work orders to see what fruit is coming in and setting up the necessary equipment—crusher, pumps, augurs, hoses—in preparation. Once the fruit is sorted and de-stemmed, he makes sure it’s settled in open-top fermenters and kept cool. He begins writing work orders for yeast inoculations, punch downs and racking. It’s an action-packed eight weeks.
But harvest is a challenge that Junio looks forward to each year almost as much as his weekend YMCA league competitions. He first began playing soccer as an offensive player but often found himself sitting on the sidelines because of the popularity of that position. “Everyone wants to score a goal,” he says. So he told his coach, “Put me in anywhere! I just want to play!” And it is this same ebullient positive energy and cooperative spirit that Junio brings to wine production. For, he is that MVP athlete that draws little attention to himself but always raises the quality of play and makes his fellow players look good—and in doing so, Junio Vargas ensures that everybody wins.
Laura Sanchez is a Santa Barbara–based wine writer whose work appears in an array of print and online publications.