The Vineyard Stewards’ Stewards

By: Neal D. Hulkower

Two were born in Mexico and one in the US to parents from Oaxaca. Each had carved a path to success in Oregon’s wine industry and wanted to pay it forward by easing the way for those at the beginning of the winemaking process, the vineyard steward.  An association they created not that long ago has been fulfilling their vision.

The Trio of Founders 

  After obtaining a degree in Computer Systems Engineering in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2002, Jesús Guillén came to the United States to learn English.  His father, Jesús senior, who then as now was managing the vineyards at White Rose Estate in Dayton, Oregon, put him to work. Blossoming under the guidance of mentors including White Rose’s owner Greg Sanders, consulting winemaker Mark Vlossak, who also owns St Innocent, and the late Gary Andrus, the younger Guillén quickly moved from the fields to the cellar. In 2008, he became the first Mexican head winemaker in Oregon. He also started his own brand, Guillén Family Wines.

  Mexico City native Sofía Torres McKay was working in the technology field when she met her husband, Ryan, in San Francisco in 2001.  After they married in 2005, they acquired 10-acres in the Dundee Hills American Viticultural Area and planted Cramoisi Vineyard. They bottle estate Pinot Noir, red and rosé, and Chardonnay under the Cramoisi label.

  Native Oregonian Miguel Lopez was born to immigrants from Oaxaca and raised in wine country. His resume includes positions at several wineries and a distributor.  He now dedicates his time to Red Dirt Vineyard Management and Winemaking, a venture he started with his sister, Eva Lopez, in 2018.

From Idea to Reality

  That same year, Guillén, Torres McKay, and Lopez went public with their plans to form an organization named the Asociación Hispana de la Industria del Vino en Oregon y Comunidad or AHIVOY (ahivoyoregon.org), which is Spanish for “there I go”.   Tragically, Guillén died at age 38 on November 5, 2018, after a short battle with an aggressive form of cancer.  His widow, Yuliana Cisneros-Guillén, took his place with the other founders and also maintains the family’s label.  She promotes the importance of those the group is dedicated to supporting: “AHÍVOY vineyard stewards are tending the vineyards that capture our Oregon wine region in every wine that is being produced.”

  The association adopted an ambitious and sharply focused mission statement: “AHIVOY strengthens the Oregon wine community by empowering Vineyard Stewards through education.” It collaborated with Chemeketa Community College’s Wine Studies program at the Eola campus in Salem to develop the Wine Industry Professional Training Program tailored to the constraints of full-time vineyard workers.  AHIVOY held its first public event in November 2019 to raise funds for this project and to announce that it had begun selecting members of the first cohort. The Oregon wine industry and supporters quickly rallied to the nascent organization. A major boost came from The Erath Family Foundation which covered the expenses for all students in the inaugural class.

The First Cohorts

  On January 15, 2020, a small group of vineyard stewards gathered in a Chemeketa classroom for the first time to expand their view of the wine industry.  Over the two 10-week terms, topics covered the entire process from vineyard to glass, incorporating the details of grape growing and vinification as well as tasting and marketing the final product. Along with the rest of the world, the program came to a sudden halt on March 13, one week shy of the end of the first term.

  During the forced hiatus, the now tax-exempt association, with officers, a volunteer board, and committee structure in place, continued to raise funds for a second cohort and to recruit students.  They successfully accumulated enough to fund the second cohort which started on January 13, 2021, one day after the first cohort returned to class.

On a cloudless March 3, 2021, the dream of the three founders commenced dreams coming true for eight men, the first to complete the program. The second cohort comprised of four women and six men celebrated its graduation on April 27.

Reactions, Initial Impact, and Follow On

  Jessica Sandrock, a member of the AHIVOY education committee and coordinator of programs and grants, was instrumental in designing the English-language curriculum for the program. She collected and shared feedback from students in both cohorts and their employers. “Overall, the reaction to the program has been really positive,” said Sandrock.   She added that, not surprisingly, the students overwhelmingly liked gaining more advanced technical knowledge on vineyard management.

  One wrote: “Vineyard management classes are very good. [It was c]hallenging and I learned new things that I am using at work already.” But as they got into winemaking topics, they got interested in those. One student in the first cohort is pursuing winemaking and his own label. Another valued “learning more about all of the things that go into growing grapes and making wine. I will use all of this in my work.”  Most enjoyed visiting different vineyards and wineries, learning different ways to train the vines and the work of the winery.  Three members of the second cohort really appreciated the WSET Level 1 training and certification which was added this year and will pursue the higher levels. Several plan to continue their education by taking classes to deepen their knowledge of vineyard management, to study enology, to learn English, or to get a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. The respondents unanimously plan to recommend the program to other vineyard stewards.

  Employer reaction was also strongly positive. All agreed that “the vineyard steward [is] showing increased eagerness to learn” while 80% affirmed that “the vineyard steward [is] demonstrating more versatility.”

  Jesse Lange of Lange Winery wrote “We’ve been fortunate to have two, very valued and experienced, employees participate in the AHIVOY program for each of the two years the program has been available.

  “Continuing education has a holistic [effect] on any student- one that has the potential to positively permeate many aspects of job performance. We’ve seen that [to] be the case here at Lange Estate- from the viticulture, wine-production, and even sales and marketing. Both Benjamin and Enrique have shown higher levels of enthusiasm, deeper levels of questioning, and general happiness with the opportunity to expand a knowledge base and skill set. Also, the chance to learn amongst peers allows for interactions that can [be] cohesive and collaborative- especially coming out of the pandemic. All of this is healthy indeed!  “We would definitely recommend this program to other folks in the industry- no doubt!”

  Sam Stetser of Atlas Vineyard Management sent one of his employees to the second cohort: “The great thing about AHIVOY is both myself and Roman were on board with doing it, it wouldn’t work if that wasn’t the case.” He hopes to “to transition Roman into a management role with more responsibility.”

  Sandrock said that they will track graduates and are trying formal and informal ways to keep them connected to the association as ambassadors or board members. She also stated that AHIVOY is working with Oregon State University to support graduates interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree.  This can be an attractive option since the graduates accrued continuing education credits that can be used to place out of the 3 introductory courses at Chemeketa in its Wine Studies Program whose credits, in turn, readily transfer to OSU.  More immediate opportunities are with the OSU extension.  Discussions are underway with Prof. Patricia Skinkis, Viticulture Extension Specialist, about specific topics she can support such as pest management.

The Future

  Thus far, AHIVOY’s reach has only extended to the Willamette Valley, and mostly the north at that, but there has been outreach to Southern Oregon and The Rocks District.  But more involvement is needed to spread the word and do all of the other critical functions of the growing organization.

  Resources for the 2022 class have been secured and applications for membership in the third cohort are being accepted through November 15, 2021. Classes are scheduled from January 5 to April 27, 2022 on Wednesday from 9 am to 3 pm. In the meantime, fundraising continues to ensure classes can continue beyond next year and perhaps even expand to include larger numbers of students.

  In less than 3 years, the vision of the founding trio has taken hold, gathering widening support from an industry known for collaboration and concern for all of its members.  With momentum building, AHIVOY looks to be as successful as ¡Salud!, the organization that has been providing medical services to Oregon vineyard workers and their family for over 25 years.  While ¡Salud! maintains the health of the vineyard stewards, AHIVOY enriches their intellect and feeds their curiosity. As founder Torres McKay asserts: “The more we empower vineyard stewards through education, [the more] we will become the best wine growing community, making the best wines in the world.”

Email This Post Email This Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.