A few years ago, when I was asked to speak to a class of low-income, mostly Latinx students in Whittier, California, I didn’t quite understand why I was asked or see the importance of telling my story.
I said I was too busy, and I really thought I was. I also didn’t see myself as an example of anything. I was just trying to survive this industry. I jumped into a rich man’s game with no fucking money. I was just hustling.
I came to the United States in 1989, when I was eight years old, hidden with my sister in the back of a VW bus that drove through a hole in the border fence near Tijuana. We joined my parents and two other families who lived in a small house in Cambria, California. I grew up wanting to be a cop. But without documents, I had to choose a different path, so I wound up working in restaurants beginning when I was 14 years old.
In 2001, while I was waiting tables at Villa Creek Restaurant in Paso Robles, the owner, Cris Cherry, was just jumping into the winemaking business. One year, he encouraged me to join him during harvest. I saw an opportunity that fit my entrepreneurial mind. I can do this, I thought. I love this.
The sometimes unconscious thought process is, “You’re a Mexican. You should be in the field. You should be the dishwasher. You’re not the winemaker.”
People were supportive, but no one held my hand. It was clear to me that if I wanted this, it was up to me to jump in the pool and learn how to swim. I was fortunate to have great mentors along the way, but ultimately it was up to me to make it happen. I cannot express enough my gratitude to those who did help me along the way.
When I made my first four barrels of wine in 2005, I knew I needed to be a standout, and not just because of the color of my skin. That’s why I embraced varieties not popular in Paso at the time, many from Spain, and called my winery Bodega de Edgar in 2009.
From the label, to the wine, to the winery building I just bought, everything I’ve done has all been on my own—my money, my sweat equity. Every dollar I made, I put back into the pocket of the business to grow it. And yet I still have people thinking that the Mexican mafia is backing me.
There have been some funny experiences over the years. I’d show up at a wine industry meeting and people would look at me like, “What are you doing here? Are you in the right place?” And I’ve brought my wines to shops and restaurants, and they think I’m the delivery guy. “Just leave the wine over there,” they say. I mention my name and they go, “Oh, you’re the winemaker?”
I know that this reaction can be innocent, that as humans, our brains have been conditioned to stereotype and categorize each other for efficiency and quick decision-making. The sometimes unconscious thought process is, “You’re a Mexican. You should be in the field. You should be the dishwasher. You’re not the winemaker.”
Now, we have a lot of great Mexican people in the industry, and they ask me for advice all the time. I have been trying to give as much as possible. They don’t feel like they have the support from anyone else in the community to really guide them. We’re not encouraging my community to go beyond a cellar rat or assistant winemaker, and that needs to change.
We should educate more people in the Salinas Valley about opportunities. We should go to the Napa Valley and tell people to strive for more. There are many multimillion dollar brands up there with a majority of Mexican workers. Why aren’t those workers riding shotgun with the famous winemaker, learning the ropes?
There’s a hierarchy approach to it, and unfortunately those on the lower rungs are usually darker and perceived to not be destined for more. Until we can remove that, we’re not going to be able to help each other dance on the same floor. And I’m sorry to say, but some of us have better moves.
This business has been hard, but it’s been harder to realize that I now have a duty to share the story of my success with other Mexicans and people of color to help them envision an alternate path and to help challenge the stereotypes in my industry.
Every dollar I made, I put back into the pocket of the business to grow it. And yet I still have people thinking that the Mexican mafia is backing me.
During the Black Lives Matter protests, many people have come to me, encouraging me to be a louder voice in my community. I was reluctant at first, but I looked back to my high school football coach, an ex-Navy captain who mentored us weekly but never cashed his checks. He was just trying to pay it forward, trying to make a difference in the lives of the youth he mentored. And he made a difference in mine. I want to do that for others. I want to help eliminate racial stereotypes that promote social inequality.
I try to mentor my staff, many of whom are young and just entering this field. I try to encourage them to continually strive for more and break barriers holding them back, whether those are cultural barriers or related to other factors. I was recently given the opportunity to share a documentary chronicling my journey as a Mexican winemaker with a class in Berkeley. I hope it expanded their view of what a successful winemaker can look like.
I recently apologized to the man in Whittier who invited me to visit his school and speak to his class years ago. Now, if people ask me to speak about my experience, I’m going.
Edgar Torres is the owner and winemaker of Bodega de Edgar in Paso Robles, California.
Published: October 7, 2020