A Sip Wines "Winelight"
Cristina Gonzales, Founder, Owner, & Winemaker
If there are silver linings to be found in the Covid-19 pandemic, one of them is the recognition—long overdue—of the MANY essential workers in this country. Most of these people aren’t working the flashy, fancy, highly paid jobs. They’re the teachers, child care providers, nurses, janitorial staff, grocery store employees… the list goes on, but the point is that these are the people who keep our lives going, and for far too long they went far too unseen. A similar phenomenon exists in the wine industry, and Cristina Gonzales—founder and owner of Gonzales Wine Company—is determined to change that. And make some amazing wine, of course.
This story also begins on a farm...
Cristina comes from a farming background, like several other Sip Wines partner winemakers I’ve interviewed—but not the kind of farming background that statement might bring to mind. Cristina, who is proudly Mexican-American, is the granddaughter of migrant farmworkers from Texas. Her family moved from Texas to Wisconsin to pick cherries with the promise of making more money, which is where Cristina grew up.
Sadly, although Wisconsin was a very ethnically diverse place, that diversity was not embraced or celebrated. Speaking Spanish outside the home was frowned upon, so much so that Cristina’s father never taught her the language. She grew up speaking only English, but felt the lack of that tie to her cultural identity. In 2001, she set out to change that.
It all came down to a tourist visa and a steak.
Cristina embarked on a backpacking journey through South America, ready to learn the language and embrace the cultures. In a movie, this journey is also where Cristina would discover her love of wine—and hey, that’s what happened!
While volunteering in Chile, she needed to renew her visa, and the closest place was across the border in Mendoza, Argentina—the “epicenter of South American Malbec.” Not one to waste an opportunity, Cristina treated herself to a nice meal in a parrilla (an Argentinian steakhouse), and that’s where she fell under a spell. As she puts it, the alchemy of the food, the Malbec, the music, and the people worked its magic, and she was hooked. (The wine bug probably bit her when she wasn’t looking.)
Cristina came back to the US pretty conflicted about her next steps but knowing that she wanted to pursue a career that she was passionate about. She went to school and majored in Spanish and International Studies—the travel bug also bit her pretty hard on her South American journey—and thought that a nonprofit might be in her future. Unfortunately there was the small issue of money, which was nowhere to be found in any of the nonprofit work she explored. Sigh.
Sometimes your distraction is your destiny.
It certainly was in Cristina’s case. Still trying to figure out her career path, she took a small detour into her mother’s wine club, accompanying her on tastings and learning more about wine in the process. She discovered that working in the wine industry held great potential for travel, which would satisfy her travel bug bite (she actually considers herself somewhat of a nomad, more comfortable living her life itinerantly). SOLD.
Cristina became a harvest hopper, jumping from vineyard to vineyard as an intern and soaking up wine knowledge (and probably a lot of wine too) along the way. She hopped all the way to a tasting room job in the Russian River Valley, leveraged some of her experience, and basically elbowed her way into her first cellar job at White Oak Winery in Alexander Valley. She became the first woman to work in their cellar, and despite her lack of a formal wine education she worked her way up.
Or rather, she hopped her way up, bouncing around for a while longer until she landed at A to Z Wineworks in Portland, Oregon. While working on the bottling line there, she discovered that the former bottling line manager shared her passion for Malbec. They got to talking…
You know what happens next.
Gonzales Wine Company was born in a garage, as so many good wines are. Cristina’s first vintage was released in 2010, while she was still working at A to Z, and she kept going from there.
By 2013, the travel bug bite was itching again, so Cristina embarked on a new adventure, this time spending three years living in Mexico. That wasn’t the only adventure; Cristina’s son was born during their years in Chiapas, and throughout that time, Cristina continued to produce wine out of California.
The family decided to return to the US in 2016, initially going back to California to be close to family (trust me, when you have a baby, you’ll take all the help you can get!). Cristina soon found, however, that she missed the Portland vibe and decided it was time to get back into the Oregon wine world. Fast forward to now, and Gonzales Wine Company operates entirely out of Oregon, making full-bodied wines from the grapes of Southern Oregon and Washington that embody all the passion she first found in that Argentinian parrilla.
AHIVOY: Empowering Vineyard Stewards
Wine isn’t the only thing Cristina is passionate about. She’s also a board member of AHIVOY, an Oregon nonprofit dedicated to empowering vineyard workers—the unsung heroes of the wine world, from the title of this post. From the organization’s website:
“AHIVOY is a nonprofit organization creating opportunities and empowering Latinx and Hispanic vineyard workers of the Willamette Valley to overcome socioeconomic challenges. We provide education and professional development, paving the way for our hardest-working community members to support their families and establish careers in the wine industry.”
For Cristina, who comes from a family of migrant farm workers, AHIVOY is deeply personal, as well as deeply important to her as a member of the wine industry. Vineyard workers are referred to as “vineyard stewards” in recognition and respect for the critical roles they play in the vineyards, and the organization’s primary directive is to provide scholarships to these stewards to give them outlets for career advancement. Some of the initiatives include:
- English immersion;
- Education about other aspects of the wine industry;
- Coursework in viticulture;
- Coursework for sommelier careers;
- Building awareness of entrepreneurship and leadership; and
- Mentorship and support.
There’s also a strong diversity component; vineyard workers are largely brown, of Latinx or Hispanic background, essentially pigeonholed into the vineyards with almost no representation on the other side of the industry. AHIVOY is about recognizing not only the hard and essential work these stewards perform, but also seeing them for who they are and embracing their identities as part of the wine world.
It’s still a small program (by both necessity and design), and not all students are able to complete it—life has a way of, well, getting in the way. But the students are incredibly invested in the program—even through a pandemic and horrific wildfires, most of them stuck with it and are actively planning for their futures. Cristina proudly recounted one student’s goal of starting a vineyard management company, and another who is pursuing winemaking.
As inspiring as it is, there are still so many challenges. Money is an obvious one: AHIVOY students are still working their demanding vineyard jobs as they complete the program and most do not have the luxury of losing pay. Fortunately, employers of program participants have committed to paying full wages while allowing one day of coursework per week.
Another challenge is more subtle, and more daunting, and that’s accessibility. AHIVOY is an incredible stepping stone, but it’s not a substitute for an entire life of experiences, nor can it break down institutional barriers and stereotypes on its own. Industry players—vineyard owners, wineries, educational institutions—must be willing to confront those barriers and stereotypes, support these amazing people, and hold themselves accountable for the long term.
Does that sound like a call to action? A challenge? Good. It was supposed to.
Let’s not forget Cristina’s wine.
After all, that’s what I was supposed to be writing about from the beginning, right? Gonzales Wine Company is a powerhouse lineup of wines packed into a tiny operation. And I do mean tiny—like, it’s just Cristina. A one-woman, single mom show. Right now she’s producing between 300-500 cases per year, although she hopes to lock down funding to expand in the near future. You wouldn’t know any of that when you taste her wines, though. Malbecs (shocking!), Bordeaux varietals, aromatic whites, all produced with minimal intervention and the belief that the true quality and personality of a wine is cultivated before Cristina even enters the picture… by the vineyard stewards she lifts up.
Go to Sip Wines, order a few bottles of Gonzales wine, and see what I’m talking about. Then, go check out AHIVOY’s website and consider supporting them in any way you can. As soon as I finish writing, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Wait… what’s the deal with the Indecisive Libra?
That’s Cristina, obviously, and a life of indecisiveness led her to develop a very close relationship with her Magic 8 ball. (Do kids these days even know what those are?) The Gonzales Wine Company’s logo is that Magic 8 ball. Just in case you were curious.