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The Grape Whisperer: Ruben Solorzano’s Journey From Migrant Farm Worker to Wine Aficionado

The Grape Whisperer
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That’s the word that comes to mind as I stand before the lush, green foliage at Mt. Carmel Vineyard, 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California. Picturesque rows of neatly pruned pinot noir—some on the brink of transforming from bright green to red-violet—coax me to stroll their passages. I comply, and the vines welcome me with a slight wave. My boots crunch over clumps of dirt, receiving a generous coating of loose soil. The fog blanketing the landscape is slowly dissipating, revealing the full beauty of the Santa Rita Hills. I could wander through these vineyards in the early morning hours on any given day.

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Photo by: Deepi Ahluwalia

To have a deep love for one’s profession—where the lines of the “job” are erased, replaced with an open passion to explore and innovate one’s craft—is something most people dream of. There are a lucky few whose livelihoods follow such paths. Among them is Ruben Solorzano, an equity partner at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, a full-service vineyard management company with 650 employees. Solorzano’s relationship with grapes grew over the years, from a simple occupation to a true calling.

The youngest of 11 children, Solorzano was raised in the village of El Ranchito de San Martín Hidalgo in the state of Jalisco, roughly two hours southwest of Guadalajara. “I grew up on a small ranch in Mexico,” he says. “My grandfather, my whole family, are all farmers.” Solorzano tried his hand at becoming a mechanic, attending a school in a nearby city. “I only lasted three months,” he laughs. “I liked the school but I didn’t like the city. So I said to my father, ‘I don’t want you to waste your money here. This is not what I want to do.’ I went back to the farm and stayed there for three years.” In November of 1988, one of his elder brothers who had ventured to California and worked with grapes, persuaded Solorzano to come with him. “I started by pruning vines. I had no idea what a grape vine was at that time.”

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Ruben Solorzano

Solorzano’s new life in California took some getting used to. “There were five to 10 guys living in the same house. On the weekends we played soccer and volleyball, and the other days we just work, work, work—nine hours a day,” says Solorzano. “My first year, being away from my family, that was really hard for me. I had two brothers that were already here but we didn’t live together, although we saw each other every week. After a year, I got used to it and made friends.” 

Unlike some migrant farm workers who live nomadic lives—moving from farm-to-farm as work is needed—Solorzano decided to stay in the Central Coast region of California versus traveling to other states. “Some guys come here and they like the harvest, so they move. They harvest grapes here, they harvest apples in Washington. But about 50 percent of the guys like to be with families. We like to live together.” Migrant farm workers in the U.S.—who are predominantly from Mexico—leave their homes in search for opportunity in America. Over half of all farm workers are unauthorized with no legal status in the U.S.—many of whom arrive with a strong work ethic and already solid agricultural skills, having gained practical experience in their home countries.

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Migrant farm worker in the vineyard

Solorzano takes me for a tour of the vineyard, stopping first to say hello and pass a few jokes with his workers. Their warm smiles and laughter add to the beauty of the setting. “It’s much better for workers now,” explains Solorzano. “When I first came here, there wasn’t much work but there were a lot of people, mostly from Mexico. So employers didn’t need to pay a lot of money to get work. Now, there’s a lot of work in the vineyards and with farming other vegetables, so it benefits the workers that come here. They get paid more money and they get to choose where they want to work.”

Solorzano describes his early years in his newly adopted country. “I was 19 when I first came to the U.S. It was 1989. I went back every year to Mexico—you can only do it for three years without papers, then I did it illegally,” says Solorzano. “I got my legal papers in 1994 and I got those papers because I worked in the vineyard.” Tom Stolpman, the founder of Stolpman Vineyards, hired Solorzano when he first came to California. Stolpman soon realized the invaluable asset Solorzano had become and helped him obtain legal status. “Tom told immigration he didn’t have another guy that could farm the same quality of grapes that Stolpman Vineyards needed,” Solorzano explains. After several years of interviewing, waiting and re-interviewing twice more, Solorzano finally got his papers, and today is a U.S. citizen. “It was a great process, but scary at the same time.”

Solorzano’s journey to becoming a grape expert took years, one that he says is marked with three distinct milestones. In 1994, Jeff Newton—the founder of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates—offered Solorzano partnership in the company for fear of losing him to someone else. “Pretty much everything I learned, I learned from Jeff Newton,” says Solorzano. “He’s my second father; he taught me everything about grapes. I was influenced by other winemakers and consultants, but Jeff is the main guy for me.” 

In the same year, Solorzano also began managing Stolpman Vineyards. In 2001, he started working with the vineyard’s winemaker, Sashi Moorman, and with Alberto Antonini, an oenologist and wine consultant from Italy. It was at this time Solorzano had an awakening: he began to understand the connection between fruit and wine starts at the vine. “I knew then, this is what I wanted to do with my life. It’s very interesting and I could see that if I do the right things to the grapes, I can make a difference.” In 2004, Solorzano worked with influential Bordeaux-based oenologist, Michel Rolland, who helped him develop a deeper understanding of winemaking. That year, Stolpman Vineyards gave Solorzano the freedom to try new farming techniques. “My goal is always to make wine better. And I got pretty lucky to be able to work in these nice vineyards with the owner allowing me to try many different things.”

Today, Solorzano is well established as one of the leading growers in California. Matt Kettmann, senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent and contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast, gave Solorzano the nickname “The Grape Whisperer”. Solorzano has the unique gift of knowing how to bring out certain nuances of a grape in order to give winemakers the attributes they desire. By experimenting with sunlight, water, canopy management, pruning, harvesting—and through much trial and error—Solorzano has developed his technique. He keeps notes—both mental and written—of successful methods, but every year the conditions change. “You have to have a real feel for the vines by touching the leaves and the fruit. That’s how I figure out how to make small adjustments. It’s constantly evolving,” explains Solorzano. “I’m learning something new every day. The day I stop learning is the day I die.”

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“The Grape Whisperer”

Over the past three years, Solorzano has been focused on grooming the next generation of grape whisperers. “The grape is like a child. You have to nurture it to help it grow. I want somebody to come behind me and learn what I know, get to the next level, and do more than what I do.” Solorzano is teaching the world of vineyard care to a younger crop of workers who have studied agriculture, confident that the combination of a college education and work in the field will set them up for success. 

We pause our tour of the vineyard to speak with Fidencio Flores, a recent college graduate who has been working with Solorzano for the past year. Solorzano has taken Flores under his wing, teaching him the ways of the grape. The young man’s love of viticulture is unmistakable. “I hear Fidencio talk and he’s got more passion than me,” says Solorzano. “That’s what I want. That’s the next 10 years of my life. I want to find the right guys who love what I love. I don’t want somebody who can do what I do. I want somebody who can do it better than me. That’s my goal.”

Everybody knows Solorzano in these parts. Passing honks and waves from farm workers fill the gaps in our conversation as we drive back to his office in Buellton. Solorzano has strong ties to the Hispanic community; in observing his interactions with the locals, it’s obvious he is highly respected. With 27 years of wisdom under his belt, Solorzano is in a position where he can make a difference in the lives of migrant farm workers who’ve come after him. “I want these guys to like what they do. I want them to be able to grow their families here and put their kids through college,” says Solorzano. 

At Stolpman Vineyard, Solorzano helped create a program called La Cuadrilla, meaning “the crew.” Its purpose is to bridge the gap between farm worker and winemaker. “The first year, we gave the workers three rows of grapes. We told them they would farm these rows and we would make wine from these grapes, and the wine will be for them,” explains Solorzano. “But I also told them I wouldn’t tell them how to do things. They had to design everything. Whatever they wanted to do, I would support them.” The workers tended to their rows, pruning and harvesting as they saw fit. They took their bounty of grapes to the winery, and a year later were able to taste their work. 

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Rows of grapes

“We gave them their wine to try and to compare with the wine from Stolpman Vineyards. For most of those guys, this was the first time they’re drinking wine. After they tasted their wine, they started shaking their heads and saying, ‘That’s not good, that’s not good.’ They liked the Stolpman wine better,” laughs Solorzano. “Then they came to me and said ‘You need to help us. We want to make the best wine.’” The second year, Solorzano taught the crew techniques to bring forth the best flavor in the grapes. “We didn’t pull many leaves and we cut the clusters very small—one shoot should have one cluster only—and tied all the shoots vertical so every single cluster got the same light on the same side,” describes Solorzano. “The farming was completely different this time.” 

After tasting the second round of wine, even the winemaker was surprised with the vast improvement. “The guys were so happy. We gave the wine back to the crew—everybody went home with two cases of wine. They loved to show their friends and family something they helped make,” Solorzano says. By the third year, the workers were making even more wine, simply because they enjoyed it. The wine became so good that Stolpman Vineyards started giving it to their wine club members. “The members kept telling us, ‘You guys need to sell this wine. We want to buy this wine, it’s so good.’ It took four years but now we’re making 2,000 cases that we sell to the wine club,” says Solorzano. “And all the profit that comes from that wine, we give it back to the crew. They love it.”

That America is the land of opportunity is an ideal that perhaps no group understands more than immigrants. To adopt a new country—its language, its people, its customs—is no easy task. But for a chance at a better life, whether the goal is to make more money in order to provide for one’s family, or just the possibility of getting a leg up in life—the struggle is worthwhile. “I couldn’t have imagined when I came here at 19 that I would become a partner in a company,” says Solorzano. “At that time, I didn’t even know what I was coming over for. I just kept working all the time. But when I stop to think about it, this has been so great for me and for my family. I know I’m so lucky.”

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Photo by: Deepi Ahluwalia

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