American dream starts in vineyard

Wine Press NorthwestSeptember 2, 2013 

Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue

Equality, freedom, prosperity. This is every American’s dream, the basic tenet of this country, the reason behind creating this beloved nation.

But in this era in which we endlessly debate immigration from coffeeshops to Congress, many seem to have forgotten the immigrant’s dream.

Victor Palencia hasn’t forgotten because he’s living it, proving that hard work can pay off. Start with a shovel and work your way up.

The monarch is special to Victor. The beautiful butterfly starts its migration north in Michoacán, Mexico, and it never gives up, heading north even if it takes more than one generation. Victor’s life also began in Michoacán, born into a family with little more than hopes and dreams.

His father had to do something to give his family a chance at a better life. So he came to America. Victor was 2 years old and vaguely recalls his father carrying him across a river as they arrived illegally.

“It wasn’t right, but it was out of necessity,” Victor says pensively.

Desperate times, desperate measures. We know the drill, but few of us have been in a situation like the Palencias and millions of other Mexicans trying to escape north, to earn a meager living in the U.S. that is so much better than what they faced elsewhere.

The Palencias were fortunate. They arrived unscathed, and their timing was impeccable. The Reagan-era amnesty program meant they could all become U.S. citizens, so they did. They took nothing for granted. Victor’s dad grabbed a shovel and headed to the Yakima Valley. He wasn’t afraid of hard work because this is America, where hard work is second nature, where hard work can take you somewhere.

“It’s the best upbringing I could have had,” Victor says. “My best memories are of getting up early with Dad to help in the mint fields.”

His mother stayed at home to raise the family, though she also took seasonal work when it was available and the family needed the money. His father eventually moved to working in orchards, then vineyards.

Vineyards.

For Victor’s father, vineyards were a means to an end. For Victor, they sparked something deeper, something that would give him direction at an impossibly young age, something that would set him on a path even an immigrant might not dare to dream about.

How many kids have after-school jobs in vineyards? More than you might think for Mexican kids living in the Yakima Valley. That’s where Victor spent his youth. Pretty much every boy who goes to Prosser High School dreams of being on the football field and winning another state championship for the storied program. Victor, however, dreamed of becoming a winemaker. His senior year in high school, he cut classes on occasion and got a ride 90 miles to the southeast to Walla Walla to check out the new Center for Enology and Viticulture at the community college.

“I was skipping school to decide if I wanted to become a winemaker.”

He graduated from high school in 2003 and headed to Walla Walla, becoming the first in his family to go to college — just 16 years after leaving Mexico. A scholarship from the legendary Leonetti Cellar helped pay his way through, and he also worked at such wineries as Saviah, Basel and Zerba.

“I felt right at home,” he says of his time in Walla Walla. “Everybody is sharing a common interest.”

These winemakers didn’t see a Mexican kid who came here illegally. They saw someone with the burning desire to learn winemaking and make his own way.

In 2005, he graduated and came back to Prosser, getting a winemaking job at Willow Crest Winery under founder Dave Minick. The only problem? He wasn’t yet 21 and could not legally taste what he was making. This landed Victor in The New York Times, a feature story about the young winemaker who was barely shaving.

After a couple of seasons, Victor was recruited to J&S Crushing in Mattawa, a town east of Yakima that is even smaller and dustier than Prosser. J&S’s dreams were just as big as Victor’s. Today, the custom-crush operation makes somewhere north of 1 million cases of wine annually — and Victor is in charge. The vast majority of the wine is made for other customers, but Victor’s considerable talents are on display for Jones of Washington, Wine Press Northwest’s 2012 Washington Winery of the Year. Here he makes stunning wines using estate grapes from the Wahluke Slope, Ancient Lakes and Red Mountain.

This might seem like the pinnacle for a young man who attended his 10-year high school reunion this summer. But the flight of the monarch sticks with Victor.

Now he is establishing Palencia Wine Co. in Walla Walla, back where that winemaking spark lit his fire a decade ago. He opened the winery Sept. 1 and produces some of his wines under the La Monarcha brand.

The migration is now a commute. Victor now lives in Richland, the halfway point between Mattawa and Walla Walla, the halfway point between his day job at J&S and his little piece of the American dream.

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and wine columnist for The Seattle Times. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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