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Go North, Young Man
updated: Oct 19, 2013, 3:00 PM
By Jeff Wing
Felipe Hernandez looks every bit the migrant field boss. His well-fed gut bulges over a belt buckle the
size of a salad plate, testing the tensile strength of his faded, blue work shirt. He has the diaphanous
mustache, sweat-stained cowboy hat and crinkling sun-struck eyes of the bent-over-double guest
worker. And, as you would expect from any indentured field hand from the other side, Hernandez is
genteely pinching stemware half-filled with a fine cabernet of his own celebrated creation. His pinky is,
of course, extended.
Taste tester: Felipe Hernandez holds his grapes to the highest standards. (Susie Baum)
Ninteen-seventy-two. It was a pretty good year. Cat Stevens (later the cheerless fatwa booster Yusuf
Islam) was riding high with his warm-hearted celebration of life, "Morning Has Broken," satin hot-pants
were causing pedestrian whiplash and NASA's Apollo 16 mission, in a uniquely American show of
bravado, hoisted a second car to the surface of the moon. Ninteen-seventy-two was also the year Felipe
Hernandez became a fugitive. This future vintner/Toast of the Town made the furtive journey north
from Jalisco state in Mexico and across the border, propelled by a heady dream: to eat.
"I was hungry," he concedes.
The nearly 1,700-mile trip north along uncharted dirt roads constituted the first time Felipe, a frankly
terrified 16-year-old, had ever left his village of Casa Blanca in Jalisco. Nearly 40 years later, I raced
along the storied Foxen Canyon Wine Trail in the lush Santa Ynez Valley to make it to an appointment
with Hernandez. I finally spied him deep along the trail, a portly fellow in a work shirt and Stetson, arms
at his sides.
"Hey," he called, raising his arms in welcome. "How are you? C'mon, follow me." His handshake was the
firm, meaningful, contract-inferring handshake of a colleague-in-arms, though his hand was not the
callus-swaddled mitt of a laborer. His wide face had that healthy bronzed tension that bespeaks a life
lived outdoors in a surplus of daily sunshine. He was stout and nearly short, and wore an almost
inevitable mustache, salted here and there with gray. And his eyes-sorry, there's just no other way to
say it-were smiling.
Hernandez shone with something. Happiness? Is that too pedestrian? When in the presence of someone
who is radiant with good fortune and balanced self-regard, something charges the air. Which is not to
say that Hernandez was oblique in his contentment. Rather, he wore it on his sleeve, on both sleeves.
He walked, talked and gestured his joy. He seemed so genuinely happy to see me, I laughed out loud.
He climbed into his truck, the gate swung open with slow electronic certainty, and we drove.
In 1972, Felipe Hernandez was, like everyone, looking for a path to self-betterment. To that end, he and
his cousin packed a few things and simply walked away from their beloved, sparse little village and
made their way north. He had learned from a friend in the states that the Santa Ynez Grape Growers, a
determined collective of future Central Coast power vintners, were looking for help getting their empire
off the ground. Hernandez was interested, logistics be damned.
How would they get across the border into the states once they arrived? They would figure that out on
the way. And they had about 1,700 miles of thinking ahead of them. The evening they finally reached
the border, wind-burned and dehydrated, they were surprised. There were no klieg lights, no guards,
none of the elements he'd mentally prepared to face. There was a little wall, and the two boys climbed
it, as boys will.
The good earth: Where Hernandez learned the art of viticulture. (Susie Baum)
"I left my home to look for a future, you know. It was a very small town called Casa Blanca-really a
village-of about 60 or 70 homes. When you leave your home, you don't really have a plan, the plan
comes along as the time goes by," Hernandez explains. He leads me down a gravel path to a small
clearing by a business-like little pond approached by staked grapevines. The sun-blasted picnic table
radiates a pleasant heat.
Soon after arriving on this side and according to the plan, such as it was, Hernandez placed a phone
call. Next, he was traveling to Santa Ynez, where a future wine region was in the making and work as a
field hand awaited. Hernandez eagerly joined the ranks of this founding fatherhood of area vintners,
getting his start in the equivalent of the company mailroom.
"In 1972, I came to the canyon, and right then I was a field worker, working with grapes. And then later
you learn how to take care of them," Hernandez tells me. This summation says much. Light falls from an
absolutely cloudless sky, the pond surface flat as a sheet of glass. Hernandez explained that among
other uses, the pond provides the water needed to spray the frost off dangerously chilled fruit.
Apparently a frosty grape is to be avoided until the time it can be dispensed as a Sauvignon blanc. "The
sun hits the frost and it's like a magnifying glass. It'll burn the fruit," Hernandez explains. The
unassuming little pond would play a pivotal role in his destiny.
This excerpt was provided by Mission & State. To read the full story visit MissionAndState.org
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