LODI — Steve Felten knew Joseph Smith before he hired him as his winemaker more than a decade ago.
Christopher Rivera applied for a job at Klinker Brick Winery and has been with the Lodi winery close to a decade.
Smith, an Afro-Latin from Belize, and Rivera, the son of immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico, are the winemaking team at Klinker Brick Winery. As passionate and hard working as any winemaking team anywhere, they look different than most in an industry dominated in multiple facets — from tasting room associates to winemakers, winegrowers, winery owners, importers, distributors, consumers and wine writers — by whites.
“As Latinos, we’re rarely ever experiencing wine and some of that is our own doing because we’re very familiar with certain things,” said Rivera, “but the industry as well doesn’t necessarily reach out to the Latino community, so it’s a little bit of everything. It’s been exciting for me to jump into this mix and be a part of it.”
Smith, 44, said he has been embraced by the Lodi winemaking community from the start, in 1998, when he went to work for noted winemaker and consultant, Barry Gnekow. But when he’s visited wineries where people don’t know him, he said he’s felt the stares and fielded curious questions from some who don’t look like him.
“My family here, which is Klinker Brick, I feel as comfortable as anywhere I go like I’m in Belize,” Smith said. “That’s how good it’s been here for me. Once I step out to a place that I’m not known, I can see the difference. That’s the light I want to show because I know I’m not the only one.”
Recent deaths of African-Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, at the hands of police have brought renewed focus on racism inside many institutions in the United States, and the wine industry is not immune to the discussion. Brenae Royal, who works for E&J Gallo in Sonoma, where she is vineyard manager for the Monte Rosso Vineyard, said in a recent article in Forbes that racism in her sector, agriculture, is “rarely in your face — it’s more subtle.”
“An example would be someone questioning if I have my title and do the work, or if I’ve made it to where I am solely because I’m Black and the company wants to promote diversity.”
Klinker Brick is a diverse workplace: About half the production team is female, lab workers are female, and Farrah Felten-Jolley is vice president of marketing and sales. But Felten said his hiring decisions are not based on diversity. They are based on relationships and merit.
Smith was raised in a tiny Caribbean nation that has almost no wine culture and where 41.3% of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Smith came to California in his teens to work for a relative’s construction business and crossed paths with Gnekow, whose clients include Klinker Brick. Felten got to know Smith and in 2008 hired him as head winemaker to help Klinker Brick expand its winemaking operation from Van Ruiten Family Winery in Lodi to Lodi Vintners, a crush facility on Woodbridge Road.
“Joseph is just a natural,” Felten said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Smith said his growth from where he came is a testament to what can be achieved.
“You have to come in here with the right character, as well,” Smith said. “I can’t come in here being somebody else that I’m not. I just have to be who I am and this is who I am.”
Rivera, 35, was working toward a career in physical therapy out of University of the Pacific, where he was classmates with Steve’s daughter, Farrah Felten, and her then soon-to-be husband Stefan Jolley, now Klinker Brick’s vice president of operations. Rivera went to work as a cellar man for E&J Gallo in Livingston to earn money for graduate school. There, he was bitten by the wine bug and studied winemaking at University of California, Davis. After two years, he sought more responsibility in his newfound career path and applied for a job at Klinker Brick.
“He was looking for a job and we interviewed him,” Felten said. “We decided to give him a shot. He’s really proven himself.”
Smith and Rivera don’t believe race was a barrier to their entry in the wine business or their growth within the business. They knew what they wanted, worked hard and positioned themselves to grab opportunities when they came. They believe they were embraced from the beginning by the Lodi wine community, where dozens of women own wineries, make wine or are winery principals; and where Latino winemakers Gerardo Espinosa of Anaya Vineyards and Susana Rodriguez Vasquez of Peltier Winery have applied their talents.
“To me, that right there speaks volumes to that (Felten) family,” Smith said. “They didn’t see my skin color as a deterrent. They just looked at what I could do for them and what I could bring to the table.”
Rather than racism being the root of ethnic disparity in positions of power in the wine business, perhaps exposure to and knowledge about agriculture, viticulture and winemaking as viable career opportunities among minorities are among the driving reasons.
“There are probably a lot of Black people that are very interested in wine, but they don’t think about pursuing it, which anybody could do,” said Felten, a fifth-generation wine grower and founder of Klinker Brick Winery. “You go to school, you learn oenology and you go to work and work your way up, like Joseph and Chris. I don’t think it’s a racist thing or anything like that. It’s just the opportunity, education and wanting to get in and work because there is a lot of work involved.”
Smith said he would like to see area inner-city kids receive exposure to what’s available in their own backyard through school programs focused on education in agriculture, viticulture and winemaking, industries that employ thousands and generate billions of dollars. Reducing the intimidation factor in wine is another key.
“The wine business, in general, can be intimidating,” Smith said. “A person of skin color not having that education or knowledge about wine, I think it’s intimidating and I think in these times it’s a little bit more apparent to see that.
“We can do better.”
Smith has opened a wine shop in Belize where he sells Klinker Brick and other wines he makes at Lodi Vintners under the Concrete, SIP and Rippey Family Vineyards labels, and Rivera has started a company, Seis Soles, where he has crafted a lineup of wines targeted to Latino consumers. They hope to make wine more accessible and inspire future winemakers in the Latino and African American communities.
“I would love to see more people of color within this business, or at least come out here and feel welcome,” Smith said. “I want them to feel welcome and experience something that is only 10 minutes away that feels like a distant world. I wish they could feel that relaxation and feel comfortable doing that.”
Contact reporter and wine columnist Bob Highfill at (209) 546-8277 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobhighfill. Join the From the Vine group page at https://www.facebook.com/FTV209. For archived FTV columns and podcasts, visit https://www.recordnet.com/FTV.
Credit: Source link