When Roberto Alvarez Flores emigrated to the United States from Mexico at age 17, he never imagined a trip to Washington, D.C., and the White House would be in his future.

But on July 10-13, Flores — a star employee at Sangiacomo Family Vineyards for 20-plus years — was among a select group of 31 Sonoma County vineyard workers to be welcomed to the nation’s capital by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and Speaker Emerita Rep. Nancy Pelosi, among others.

The invitation came as a major surprise to the group, all graduates of La Voz de los Viñedos (The Voice of the Vineyards) Leadership Academy, an eight-month program of specialized training in leadership, business and other career-advancing skills for Sonoma County’s vineyard workforce.

“What we didn’t fully appreciate is that the trip would be a life-changing experience for a lot of them,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of Fundación de la Voz de los Viñedos. “Many had never been on a plane or traveled outside California or Mexico. It was an emotional experience for all of us.”

The Congressional Wine Caucus

Thompson, D-St. Helena, a longtime advocate for California’s agriculture and wine industries, extended the invitation to coincide with this month’s Congressional Wine Caucus, a bipartisan forum between members of Congress, grape growers, vintners and others in the wine industry.

Launched in 1999 by Thompson and then-Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), the Wine Caucus was founded to help raise awareness of wine as a multibillion dollar agricultural industry that affects all 50 states. Currently, the caucus has 139 members and meets several times a year to discuss legislation, current issues and opportunities across the U.S. wine industry.

Past topics have included modernizing the tax code for wines, resolving trade barriers and preventing new tariffs for American wines, assistance for wine producers affected by wildfire smoke and funding for viticulture research.

Honored guests

During this month’s Wine Caucus, the Sonoma County Winegrowers hosted a wine reception in the Capitol for members of the California delegation, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Fifteen members of Congress were among those who came, including Pelosi.

But perhaps the reception’s most honored guests were the 31 Leadership Academy graduates who shared their personal stories with government leaders, telling them about their experiences working in agriculture, their role in viticulture and their perspective on immigration reform and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program President Barack Obama introduced.

“Vineyard employees, like the Leadership Academy graduates, are the heart of our wine community. They work hard to grow the grapes that make our region’s world-class wines,” Thompson said. “Hearing directly from these men and women help us learn how we can best support them. Our hope is that this trip helps them understand how policies can impact their work on the ground and that being a leader can help those around them.”

For Flores, who was named the Sonoma County Grape Growers’ 2022 Vineyard Employee of the Year, the trip to Washington was “a dream come true.

“I never imagined that a person like me would be recognized for the work I do by such important people,” Flores said. “I have no words to describe how grateful I am for the experience. The trip has motivated me to continue growing as a person and developing and learning in my career. I want to be an example for my co-workers and my son, Roberto Jr., who works in the same area as me.”

Ricardo Corona, a vineyard employee at Munselle Vineyards in Geyserville, was also among the graduates who traveled to the nation’s capital. It was an opportunity he described as “better than winning the lottery.

“When I started in the Leadership Academy, I felt like a puzzle piece in a bag — there were many pieces and each piece represented an idea. But it was very difficult for me to put each one in its place,” said Corona, who had only six years of education in Mexico before he emigrated to the United States to work.

“On the trip, I listened to my colleagues and heard their different speeches, ideas and experience,” he said. “I’m starting to finish the puzzle because now I am much better prepared at work and as a person.”

Voice of the vineyards

Kruse, who helped found the Leadership Academy in 2022, said she never could have imagined taking the graduates to the Wine Caucus when the program launched just two years ago.

“Looking forward, my hope that government leaders like Rep. Thompson, Rep. Pelosi and others will continue to encourage agriculture workers to share their stories and participate in government,” Kruse said. “Giving a voice to Sonoma County’s vineyard employees and empowering them with leadership skills will be an important part of our wine community’s future narrative.”

Leadership Academy graduates who traveled to Washington D.C.

Juan Alcantara- Skipstone Ranch

Jose A. Arreguin- Bevill Vineyard Management

Gustavo Rico Alvarez- Seghesio Family Vineyards

Leonel Campos Alvarez- Sangiacomo Family Vineyards

Jose Cervantes- Cornerstone Certified Vineyard

Ricardo Corona- Munselle Vineyards

Fabian Garcia- Vino Farms

Felipe Hernandez- Atlas Vineyard Management

Rafael Magana- Sonoma- Cutrer Vineyards

Dante Ruano- Redwood Empire Vineyard Management

Agustin Santiago- Medlock Ames

Luis Guillermo Velasquez- Dutton Ranch

Roberto Alvarez Flores- Sangiacomo Family Vineyards

Jose Elias Avila- Lynmar Estate

Pedro Cabrera- St. Francis Winery

Guadalupe Cespedes- Redwood Empire Vineyard Management

Cirilo Contreras- Martinelli Vineyard Management

Jose Ventura Vieyra Garcia- Cornerstone Certified Vineyard

Jaime Guerrero- Dutton Ranch

Jose Guzman- Robert Young Vineyards

Maria Hernandez- Bevill Vineyard Management

Anelly Reyes Jimenez- Cornerstone Certified Vineyard

Juan Lara- Munselle Vineyards

Ricardo Morales Lucas- Sangiacomo Family Vineyards

Jose Martinez- Dutton Ranch

Oscar Meza- Bevill Vineyard Management

Ramon Murillo- Vino Farms

Pablo Ruano- Redwood Empire Vineyard Management

Jose Saldana- Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Sal Jimenez Sandoval- Vino Farms

Isidro Vigil- Atlas Vineyard Management

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