Go North, Young Man! Felipe Hernandez and the Good Idea

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820Three thousand miles away from California’s Santa Ynez Valley, the Manhattan Racquet & Tennis Club’s members comprise the tippity-top of the East Coast’s cork-sniffing social register. Were Mr. Felipe Hernandez to stroll into the joint, the staring power-lunchers would—between delicately aerated sips of Hernandez’s celebrated Feliz Noche wines that appear on the menu there—surely summon security with snapped fingers and have the vagabond removed. Our rambling and eccentric Santa Ynez Valley has thus infiltrated Old New York’s cuff-link crowd like a Trojan horse; or Trojan emu, as it were. Hernandez, a former fugitive, has done well.

“I cannot have a better feeling than what I have,” he says. “I can tell you this much.”

Determined Teenager Climbs, Arrives

1972 was a pretty good year. Cat Stevens, later a cheerless fatwa booster, was riding high with his warm-hearted celebration of life ‘Morning Has Broken’, satin hotpants 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. 1972 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 leaped the border fence with a heady dream; to eat.

“I was hungry,” he concedes.

The nearly 1000 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 state, Mexico. Nearly 40 years later our paths crossed. Or at least that was the plan. I raced along the storied Foxen Wine trail, just north of Santa Barbara in the storied Santa Ynez wine valley, in a maddened attempt to rescue my ripening appointment. I finally sped by Felipe standing almost forlornly by his pickup truck at a nondescript recessed gate, deep along the trail. A portly fellow in work shirt and Stetson, arms at his sides, his glimpsed body language signaled “how much longer must I stand here?” I made a hurried and ill-advised u-turn on the narrowish country lane, doubled back and pulled onto the shoulder in a puff of dust. His posture lightened.

“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, his mustache salted here and there with gray. And his eyes – sorry, there is 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.

 Faith-Based Fugitive

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.

“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.” Casa Blanca. As Time Goes By. Possibly some men’s destinies are written in the stars. Ingrid Bergman, however, does not figure into this story. 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.

How to Win Friends and Reinvent

It’s unlikely he was packing a volume of Dale Carnegie among his belongings, but Felipe’s determined forward motion was informed, and later rewarded, by his adoptive new country’s sense of the plausibility of overweening success. Soon after arrival Felipe learned through the migrant worker grapevine that there might be a place for him in Santa Barbara County’s then-nascent wine region. In 1972, the region was but a plucky and largely unsung bastion of oenophilic hopefuls and businessmen trying like the dickens to gain some traction in the wine-making firmament. Felipe joined the ranks of this Founding Fatherhood of area vintners, getting his start in the equivalent of the mailroom. He started by planting grapes with the fervor of a pilgrim.

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The good earth: where Felipe learned the art and science of viticulture (Susie Baum)

“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.”

This summation contained much. We sat at a picnic table in unblanched early afternoon sun, next to a small, unlovely artificial pond. Light fell down from an absolutely cloudless sky. Felipe explained that among other uses, the pond provided 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 into stemware.

“The sun hits the frost and it’s like a magnifying glass. It’ll burn the fruit.” The unassuming little pond would later play a role in his soon-to-be-announced destiny.

Stars Align

Felipe’s initial impulse had been modest; simply to thrive in an environment where the options and possibilities were as supercharged and borderless as his sprawling new adoptive homeland. He put his head down, got to work, and hoped for the best. Several years into his journey his dedication and hard work were paid a visit by kismet. One evening he found himself being singled out for what became an exceedingly well-disguised turn of fortune.

“One time I came to turn the water off in the night and the owner of La Zaca was there and said ‘I’m gonna have a party tomorrow, do you mind coming to my house and cleaning my yard?’ So I came in the morning and really cleaned the yard well, and he liked the job I did.” That successfully executed chore led to a new job under a new foreman, responsibilities in a new vineyard, and a new alignment of stars. The elements were in place. Enter the Frenchman.

“What happened was, they brought a guy here from France in 1975 to show us a thing or two, to show our winemaker how to get a better crop in the fields.”

Let it be here noted that the French and Mexican people have had their differences. The denouement of their signature historical spat is loudly noted every year as Cinqo de Mayo, a crowing celebration of the undermanned Mexican army’s having given the invading French a surprise drubbing in the watershed Battle of Puebla in 1862. Later the determined Gauls would haughtily install an Emperor in Mexico, and his brief unhappy reign would likewise end in a fusillade of bullets. There is thus a pinch of irony in Felipe’s destiny having been catalyzed by a Frenchman. Ce la vie.

The hired interlocutor was just what the doctor ordered. “ In the 70s we weren’t interested in much else but growing lots of crop. The French guy was teaching us how to perfect the wine, taught us a lot of things in the field. I was putting those things in my mind right then.” Felipe soaked up the offered viticultural wisdom like a barman’s sponge. The consultant’s contractual chatter was intended to give the winery an edge. Felipe saw something else in the moment and took it all in.

“He taught me how to prune, how to process the fruit, taught me how to limit the amounts of clusters, taught me to measure the clusters with my hand to be sure they are all identical; identical acid, identical sugar. That’s how I began to get hooked into this deal. Yeah. I started picking the guy’s brain.” The other field workers took in just enough to justify the day’s wages. Felipe was saving the info to his Stetson-shaded hard drive, storing it away for a sunny day.

Field Worker in a Lab Smock

By 1977 Felipe’s expertise and dedication had made him one of several vineyard managers overseeing the Zaca holdings. His territory was the hillside plantings. Emboldened with knowledge, he began tentatively to experiment with his own concoctions. With the boss’ blessing he set aside a small plot and began working with zinfandel grapes to see what he could come up with. In 1976 he produced his first wine. It wasn’t bad.

As it happens, that is the year California’s Napa Valley so upset the fancy-pants French by beating French wines in a blind taste test called, somewhat grandly, The Judgment of Paris; a watershed moment that put California’s previously under-appreciated wines on the map. As Felipe’s covert winemaking skills improved by leaps and bounds, so did his desire to fly under the radar. He began to dream. Might he one day actually produce a wine of his very own? Bottle under his own label?

But he had no desire to compete with nor affront the large winemaking concerns whom had so far nurtured and raised him in the business and treated him and his colleagues so well. When Caesar Chavez’s grape workers revolution came to the area in the 70’s, preaching at enormous events a humanizing message to the field workers and their bosses, Felipe was not wooed into that tent. His own supervisors had treated him and his fellows with nothing but familial respect. Returning that respect he now stretched his fledgling wings in secret.

Secret Vintner Finds Perfect Recipe. And Himself.

He experimented. On his own time and continuously. He produced line after line, much of it awful. He made lots of mistakes, and arrived at two important convictions early on; don’t holler too loudly about your successes, achieved as they are by the good graces of your benefactor, and while taking these baby steps into self-educated viticulture, don’t produce such huge amounts of grape juice that when things go wrong you have to dump a lot of wrecked product. Produce small amounts of wine and make it the very best wine you possibly can, small collectible vintages whose volume can be more easily massaged into greatness. His current work with limited production boutique wines sprang somewhat accidentally from these first self-directed commandments.

Many false starts and large dumps of palate-punishing juice later, he produced a drinkable zinfandel that stunned the locals. Fueled by the fulsome praise of his friends and neighbors, he took off like a bottle rocket.

A Great Pour

Today, Hernandez is an adored, near-legendary vintner in Santa Ynez, his story another brilliant star on the flag of immigrant-American affirmation. His label, Feliz Noche, produces a cabernet sauvignon, a syrah, a riesling, a pinot noir, and a bottled ambrosia called Mi Pasión. These limited-run wines are high-endish and served in certain tony eateries whose monied, right-leaning patrons would likely not endorse Hernandez’s border-jumping and subsequent sideways entry into entrepreneurial largesse and, yeah, American citizenship. No matter.

Along the way he became a citizen, a moment that was not lost on him, and which may just be the crowning achievement of all his restless forward motion. He becomes ruminative talking about it. “I’ll never forget when they played the National Anthem, you know? That’s something that will stay in my mind forever. I remember that moment big time.” He falls silent and looks away.

This former struggling illegal has sired a computer programmer, a mechanical engineer, a nurse and a cop on track to be an FBI agent. And then there is little Felipe, the youngest at 14. “Don’t call him Junior”, Felipe cackles helplessly. “It’ll piss him off.”

Felipe’s journey has been less an arc than a liftoff. He has yet to reach apogee. From dusty flyblown country hamlet to the finest eating and drinking establishments in the U.S., where his wines are swirled, sniffed and sipped by some who surely would decry his politically toxic blueprint for success. Possibly the Feliz Noche label should feature a stylized illustration of a boy in dust-covered blue jeans hurriedly scaling a fence.

“Of course there is luck, but you have to make the luck happen. A lot of hard work and a smiling face and everything will follow. It’s a very simple formula. I smile a lot. I’m a happy man,” said Hernandez. He pushes back his cowboy hat, itself a sweat-stained prop from an episode of The Big Valley. He stares briefly into the middle distance, the shadow of a grin appears. He seems to reconnoiter.

“Sir, I been as lucky as hell.”

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