Farmworker becomes WINERY OWNER
Sergio Martinez’s grapes are grown on a sought-after location, but he never thought much about them—until recently.
Sergio and Kristy Martinez have partnered with their son and daughter-in-law to establish Martinez and Martinez Winery.
A life-long farmworker, Sergio Martinez dreamed that if he won the lottery, he’d invest in a business where his money could work for him.
And though he’s grown wine grapes on a few acres in Washington State’s Horse Heaven Hills appellation for nearly 30 years, becoming a winery owner was not in his visions. It took a detailed business plan and much persuasion from his son Andrew and daughter-in-law Monica to convince him to partner in Martinez and Martinez Winery, which is said to be the second Hispanic-owned winery in the state.
“I was pretty skeptical,” said Sergio during an interview at his home on Phinny Hill near Alderdale on a warm spring afternoon after he finished his day job as production manager at Alder Ridge Vineyards.
“He was really skeptical,” Andrew said, adding that his father is not a risk taker. The venture is a big financial investment and has required much of Sergio’s retirement fund and life savings.
“The kids kept telling me that my grapes were high quality, prodding me to do more than just sell them to wineries. But I didn’t think they were that big a deal,” Sergio said modestly. He’s sold his grapes to several different wineries through the years, but most recently to Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla.
His three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on the east-facing slope of Phinny Hill are located in some of the state’s most elite real estate for wine grapes. Across the road is the famed Champoux Vineyard LLC, planted by wine pioneer Don Mercer with guidance from the late Dr. Walter Clore, and almost next door is Palengat Vineyard, a partnership of Quilceda Creek Vintners’s Paul Golitzin and John Ware. Quilceda Creek has received three perfect scores from Wine Advocate magazine’s Robert Parker for its 2002, 2003, and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon wines that came from the Champoux Vineyard.
Born in Mexico, Sergio, 55, grew up in Modesto, California, and left high school by the tenth grade to join his parents in the fields. His father traveled from California’s San Joaquin Valley to apple orchards in Oroville, Washington. It was during the annual migration to follow the crops that Sergio settled in Prosser, working in apples and hops. In 1976, he married Prosser native Kristy Juzeler, daughter of Frances Mercer and cousin to Don and Bud Mercer.
Sergio worked as an irrigator for Columbia River Farms (now home to Columbia Crest Vineyards and Winery in Paterson) and then joined the Mercer Ranch, running pivot irrigation in their fruit, vegetable, and field crops.
While working for the Mercers, a small parcel became available in 1979, and he bought seven acres of land for $250 per acre. A Christmas gift from his father-in-law of $1,000 was used to buy the grape cuttings from the Mercers’ mother grape block. Family and neighbors helped him survey and plant the vineyard in 1981.
“At the time, people thought I was crazy to plant grapes because apples were the crop being planted,” Sergio said.
He spaced his vines seven feet apart with ten feet between rows. “I knew the whys of viticulture practices, having done pruning, thinning, and such all my life. But learning irrigation was trial and error. Everyone was telling me I wasn’t watering enough, but I knew that in late summer I needed to cut back the water to ready the vines for winter. It turns out the vines had plenty of water, especially compared to today’s deficit irrigation.”
Since the mid-1990s, he has worked at Alder Ridge Vineyard and helped plant the vineyard’s first grapes, which are now the source, along with a small amount of his own grapes, for Martinez & Martinez wines.
Through the years, Sergio has kept yields to about three tons per acre. He does his own pruning, but for the hand-picked harvest, he entices workers from Alder Ridge Vineyard to come on a weekend, paying them a premium as well as hosting a barbeque at the end of the day.
Andrew and Monica, Prosser High School classmates who married in 2006, are the drivers behind Martinez and Martinez Winery. They know the road before them will be hard. With more than 650 wineries licensed in the state, competition is intense. Wine sales, which are closely tied to the general economy, are still lagging from their high of a few years ago when Monica developed the business plan and price points for their wines.
From the time Andrew was 11 until he graduated from college, he worked summers with the field crews at Mercer Ranch, starting as a weed puller in carrot fields. “Working in the fields taught me that I wanted to do something beside farm work,” he said with a smile. Today, he spends three days a week as a dental hygienist and the other days as winemaker.
Monica, the daughter of Prosser tree fruit and grape grower Mark Tudor, earned spending money by helping in her family’s orchards and vineyards as a young teen. Hoeing weeds was her first job. She graduated from Washington State University and worked in human relations, but a family history in winemaking and the industry’s growing influence in eastern Washington kept the idea of a winery always present. Monica’s grandparents, Andy and Betty Tudor, sold their southern California vineyard and winery in 1970 and relocated to Prosser where Andy planted grapes and apples. Though he died before reestablishing his own winery, Andy was winemaker at Prosser’s first winery, Bordy Wines, according to Monica.
It was while she was earning her MBA several years ago that the winery concept became real. Her master’s thesis—a business plan for a family winery—helped convince Sergio to take the step from grower to winery.
The winery’s first crush was in 2005, which produced 250 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon released in 2008. With gold and bronze awards from their first vintage, and awards from the second vintage released last year, they are off to a good start.
Future plans include expanding Sergio’s grape acreage by planting an adjoining ten-acre parcel he owns on Phinny Hill, and building a winery and/or tasting room facility.