Three Mexican-american Vintners Tell Their Stories

Posted: Oct 23, 2019

Alex Llamas, Gustavo Brambila and Amelia Ceja arrived as migrant workers and today thrive as entrepreneurs in the California wine industry

The wine-making bug bit Alejandro “Alex” Castillo Llamas early on. His parents, migrant workers from Mexico, had settled in Napa, California, finding work in a vineyard, when he was just nine years old. He labored alongside his family, harvesting the grapes from the fields.

Later, as a young man in the early 2000s, he worked a year at two of the country’s finest dining restaurants—the three-Michelin-star French Laundry in the Napa Valley and New York City’s Per Se. Back in Napa, he worked in the vineyard, the tasting rooms and cellars at several wineries. One afternoon at a family barbeque in 2008, after acquiring a small batch of grapes, he bottled his first wine and shared it around the table. His uncle Oscar Llamas, the owner of several auto body shops in town, took several sips of the new vintages and agreed to front him the money to start his wine business. Just five years later, Llamas Family Wines, with Alex as the head winemaker, was producing world-class wines.

Llamas Wines is a uniquely interconnected family affair. Even though Alex and Oscar do not have their own fields to grow the grapes, they buy fruit from the vineyards where other members of the Llamas family are employed picking the grapes. The years of dedication, working in the wine industry proved critical to their standout success in the industry. “Knowledge is paramount,” says Alex Llamas. “Any time, you see someone come in and work quickly, efficiently, and with technique and knowledge, you want to retain them. And I think that was really the case with the Llamas family.”

With his start in the restaurant business, Llamas acquired his deep knowledge from the ground up—business operations, hospitality and finally, how to select the fine wines that his customers appreciated.

Alejandro Castillo Llamas acquired his deep knowledge of the wine business from the ground up.

Proud of his Mexican roots and his family’s achievement in the U.S., Alex Llamas' label reflects that heritage. Each bottle carries the signature logo depicting the pincher legs and a curved tail of a scorpion, a symbol that recalls the cattle brand his grandfather Jesus Llamas—“Papa Chuy” to the grandkids—had used on the small ranch that he owned in San Nicolas de Acuña, near Lake Chapala in Mexico. “Every single Llamas Family wine bottle does bear the scorpion,” says Llamas. “And that is a kind of subliminal message to honor where I come from, so that I can better understand where I’m going.”

By L. Stephen Velasquez
October 22, 2019 
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