THE RISING SUN OF ALUMBRA
Elena Rodriguez leads Yamhill Valley’s newest Latina label
Story by Mark Stock
Photos by Rusty Rae
It’s practically a tall tale in these parts, but it should be just standard non-fiction fare.
“The story starts with my father,” says Elena Rodriguez, the founder of Alumbra Cellars. Her father, Leo, planted the vineyard in 2005. Earlier this year, the estate-minded label was officially launched, under an elegant title that essentially means “to light.”
“He grew up on a farm in Mexico in the state of Durango. He was pulled out of the fifth grade to help his grandfather work on the farm to support the family,” she continues. “But he envisioned himself doing more in the United States to better himself and his future family.”
In the 1970s, Leo headed north to the U.S. In the mid-’90s, he bought a small parcel of land in Dayton, raising livestock until realizing the potential for viticulture. A wine industry friend approached Leo to shed some light on the site’s promise. “The first block in 2005 was five acres, followed by another six acres in 2006,” Elena says. “This year, we will be planting an additional seven acres.”
The vineyard, at the base of the Dundee Hills, between the McMinnville Airport and the Willamette River, rests just off Highway 233 on the outskirts of Dayton. It’s a mix of Pinot Noir clones set at a fairly low elevation in soils transported by the Missoula Floods.
“I asked and asked questions, and jumped at every opportunity I had when they needed help cleaning, setting up or any kind of cellar work.” —Elena Rodriguez
Last year marked the label’s first vintage, made primarily from estate fruit. Elena describes the 2018 vintage as “amazing.” Alumbra sources Riesling from elsewhere but will be bottling an estate version once the site’s plantings are ready. Her first wine was a Rosé of Pinot Noir, picked in mid-September and fermented in stainless steel. “It’s crisp with a wonderful fruit-forward aroma,” Elena says. “A taste of strawberry initially with hints of guava. It’s a summer wine to the core. I want this wine to shine.”
Production remains minimal presently, set at about 250 cases, yet Elena hopes to take on a bit more in each of the coming vintages. Prior to the Alumbra label, much of the fruit was sold to NW Wine Co. Currently, estate fruit is being used by the Rodriguez family and a few other small operations in the area.
There’s moxie running through the family tree, that’s for sure. Leo entered the industry in 2005 without any viticultural experience. Elena came in much the same way, returning to the vineyard in 2014 without any kind of formal training. “It is only in these last five years that I’ve come to love the vineyard and learn to appreciate wine.”
Elena’s experience has come primarily from volunteering in the cellar and diving into books on the subject. She began by helping process fruit for one of her buyers. “I asked and asked questions, and jumped at every opportunity I had when they needed help cleaning, setting up or any kind of cellar work,” she says.
This autumn, between new vineyard plantings and another Alumbra harvest, Elena hopes to enroll in some enology classes at nearby Chemeketa Community College. “Now that I know the process and have made a small batch of wine, I’m excited and know that formal education will be immensely beneficial for my winemaking career.”
A genuine family affair, Alumbra is as close-knit as businesses come. “Family-owned operations are unique; we function with the highs and lows, but, ultimately, I know I can trust my partners,” she says. “I can trust them to give me constructive criticism, and we are open and honest with each other — maybe too much.”
Elena finds joy in sharing her success with the people she loves most. Moreover, she finds sharing something with the world that she cultivated with her family equally satisfying. Given the context, the Alumbra name seems fitting, indeed.
“The Spanish language has a rich history of deep and romantic meanings for simple words in English,” she says. “I wanted a name which reflected our family heritage and values. Alumbra also means goodness and happiness. This is how we want to treat our customers, employees and community.”
Of course, the question of inclusivity still remains. The Oregon wine industry — and American wine machine in general — is a mostly white-washed, male-dominated organism dependent, like most agricultural arenas, on the backbreaking work of others. Elena is the first to admit that the situation is complicated.
“Yes, the industry can always do more to be inclusive to Latinos,” she says. “We have a footprint at every vineyard and winery in the Willamette Valley. We know the vineyard management side of the business. We understand the labor and what it takes to start a vineyard. We just need more Latinos to be self-confident and take the next step.”
“My advice for Latino gente is not to be afraid of failure,” she says. “Be confident in your abilities and keep moving forward.”
More Latino labels to whet your whistle
Launched by the late Jesus Guillén, former winemaker at White Rose Estate, Guillén Cellars is his family’s smaller side project. With a strong familial theme and small batches of his signature whole-cluster fermented Pinot Noir, it’s great wine for the collector as it evolves beautifully over time.
Cramoisi is the realized dream of husband-and-wife team Sofia Torres McKay and Ryan McKay. Sofia hails from Mexico City and ultimately fell in love with Oregon wine country. She and Ryan run their Dundee Hills operation, inspired by Biodynamic farming and focused on Pinot Noir and rosé. Their two children help tend the vines.