Aldina Vineyards co-owner Monica Lopez is breaking barriers

Bacchus Collective

Monica Lopez witnessed the alchemy of a man.

When she was in her 20s, she watched the romance of wine transform her father, Al Lopez, from a publisher to a garagista who made wine in his garage from the fruit in his hobby vineyard.

“You could see the pride, the energy and the love he felt for what he created with his own wine,” she said.

The allure of wine also altered Lopez’s course.

The 41-year-old vintner of Aldina Vineyards, which has a tasting room in Healdsburg, is the first woman to be elected president of the Mexican-American Vintners Association.

“I’m breaking a barrier in more ways than one because I’m a Latina and I think, culturally, we’re not expected to be in these positions,” she said. “But for me personally I’m of a younger generation where I feel women and men can do any of it and all of it.”

Now at the helm for the next two years, Lopez is aiming for an even stronger unity among members because she said it will give them broader reach.

“I think the perception is that Latinos or specifically Mexicans have been the labor force in these two counties (Sonoma and Napa) and we still are to a certain degree,” she added. “But we’re more than that. We’re more than the labor force.”

The group is comprised of 17 member-vintners who are largely from Sonoma and Napa counties. Its farthest outlying member is a vintner in the Southern California city of Santa Ana in Orange County.

Vintners who band together “can do more together” to highlight their brands, Lopez saidThe Mexican-American Vintner Association or MAVA was established in 2010.

That year, the governor of Michoacán, a state in western Mexico bordered by the Pacific Ocean, invited several Mexican-American vintners from the Sonoma and Napa valleys to pour their wines at the Michoacán State Fair.

Feeling the pull of their Mexican heritage, a number of those who went to Michoacán believed they could leverage their business acumen in Mexico, as well as in the United States, where Mexican Americans are one of the fastest-growing consumer groups.

Amelia Moran Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards, and her husband, Pedro, were at that tasting in Mexico and she recalls how she and the other vintners bonded because of their shared heritage. Most of them were born in Mexico.

“We were chatting until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. in the morning,” Ceja said with a laugh. “And when we returned to Napa we wanted to continue the conversation and officially start the trade organization.”

The vintners, Ceja said, had talked about creating a trade organization called the Hispanic Vintners Association back in 2000 and the trip to Mexico solidified the goal to join forces. Paying homage to their Mexican roots, they settled on calling this new organization the Mexican-American Vintners Association.

“Pedro was one of the first on the board and I went to all the meetings with him,” Ceja explained. “It was exciting to start the trade association that would really bring attention to the contribution of Mexican Americans to the wine industry.”

Today, the association’s mission is to “foster and inspire the next generation of vintners” and to “highlight the sacrifice and contributions to the wine industry made by the farmworkers,” according to Mexican-American Vintner Association’s website.

Delighted that Monica Lopez is leading the charge, Ceja said there have only been male presidents in the past and women are particularly gifted at multitasking.

“We feel Monica is highly qualified,” Ceja said. “She will bring fresh new ideas and will bring what the next chapter of the association will be.”

Sergio Fernandez, the co-vintner of Napa Valley’s Don Chalo Cellars, said he’s excited about the association’s new direction.

“We like Monica’s ideas for getting new members,” Fernandez said, “and for planning more gatherings to pour the wines.”

Fernandez launched his first label in 2018, a tribute to his late father Don Chalo (Fernandez), who originally came to the Napa Valley in the 1970s through the Bracero Program. Initiated in 1942, the program was an agreement between the United States and the Mexican governments to allow permitted Mexican citizens to take temporary agricultural work in the U.S.

While his father passed before he tasted his namesake wine, Fernandez said he’s excited more people will likely experience it under Lopez’s watch.

“Monica wants to do more marketing to get more exposure for the wines,” Fernandez said.

A vision for the future

As of July 2023, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, Sonoma County’s population is 28.9% Latino, while in Napa County the Latino community is 36% of the population

Inclusivity is Lopez’s vision for Mexican-American Vintner Association’s future.

She wants to reach out to Latino vintners across California, beyond Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

“I’d love to encompass the state of California and I think it would provide more exposure to Latino vintners if they’re seeing 40 or 60 of us versus 17 of us together,” she said. “It would be more impactful.”

Inclusivity, Lopez said, also means including Latino vintners who immigrated from South America and Central America, in addition to those from Mexico.

“When I say (goals for inclusivity), I say it with all due respect because when the founders formed this organization, they did it in a different light,” Lopez said.

Most of the initial members were born in Mexico, so they targeted Mexican-American vintners, with a name that reflected its members.

“This is 2024,” Lopez said. “When this organization started, it wasn’t today’s world and it wasn’t started by a 41-year old woman.”

Elevating Latino voices

Lopez is determined to tell the wine industry — and the world at large — Latinos have a broad role to play in Wine Country. And multitasking, taking on a whirlwind of responsibilities, she said, gives rise to her voice.

The mother of 7-year-old twins, Emiliano and Liliana, Lopez said she has many titles besides her 24/7 position as mom.

“I get it from my family,” she said. “My family is very entrepreneurial.”

In addition to being the president of Mexican-American Vintner Association, Lopez is the co-proprietor of Aldina Vineyards, founded in 2012. The Aldina label is a portmanteau of Lopez’s parents names, Al and Dina.

The publisher of Lowrider magazine, Al Lopez had a thriving business in Los Angeles with high-production car shows to highlight his magazine.

But he moved his family to Sonoma County, where he planted a hobby vineyard in 1999, which inspired him to delve deeper into winemaking.

Today, the fruit from Aldina Vineyards— what was once his hobby vineyard — produces 1,500 cases yearly for the boutique winery. Its winemaker is Belén Ceja.

“Culturally, we wanted to seek out a Latino winemaker,” Lopez said. “We wanted to stick to our roots. For me and for our family as a whole it’s creating opportunities for other Latinos.”

Lopez is also general manager of Bacchus Landing, the wine hospitality center just west of Healdsburg city limits.

The Mediterranean-style event center resembles a small European village, and it includes a large piazza, rooftop deck and six tasting rooms leased to small, family-owned wineries. It opened in 2021 and it’s also where Aldina Vineyards pours its wines.

Of her many time-consuming roles, Lopez also serves as a board member of the Sonoma County Vintners, as well as the Fountaingrove District AVA (American Viticultural Area) association and the Luther Burbank Center of the Arts.

“Sometimes I wonder how I can get everything done,” Lopez said, with a laugh.

But the Mexican-American Vintner Association president sees every endeavor as an opportunity to shift a perspective and break a barrier.

“Latinos are an integral part of the wine industry at every level, from the workforce to winemakers to winery owners,” she said. “We need to be more active in the community to reflect this representation and have our voices heard in and out of the industry.”