Of course, it was self-centered at first, as most things are when it comes to career goals. In fact, I expected a different sort of journey in 2004, on the floor of the wine shop in Redwood City, restocking Merlot for the umpteenth time. That day I first learned about this “thing” called a Master of Wine (MW); the idea was simple and seductive: get the top credential of wine in the world and then do what you want—end of story. Turns out what I wanted was not that straightforward. Rather, under the surface of basic ambition, something more elusive and important was gestating. It took over 15 years to discover what it was, with the MW playing the role of accidental catalyst.
From a young age, I felt a quiet unease. It began as a simple awareness of a divide between US-born Latinos and Mexican immigrants. Those with heavier accents generally had service or labor roles. From a child’s untrained eye, most of those who looked like me worked (with exceptions, of course) as janitors at school instead of teaching in that school. People who looked like my mother cleaned the houses of friends I visited. The few I did meet visiting from Mexico were themselves different in a way that I could not place. The unease became a question… where did I fit in? Should I say hello in Spanish or English? By choosing English, I put up a wall. By choosing Spanish, things just got weird…
The subtle awkwardness went beyond language choice. I distanced myself further from the culture, like a directionless satellite drifting from its home planet. As a freshman undergrad, I attended one MECHA meeting but left midway through. The next day, I joined an acapella group. It was more interesting to study in Paris vs. South America. It was there I discovered wine; it gave a nice buzz and seemed sophisticated. After college, my failure in high-tech recruiting morphed into a job as a not-very-good bartender, followed by a stint as a marginally better stock-boy at a wine shop. They hired me after seeing me come to all their tastings. Just like that, a career started that epitomized my internal cultural divide. The Americanized experience was baked in; inertia tends to be comfortable.
The job was great, but my unease experienced a new layer, like sediment settling on bedrock. They were small things, really: customers preferring to speak to older white reps, promotions offered to newer hires, distributors pausing when I asked to taste their portfolio. Was it because I was young, or was it something else? Those moments of subtle underestimation piled up over the years, but I also perceived how credentials were useful ways to diffuse that cognitive dissonance. Each new title earned was quickly added to my business card. They were the “easy button” to get people to stop wondering, and we could all just move onto the wine purpose at hand.
By this time, the MW, which I’d been inching towards, looked more useful than ever. Somewhat ironically, the reasons that drove me grew up alongside me. For one, achieving this goal seemed like the best way—in this lovely but shockingly low-paying industry—to provide better financial stability for my growing family. Secondly, something larger than me or my family came into focus when discovering that I might be the first person of Mexican descent to finish the MW program. There inside that juicy tidbit, a “so what?” was waiting to be answered.
That “so what?” crystalized after the initial media burst from the announcement last year. First came the acknowledgment from many Latino-Americano professionals, which made me realize there had ALWAYS been important, foundational people of my shared culture in the US wine industry for years, like MAVA, and so much more. (I mean, Gustavo Brambila is from Jalisco. Don’t know him? He was in “Bottle Shock” …hello!). But soon after, I discovered that Mexico itself is, from a global perspective, a hidden, wine-producing rock star. Furthermore, it has a growing, thriving wine culture, and its wine pros are ambitious, impressive, and, frankly, as driven as anyone I’ve seen on this side.
Incredibly, the MW credential bridged the gap I could never do alone. This year I will visit Mexico four times for wine-related purposes, having not been there in over 15 years. I now have reason to visit family in Chihuahua because of a winery contact based there, and my Spanish is re-polishing itself beyond my wildest expectations. My professional network is richer now that it includes new colleagues and friendships, and this is leading to meaningful commercial initiatives; the bustling social network is welcoming, engaging, and wicked-smart. If you ask me “what’s it like to be a Mexican-American Master of Wine?” I’ll happily admit it awoke a dormant link to my heritage and turned it into a vibrant connection. However, while important for all the reasons one could think—challenging stereotypes, bolstering a career, increasing financial revenue potential—that answer is incomplete. What is happening is more important. One person’s dream-spark while stocking Merlot in 2004 is merely a statistic of a persistent evolution of the full North American wine trade. The culture of wine is not simply a single color, status, or gender; it never has been. Likewise, little-known wine regions or grapes (Mexican-Nebbiolo, my goodness) can shatter every misconception. Your highest climbable mountain is merely a wrinkle in the fabric of a much broader landscape we all belong to. I will stand cheering alongside the world, as the day comes when Mexico welcomes its first Mexican citizen MW. Even then, dear reader, it’s only part of the journey. Just like finally coming home is just the start of a feast.