Long before he settled in the Napa Valley and began producing his family wine, Alejandro Castillo Llamas grew up following the harvest cycle. The California-born son of migrant workers from Guadalajara, Mexico, spent much of his childhood with his family, traveling from California’s Coachella Valley, where he was born, up north to Oregon and back down to Mexico picking cherries, pears, olives, and grapes. It was during this period Llamas learned a skill set that would later become the core of his work as a winemaker.
When Llamas was a teenager, his family found work as planters on the early Stagecoach Vineyard property. After planting the vineyard’s first two acres of Malbec, Stagecoach founder Dr. Jan Krupp contracted Alejandro’s father to build a beautiful, rustic entryway for his property. Pleased with the work, Krupp offered Llamas a position managing the property. The elder Llamas declined — his request for health insurance was denied, says Llamas — and the position remained open. Shortly after, Llamas’s uncle accepted the position.
“Once Jan Krupp started purchasing what is now Stagecoach Vineyard and developing the vineyard, it was all led by my uncle Estaban Llamas,” Alejandro says. “Naturally, as that project, that property, that company grew, he started hiring cousins, brothers, sisters, so on and so forth.”
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Llamas also spent time with these vines, and says the labor taught him “to truly respect the grapes,” and that he draws from these experiences to produce what he calls “wines of memory.”
Today, Llamas is a founding partner and head winemaker at Llamas Family Wines, a small, family-owned operation that he heads with his relatives Oscar and Lola Llamas. Never forgetting his roots, he continues to source grapes from Stagecoach Vineyards, which became the Napa Valley’s largest contiguous vineyard. Sold to E&J Gallo Winery in 2016, Stagecoach sells fruit to more than 80 wineries, according to the company.
Though his path to winemaking wasn’t exactly traditional, Llamas believes his experience prepared him for the role. “I understand a lot of people learn winemaking, and then backtrack to learning viticulture. I was learning viticulture and then was presented the opportunity to transform the grape into wine,” he says. “It reminds you of what you had to do to get that [vine] planted, how pruning began in January and February; [and that] the grapes didn’t make it to the winery until September, October. There was more there than just the tangible grape itself. It was the blood, sweat, and tears of hardworking individuals that brought those grapes. And that’s what makes those wines memorable.”
Here, Llamas tells his story from roots to vines, beginning with his Mexican heritage through the harvests, his fine-dining career at such lauded establishments as French Laundry and Per Se and, finally, starting his own family winery in the Napa Valley.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. What was it like growing up and working the harvest cycle with your family?
Alejandro Llamas: I was born in the Coachella Valley. My parents were immigrants from right outside Guadalajara, Jalisco. They would come up annually to work in table grapes in the Coachella Valley, move north into the fields of Modesto, Delano, then Fairfield, Calif., [to] pick pears, then move north into Oregon, where they would harvest pears and cherries. On the way back down, they’d stop in Redding, Calif., and pick olives, then go into Mexico.
The migratory pattern was about nine months out of the year [with] three months in Mexico. I was born into that cyclical pattern with our family unit. My grandfather, Jesus Llamas, was the patriarch and my grandmother, Chayo Rosario, the matriarch. I grew up with this troop of family members that fluctuated anywhere from 10 to 20 individuals. It wasn’t until one year when the pears weren’t ready for harvest, and my grandfather decided to drive around and look for work, [that we were] able to get a harvest contract in Napa. The family went in and picked the grapes and did such a tremendous job that a couple of my uncles and father were offered full-time positions. That’s how the Llamas family started to establish roots in the Napa Valley.
2. Were you offered any chance to work with the grapes or winemaking head-on during that time?
AL: In terms of the technical side of wine production, there was always a viticulturist. In this case, my family had worked many years in vineyards, so they were essentially the knowledge behind the viticulture, and also consulted with other local viticulturists. When I was working in Stagecoach Vineyards, I was a young man, 17 or 16 years of age, and they had us doing a lot of backbreaking stuff; picking up rocks as we cleaned out fields, digging the holes for the planting of the vines. A lot of the hauling around of materials –– we certainly got the least desirable work.
3. From there, how did working in fine dining shape your goals as a winemaker, or your outlook on wine in general?
AL: My time in the Napa Valley was a transformative time. Growing up [there] meant long hours, hard work, and early mornings. I wanted to leave and travel; to save money and see Europe. That’s what drove me to start working in fine dining.
I was working in the vineyards with my father first thing in the morning and then I’d come home and go to school. Eventually a friend of mine said, ”Hey, you got to come and work at this restaurant. We make great money over here.”And it was the French Laundry. My initial response was, ”What am I going to do at a laundromat?” That’s how naive and new I was to Napa, to the wine industry, to the true landscape of gastronomy and oenology that I lived in.
Even though I lived there, I never had that. And when I started working there, that’s really when I started to learn how food and wine can pair together and be elevated.
You really can’t help but see the expression and the gratification on the guests’ face and want to become submerged in that and usurp as much of that as you can. And in the Napa Valley, I think a lot of people don’t get an opportunity to see the true breadth of wine on a global scale. But by working at the French Laundry, at Per Se, and places like Mustards Grill, where the wine programs really highlighted other parts of the world, it cemented in me that I wanted to be in the wine industry. It pushed me to pursue wines with cleaner lines, wines of memory, of meaningfulness, and age-worthiness. And I think that that’s still something that defines my winemaking aspirations.
4. It’s important to your team to only source grapes from the vineyards your family works on. How have you seen these change over the years? What are the strengths of working with these specific grapes?
AL: I’ve done so many grape harvests and harvesting grapes is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s intense, it’s demanding, and because I had an opportunity to do that for so long with my family –– and particularly those that work at Stagecoach Vineyards –– I grew up in a culture that was immersed in grapes and vines, in viticulture.
A lot of people go to the family barbecue and might be talking about what’s going on with family members. All the barbecues I went to were typically about soccer, and what was happening in a grape –– what was happening in the vineyard. What was the growing season looking like? If we were in a drought, or block seven needs more water, block eight needs to be thinned.
Even as I distanced myself from the vineyard, I never distanced myself from the family. So in a sense, I never left the vineyard. I was always on the pulse of what was happening.
Now the family members know I have a project, know which block I’m sourcing from, [and] it almost feels like they want to take that extra step. They want to do that extra thinning, that extra pruning because they know that those grapes are going into a bottle that bears their last name. These people have farmed this particular vineyard going on 30 years now, and anyone who farms the land gets to know the land better. That makes for a better grape, and given the adage that “the best wines come from the best grapes,” I’d like to think it makes our wine better every season.
5. What are two ways in which you hope to see the Napa Valley wine scene or larger wine industry change in the future?
AL: I would like to see the voices of small producers amplified at the city and state legislative level so that we’re not usurped or drowned out by the large corporate and financial interests currently flooding the Napa Valley.
A lot of the conversations that are happening and the legislation that’s being drafted is favoring those that have strong financial backing. So if we start caring more about our small producers and understand the nuances of being a small family-owned brand –– that we do need help and that we’re not trying to circumvent laws. We want to do everything by the book, but it’s difficult when a lot of the language and legislation really eliminates the small farmers; the small brands that don’t have brick and mortars.
It’d be a shame to lose that in the Napa Valley, because many of those grassroot producers embody the original spirit of the Napa Valley.
And then I’d like to see more innovation and experimentation with grape varietals to adapt to new climate trends, and basically broaden the Napa Valley wine palette. I think Napa Valley makes world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot, but it does become redundant, so it’d be nice to see some diversity.