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Paul Franson's Wine Dispatch
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Jan 7, 2003 — The Other Voice of the Valley - Rafael Rodriguez, from prune picker to Valley legend

Visitors to Napa Valley see the verdant vineyards, the majestic wineries, the mountains surrounding the beautiful Valley. They read about the historic figures of the Valley: Gustav Niebaum and Jacob Scram, or Robert Mondavi, who, as much as anyone, made the Valley what it is today, or today’s trendy winemakers and celebrity chefs.

Most visitors little notice the quiet figures far off in the fields, pruning and grafting vines, picking grapes and clearing weeds. Yet these farm workers have collectively contributed as much to the Valley as their more-visible partners in winemaking. One of their own, in fact, has forged a remarkable career to become a true legend.

Rafael Rodriguez was profiled in Napa, James Conaway’s fascinating study of the Valley, as a parable for the last 50 years of the Valley itself. His experiences weave through the book, receiving as much attention as most Valley notables.

Rafael was born in Mexico City to a poor family but educated in a technical institute. He immigrated to El Norte during World War II when the United States needed farm workers to replace those who went to war. At a time, Mexican workers weren’t even allowed to touch the grapevines in the Valley.

Rafael first worked in the fields in Watsonville, then had an opportunity to move to the Valley, where he soon went to work for a nurseryman named Salvador Emmolo. Emmolo taught Rafael to prune and graft vines, a demanding but rewarding operation. Because he had technical training, he also learned to drive a tractor. He later got a job at the vast Inglenook ranch and vineyards, and his talent was recognized: He and his new family moved into a house on the property in 1952.

Through hard work and inherent talent, he prospered, learning more of the operations of the vineyard until he had mastered them. In 1964, owner John Daniel sold the property to United Vintners, and the new owners turned management of the 100-acre Inglenook vineyard on highway 29 in Rutherford over to Rafael. Later, he also took over management of the famed 250-acre Beaulieu vineyard as well.

Rafael later became a member of the St. Helena School Board, and de-facto leader of the local Mexican and Mexican-American community. That led to a tempestuous period as president of the Grower’s Foundation, formed by vineyard owners to provide stability and benefits to improve the lot of farm workers as an alternative to unionism. “I was considered a traitor; Mexicans were supposed to be for Chavez,” he says. “Yet those who joined the union didn’t get they were promised. They didn’t stay in the unions.”

At 77, Rafael seems 20 years younger. His quiet eloquence belies a man who spent much his early years in hard manual labor; in unpublished writings about the growing of grapes and giant Percheron-Morgan horses, his poetic nature comes through. Now, he works part time leading tours of the vineyards and grounds he once managed at Niebaum-Coppola Estates. He lives with his wife Tila off Zinfandel Lane south of St. Helena. His four children are grown, and he has eight grandchildren.

After his partial retirement, Rafael traveled to France, Spain and Italy as part of a distinguished mission to learn new ideas from Europe — while advising Old World growers on the latest techniques from wine’s New World. He was delighted at the reception he received as a representative from Napa Valley.

In looking back, Rodriguez is grateful that he ended up in Napa, not some other part of the United States where conditions have always been worse for farm workers. Modestly overlooking the part he has played in improving the lot of today’s workers, he points out that the Valley was always different because of its few and relatively small wineries: “Here workers mingled with growers and came to know each other as people,” he says. “Over time, the grower began to realize that he had to rely on people he knew would do good job. They started to think of ways to provide housing for the families.”

Now, many of the farm workers are permanent residents of the Valley, and their families attend local schools and they participate in political and economic life. Housing — one of the early problems he addressed — remains a big problem, as it does for others in this expensive Valley where grapes generally take precedence over housing —moderate or majestic. “Land is very expensive, and it’s difficult to build housing to keep the workers. Unfortunately, the country hasn’t been very understanding.”

He adds that Robert Mondavi was one of the first wineries to think ab out housing for its workers, pioneering as it has in so many other ways. “Mondavi comprehended the needs of the workers,” he says.

Yet Rafael, like many others, worries at the changes that are occurring. “The Valley is tremendously exciting, but it’s too bad that it’s abandoning its bucolic, small-town atmosphere. The newcomers say they want to keep the Valley as it is, but they’re the ones who bring outside ideas.”

Nevertheless, he’s glad that some of those outside ideas have taken root. When he came here 50 years ago, it was inconceivable that a Mexican immigrant might serve eight years on the local school board, two as president. Some things do change for the better.

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