PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA ILLUSTRATION BY THE JAMS BRAND, JESSICA CARMEN AND AUGIE WK
Three Monterey Bay area sommeliers reflect on their Mexican heritage
Change is in the wind. Unprecedented protests this summer inspired difficult—but necessary—discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion across all aspects of our society, including the restaurant and hospitality industry. Racist rants at local restaurants shook our sheltered beliefs of equality in our own backyard. And of course this has all played out during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color and reinvigorated efforts to protect the most vulnerable in our community.
As the local hospitality community wrestles with ways to become more egalitarian, three sommeliers reflect on working in a field that’s been slow to change—wine service. Bernabe De Luna, Fanny González and Germaine Esquivel work in an industry still dominated by white men and have experienced discrimination for being “other.” But they are resilient and unrelentingly in their pride for their Mexican culture and identity. These three share a passion for hospitality, and also hope and optimism that recent events have sparked a renewed drive to create a more inclusive industry.
Bernabe De Luna
Sommelier, Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse, Carmel
Like many immigrants, Bernabe De Luna came here in pursuit of the American Dream. He moved from his hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico, to the Central Coast in 1988.
“I came here after my father passed away, just like everybody looking for a better living,” he says. At first, he found work in the farm fields outside Gilroy, but over time has become a fixture of Monterey County’s most elite epicurean endeavors—sommelier.
De Luna’s passion for wine took root at the historic Highlands Inn in 1991 when he answered a job posting for a busser at its California Market restaurant. Soon after, he moved to room service, where he became curious about the prized bottles of wine he delivered to room after room.
“In the winter, when it was slow, I started reading Wine Spectator, issue after issue,” he recalls. “It intrigued me how hundreds of wines were reviewed in every issue. ‘Why were there so many wines all over the place?’ I wondered.”
Curiosity turned to opportunity. “I didn’t want to be stuck in room service,” he says. “I wanted to—and still want to—become the best server in Monterey County.” The chance to move to the inn’s elite Pacific’s Edge restaurant inspired De Luna to study up on varietals and vintages. Armed with a passion for service and oenological knowledge, he bested three other applicants in line ahead of him to join the esteemed service staff at Pacific’s Edge in 1996. Over the next nine years, he rose up the ranks, becoming a sommelier on the floor in 1999, then lead sommelier and finally wine director.
De Luna was integral in securing talent for a hallmark event at the Highlands Inn—the Masters of Food & Wine. Winemakers, sommeliers and more hold him in high esteem. He forged lifelong relationships with wine professionals and helped gourmands from around the globe discover wine. His humble personality is disarming for wine novices, and his expert palate and encyclopedic knowledge wow grape geeks.
He left the Central Coast in 2005 to pursue opportunities with celebrity talent in Las Vegas and San Francisco. By 2010, De Luna returned to helm wine service at Cantinetta Luca and help coordinate wine service for another culinary fête—GourmetFest. In 2014, De Luna found himself once more at one of the county’s most buzzworthy dining destinations as wine director for Restaurant 1833. There, he showcased the unique terroir of Monterey County with its most storied wine producers. Earlier this year, De Luna joined the team at the slick Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse.
Despite his impressive pedigree, diners have sometimes had a hard time believing a Latino was the sommelier, De Luna recalls. “People would ask, ‘Can we speak to the somm?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, that’s me.’ They’d say again, ‘No, can we speak to the somm?’ and I’d say again, ‘Yes, that’s me!’”
“Being a Latino in wine, I’m a ‘minority’ right now, but I can see a big movement in our profession. We won’t be a minority anymore,” he says.
What’s driving the demographic shift?
As a veteran of wine service, De Luna has seen Mexicans’ appetite for wine growing—squashing stereotypes that they only drink beer and tequila.
“Where I come from in Mexico—in the middle of the country, up in the mountains—there was wine, but not necessarily in my culture,” he recalls. “It was for the wealthy people, people in the upper class who traveled.”
Now younger generations of Mexicans embrace wine, crediting greater access to education and travel for democratizing wine and shattering its perception as a drink for the elite class. “It has to do with exposure. I don’t think it’s because we’re afraid of wine, it’s because we haven’t been exposed,” he says.
De Luna emphasizes Mexicans aren’t just embracing wine as consumers, but also as producers. He was an early advocate for Mexico’s blossoming wine business from Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe— now a darling of stateside somms. “When I wanted to promote Mexican wines, I wanted to promote my culture,” he adds.
And here in the United States, De Luna says there’s promise in a new generation of Mexican American winemakers.
“Mexican and Mexican American farmers that started working in grape farming, now they own land and they’re going to start making wine,” he says, sharing examples of Latinx winemakers in Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. “This is just the beginning.”
Tasting Room Lead, Scheid Vineyards Tasting Room, Carmel
Fanny González cultivated her passion for hospitality at a young age. At her family’s restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico, she developed a taste for food, wine and service. “I feel the industry raised me. I grew up surrounded by amazing food and learning about the world of hospitality,” she says. “I decided this industry was going to be my path in life.”
She was hooked and as she grew older, she went to culinary school, which required classes in wine and viticulture. Those classes stirred up memories of the wines and spirits her uncle would secure for the restaurant.
“When I started taking my wine classes, the first wines I started tasting were Spanish,” she recalls. “All of a sudden, I remembered those!” A rush of memories—of aromas, of tempranillo, of sherry—hit her. “I fell in love with it. I remember asking my teacher for more and I ran to a wine shop to buy a bunch of different tempranillos to try. I was so obsessed with it.”
But after she finished her culinary studies, González recalls feeling burnt out from the family business and seeking something fresh. “Wine was the thing that brought me alive again.”
“I’m the kind of person that’s always looking for learning and this is the perfect industry for that. It’s always evolving,” she says, admitting she was charmed by the world of wine. “Everyone that belongs to this amazing culture will agree with me when I say wine knowledge is addictive.”
Having studied under a Chilean sommelier in culinary school, González moved to Chile in 2013 and enrolled at the Escuela de Sommeliers de Chile, part of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale. There, she worked for Vinos del Mundo—one of Chile’s biggest wine shops—as well as wineries like Odfjell and Calyptra.
González moved to the Monterey Peninsula in 2015. Not speaking English, she enrolled at Cabrillo College, where she connected with Alicia Cuadra, another triple-threat Latina who’s a certified sommelier, wine educator and Champagne sales representative. “She pushed me to follow my path.”
González credits Cuadra with opening the door to working in wine on the Central Coast. “She was super gracious to invite me to events and introduce me to people.”
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing getting settled into local wine service. She recalls being dismissed by patrons during her tenure in local tasting rooms—not for her race, but for her gender. “As a woman, I wasn’t knowledgeable to them, so they try to test my knowledge. When I know something, I know something. I just don’t try to be snooty or arrogant about it and show off.”
González persisted, proving her prowess and palate to both patrons and hiring managers. “Once you get into this world and show your knowledge, show how excited and how passionate you are, doors start opening for you,” she says.
She’s grateful for the support of Cuadra and Bernabe De Luna too, who helped connect her to sommeliers in Carmel and brought her into the fold as a sommelier for GourmetFest. “He’s one of the leaders in the industry who has a lot of connections.”
In 2017, González started at Scheid and last summer was promoted to tasting room lead, where her responsibilities include education and mentoring for tasting room staff. She has also secured a scholarship from the San Francisco Wine School for certification in Spanish wine. She shares her passion for wine every chance she gets, in the tasting room and in informal settings too.
González sees a responsibility for Latinxs in the industry to serve as mentors, ambassadors and advisors to fellow Latinxs—and other minorities— to strengthen the diversity of the sommelier community. She believes expanded education and access are critical to building greater diversity and inclusion in her industry. “We need to make wine education accessible for everyone that wants to be in this profession, because as we all know education is the cornerstone to progress in any field.”
Of course she also recognizes how immigration policy complicates efforts for greater inclusivity. González considers herself fortunate to be a U.S. citizen—her father became a citizen in his 20s and sponsored her citizenship when she was a child. “I got a scholarship because I’m a U.S. citizen, but these are opportunities other Latinos can’t reach— education, health and help.”
The student sees herself as a teacher now as well. “I love the history behind every bottle and I appreciate being able to bring it alive and educate consumers about a world of flavors that can create happiness in their palate.”
“I’ve walked into a room of sommeliers and it sounded like a sword fight with a bunch of white dudes fighting about vintages and producers.”
Service Supervisor and Sommelier, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Pebble Beach
As a child, Germaine Esquivel rebelled against her Latina identity. Her mother is half Puerto Rican and her father is Mexican, with roots in Chihuahua. She grew up in Long Beach in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, but acing aptitude tests earned her attendance at more elite schools outside her neighborhood. “Because I grew up in a very impoverished state, I associated Latino culture with being poor,” she recalls. “I didn’t like affiliating myself with that culture.”
At 16, Esquivel began to understand the diverse definition of a Latinx identity. “I got introduced to these Latino rebels, who welcomed me into this community I’d never experienced—a mixture of punk culture and rock-and-roll—and suddenly I had this new identity.”
Her understanding of identity grew further while attending CSU Monterey Bay, where she pursued a career in counseling. During her studies, she worked closely with local community organizations. She remembers her surprise at how different the Latinx community here was from southern California. “I thought I’d seen it all, but I started learning more and more about ‘the Latino identity’ and it got me interested in my roots.”
She began to explore her connection to Chihuahua and discovered ties to the indigenous Tarahumara—also known as the Raramuri—renowned for their long-distance running. “I’d never met them, but I felt an instant connection because I’d been a long-distance runner as a child,” recalls Esquivel. A trip to Chihuahua, where she was hosted by an indigenous family, cemented those ties.
Esquivel became active with LULAC—the League of United Latin American Citizens—and she credits her work in local chapters of the organization for helping her reconnect with her identity and open her eyes to the full breadth of Latinidad.
Like so many, Esquivel found reliable work in restaurants to support her schooling, but she also found a parallel passion between her careers in counseling and hospitality. “Ever since I was a kid, I loved doing things for people. Helping people just made me happy.”
She found herself as a sommelier when a friend connected her to an opening at Pacific’s Edge. “I’d always liked wine, of course, but I started to learn so many things in this whole new world of education. Wine became a vehicle to learn about cultures, history, climate, climate change. It struck this whole new curiosity inside.”
She approaches the expansive world of wine with humility. “We need to take it from a diner’s perspective, start with what people know about. We have to understand who it is we’re serving and provide service to them, for them, not for yourself.”
Esquivel recognizes this isn’t always the culture of sommeliers. “I’ve walked into a room of sommeliers and it sounded like a sword fight with a bunch of white dudes fighting about vintages and producers. If that sounds like blabbing to me, that definitely sounds like blabbing to a customer sitting there who just wants to enjoy their food.”
She observes a disconnect between wine service and wine production. First, there are the challenges of privilege and access to travel to Europe and visit world-renowned wineries and wine regions. But a disconnect in the other direction troubles Esquivel more. “People on the production side should see what’s happening with their product after they’ve picked it, after they’ve crushed it, after they’ve bottled it.”
Esquivel applauds local wineries that are making strides in supporting workers in the fields and leveraging their expertise in wine production. She appreciates local efforts to foster greater buy-in from their farmworkers by offering them work throughout the year—not just during harvest—and treating them as valued experts on the grapes they tend to in the fields day in and day out. “It makes for a better product,” she insists.
Esquivel recognizes her own privilege of access—including as a native English speaker—compared to others, so she feels a responsibility to advocate for others in the community who are less advantaged. “There’s a population of people who aren’t there at the table, who have a lot to offer.”
ON IDENTITY AND LATINIDAD
Latin America spans some 20 countries over nearly 7.5 million square miles. Some label its people “Hispanic,” but this term has fallen out of favor. It’s inaccurate, of course, considering countries like Brazil and French Guiana don’t trace their lineage to Spanish conquistadors.
“Hispanic” also looks at the region’s diverse populations through the lens of Spain and denies the varied roots of its people—most notably numerous indigenous populations and people of African heritage descended from slaves—by framing their identities through that of a conqueror. Simply put, the Eurocentric term “Hispanic” erases identity.
“Latinx” (pronounced La-teen-ex) has emerged as a preferred identifier, especially among second- and third-generation Latin American immigrants here in the United States. It’s a gender-neutral modification of “Latino” that’s more inclusive of diverse gender identities and combats machismo culture. Individuals may still choose gendered identifiers—“Latino” and “Latina”—depending on their own gender identity. “Latinx” is often just one facet of one’s identity. The sommeliers in this feature identify as “Latino” and “Latina,” and specifically as Mexican or of Mexican descent. —Raúl Nava