Hispanic-Americans make up the majority of the workforce in wine, but only a tiny portion of winemakers. This Hispanic Heritage Month, we profile Joseph Smith of Klinker Brick Wines and how his story can change the statistics for hispanic winemakers.
By Sedale McCall
The 4-week period from September 15-October 15 is U.S. Hispanic Heritage Month and honors the contributions of Hispanic-Americans to this country. It’s chosen during this timeframe because it encompasses many important dates, such as the Mexican Independence War, and independence anniversaries for Costa Rica, Honduras, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The month also acknowledges the contributions of Hispanic-Americans in the wine industry. So much of the work that happens in the wine industry comes from the efforts of the Hispanic community. You can often find Hispanic-Americans at the forefront of vineyard management and cellar work. But winemakers like Joseph Smith are trying to push these efforts to higher levels.
Smith is a one of few Hispanic winemakers, born in Belize. He is the winemaker for Klinker Brick Wines in Lodi, California. Smith is also the owner of several ventures, including a distribution company in his native Belize. He’s been with Klinker Brick for more than fifteen years, and worked his way up from cellarhand to winemaker.
Unfortunately, Joseph’s story is the exception, not the rule.
Hispanic-American Winemakers in the Industry
Hispanic-Americans, in particular Mexican-Americans, make up the majority of the wine labor force. However, they mostly end up working in the vineyard and cellar as assistants. Very few of them end up as winemakers or in other managerial roles. And even fewer (less than 1%) own their own wineries. (Want to find more wineries from Hispanic winemakers? Find them in our directory!)
This means that the wine that comes from grapes harvested by Hispanic-Americans are produced and owned by another community. It is a sad reality, but winemakers like Smith and so many others are working to change that.
Joseph Smith Charts His Path
Smith was born and raised in Belize, immigrating to the United States in 1996. Once he arrived, he found a job working at a winery doing construction work. However, three months into his role there, the winery expressed a need for more support with its harvest tasks. Thus, his career in winemaking began.
After that first harvest, the winery offered Smith a full-time role, noticing his passion for the work. Smith accepted the offer, which he considered one of the “best decisions he ever made.”
Today, more than 25 years later, Smith owns several brands, including WineSmith Belize in his native country, as well as Concrete Wine Company in Lodi, in addition to a partnership with his wife Lorraine, JSL Wines. But his accomplishments don’t stop there. He also climbed the ranks to become head winemaker for Klinker Brick. Though unique, by no means impossible.
Smith has a few thoughts about the role of Hispanic winemakers in the industry.
How to Get More Hispanic Winemakers in the Industry
For Smith, Hispanic winemakers are not a new phenomenon, even if the industry is just starting to notice. He may be the one getting recognition now, but he doesn’t believe he’s the only one that should.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time; there are a lot more people like me making solid wine for a long time,” says Smith. “There are a lot of guys in Napa that people don’t even know of —who have been making good wine for a long time— that are finally getting recognition.”
Smith has hope that the industry will become more inclusive. He knows that wine is for everyone, and people are judged less on their skin color or their age, the industry can include more communities that love wine.
“The first step is to make sure we don’t use color as a barrier to what someone acknowledges about wine. If we can start by just doing that, we can show a bigger side of what the industry can achieve.”
He continues, “if we just give them opportunities early, [we can] let them see the industry as a career path.”
What’s Next for Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith continues to chart his own path. His label, JSL Wines, just launched a Rhone-style Marsanne earlier this month, and continues to sell its Chardonnay in the U.S. and Belize. Also in Belize, WineSmith Belize is now available everywhere and is now a sponsor in Belize’s International Food and Music Festival. He continues to give the gift of wine to Belize to educate and empower “the locals about wines.”
This month, we honor Hispanic winemakers like Smith who are not only making great wine, but also charting a path for other winemakers of color. We hope to see more winemakers finding and creating space for the next generation and look forward to telling their stories.