How migrant farm workers created Napa Valley's Llamas Family Wines, an inspiration for entrepreneurs
Llamas Family Wines is more than a winery. It's a way for co-founders Oscar and Lola Llamas and Alex Castillo Llamas to stay connected across generations and state borders.
The company is comprised of Oscar Llamas, a former migrant field worker; Lola Llamas, Oscar's wife and the granddaughter of St. Helena grafter John Torres; and Alex Castillo Llamas, Oscar's nephew, who also grew up harvesting grapes. Alex is now the company's winemaker.
Since 2009, Oscar, Alex, and Lola have produced between 300 and 500 cases a year of different single-vineyard wines, including syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet sauvignon. In 2014, Oscar and Lola Llamas joined the Mexican American Vintners Association (MAVA). In 2016, the couple joined the Napa County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (NCHCC). For years, the couple has mentored other Latino business owners throughout Napa County.
‘It started out as a hobby'
Oscar, Lola, and Alex established Llamas Family Wines when they got the opportunity to buy Syrah grapes.
“I acquired a ton of grapes from Stagecoach Vineyard. It started out as a hobby, but the wine turned out very well. That's when we decided to come up with a label to represent our family,” said Oscar Llamas.
The logo is the curvy outline of a scorpion, the Llamas Family cattle brand. Oscar, like Alex's mother, Lourdes Llamas, grew up in the small town of San Nicolas de Acuña. The town is a small fishing village near the largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco.
Oscar's father, Jesus Llamas, began coming to the United States in the 1950s. In 1972, Jesus Llamas Barajas (“Papa Chuy”) brought his family, including Oscar's mother, Rosario Llamas Aceves (“Mama Chayo”), and their three sons and two daughters to the United States. They all began working as migrant farm workers.
“The family had a route, starting with table grapes in Coachella, moving up to wine grapes in Napa Valley, harvesting the pear and cherry orchards in Medford, Salem, and Portland, and then going to Redding and Corning to harvest olives. During the Christmas holidays, we'd go back to Mexico and visit the rest of the family. Growing up, I went to about 17 different elementary schools,” said Alex Castillo Llamas.
The family developed more permanent roots in Napa Valley in the mid-1980s. A Napa foreman asked Jesus Llamas and his children to stay on past harvest for full-time work.
“Later, I returned to Napa after completing auto body school at Contra Costa College. In 1992, I started my first business, Valley Auto Body in Napa. Lola and I, who have been together for 32 years and married for 26 years, co-own the shop. We got into wine because I really wanted to do something to honor my family and create a legacy,” said Oscar Llamas.
Lola, who grew up in St. Helena, said she was interested in establishing a brand to carry on the legacy of her grandfather, John Torres. For years, Torres worked in Napa Valley as a vineyard foreman and grafter.
“He was a master at grafting. So many people learned the art under him,” said Lola Llamas.
Lola said John Torres worked for many local wineries, including Beaulieu Vineyard and Trefethen Family Vineyards.
“I used to visit him every week with my mother. I remember he was the hardest worker and so patient. He was always happy to talk and spend time with us,” said Lola Llamas.
Lola furthered her knowledge in 2017 by completing a master's in business administration in Wine Business at Sonoma State University.
“The program allowed me to meet some amazing people in the wine industry. My cohort was an exceptional group of people. I learned so much from them,” said Lola Llamas.
Sharing the wine
Llamas Family Wines markets through word of mouth, social media, and private dinners.
“We offer wine tastings at different events, including the Napa Valley Film Festival. We let people know the latest news about the wine through Instagram and Facebook,” said Alex Castillo Llamas.
The company sells its wine to local restaurants and stores, including Napa Valley Bistro, Celadon, Napa General Store, Cadet Wine Bar, and Oakville Grocery.
Lola said connections from professional networks have helped raise awareness of the business. She currently serves as treasurer of the Napa County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Steadily, we've gotten more involved in the local business community. We go to the NCHCC mixers, to which we invite five to ten people every month. We introduce them to other members and friends. We also attend MAVA meetings,” said Lola Llamas.