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Los Empleados



Efran Chavez passed before our first harvest. I'd only spoken to him once on the phone—never in person—but I gathered from everyone in the Antelope Valley that there would be no wine there without him. It was Joyce Ahern at Antelope Valley Winery who first told us to find him if we wanted to buy fruit for the 2020 season. She poured us the 2018 Muscat they'd made from Efran's vineyard and told us how, together with her husband, she had owned a winery in the San Fernando Valley in the 80s—an equally unlikely place for wine as the Lancaster facility where she now manages the tasting room.


On our second visit to Joyce, she welcomed us back and, after fielding a slew of caffeinated questions, took us into the winery to walk around. She even pulled out the AVA application— a hulking three-ring binder of survey maps, soil samples, and historic records—which we doted over for an hour.


There had been many heads and hands involved in the bureaucratic work , but one name came up again and again—Efran. Later, his son Javier told us that Efran had come down from Sonoma 23 years ago with a head full of vines and the cash to buy nearly 20 acres of desert on the back side of the San Gabriel Mountains. He'd made it through the 6th grade in school and continued his education in the vineyards of Sonoma County. Not even Javi was sure why his father decided to move the family south. This was before anyone imagined the Antelope Valley would be hospitable to vitis vinifera.


On the phone, Efran told me that these were the best grapes in California without a hint of irony. There was no irony because he believed this to be true. It seemed almost impossible that the vines would be as happy as they are where they are. Conventional wisdom offers a few explanations for their success: For one, they're in the middle of a valley that collects snowmelt from the nearby mountains each spring. At 2600 feet elevation, the plot is truly high desert, occasionally receiving snow in the winter. The age of the vines certainly helps. A wind, well known to all desert dwellers, blows like the Mistral south through the valley, staving off disease that may be tempted to gather in the full canopies. But probably more important than any of these things is the way that Efran treated the vines. He would sing to them. He referred to them as his employees (Los Empleados) and drove his family crazy with his eye for even the smallest detail in his joyous pursuit of a perfectly managed vineyard.


The particulars of his farming are unclear to me now, but when I think of questioning them or imposing my flimsy book-based knowledge on top of his decades of walking among the vines, I'm humbled.

 

Dusty called on a Thursday morning in June to set up our first trip to the vineyard for the season. Javi said he would be around on Saturday, so we drove up, planning to stop by and see Barbara and DiMaggio at the winery on our way back home. That Friday was also the last posting day for our 02 license, so we would take the poster down from the window as Barbara giddily snapped pictures from different angles.


Javi was driving the rows when we arrived. The place was transformed from the bare, gnarly collections of trunks and cordons it had been in the winter into a head-high thicket of vines over what Javi would later tell us was an amount of weeds his father would never have allowed . As we headed down the row of Alicante Bouchet, Dusty asked about Efran.


"He passed on Thursday."


The same day we had called.


Javi stands most of the time with his arms crossed over his chest in what first looks like a defensive position, but then you notice "Chavez" tattooed across his forearm.


I started to feel like we shouldn't be there. It was too soon. But the more time we spent popping little unripe berries in our mouths and kicking at the sandy loam, the more he started to open up.


Later in the day, Barbara would tell us that as recently as last year, Javi wanted nothing to do with farming. It was his dad's thing. As his dad got sicker, Javi got pulled in more and more. Pruning, suckering, discing. He was cutting contracts and taking calls . He was taking over, whether he wanted to or not. But the pandemic and the glut of California grapes after an enormous '18 and '19 harvest had sent demand for grapes across the state plummeting—Chavez vineyards was no exception. As of the Saturday morning of our visit, we were one of the rather humble orders on the books. The rest of the orders—all of the big ones—had pulled out or hadn't yet been in touch. DiMaggio would tell us that Efran was normally sold out by mid July. We still had a few weeks to go, but Javi was getting nervous.


Under those circumstances and the weight of his father's recent passing, it was looking like maintaining the vineyard would be even less attractive. But Javi was determined. He told us there were too many memories in this place to let it go away. He was taking over.


When we had visited in the winter and met him for the first time, he greeted us at the gate with two dogs and the enthusiasm of a fresh, guileless salesman, which I imagined was him doing his best impression of his dad. He told us without shame that he didn't really know wine. He didn't even drink wine. The drink had almost nothing to do with what they were doing here, despite their family also making wine and running a tasting room even further out in the desert in a refurbished corner market. I told Javi I read too many books and spent too little time in the vineyard, and he said that was fine because he spent all his time in the vineyard and didn't read any books. Maybe I just have the excitement of a new winemaker attaching meaning to every part of this season, but I think we've found in Javi the perfect partner.


This year has been shitty—there's no other way to put it. Global Pandemic, economic uncertainty, systematic racism driving protestors and rioters to the streets, the death of the Antelope Valley wine regions's godfather. But waiting for next year to magically get better would be in vain. There is good amidst the loss and the chaos. The wine industry is adapting to shuttered tasting rooms and happy hours in homes. A renewed focus on representation and access within the industry is taking hold, elevating Black and Brown winegrowers and professionals. And even Efran's passing has charged his son with taking the reins, his memories of his father inspiring his devotion.


Taylor, Dusty, and I asked Javi if he knew what terroir was. He didn't recognize the word. We said it is what great wines aim to express. The "somewhereness" of it. All of the conditions the soil and climate lend to it. But better than terroir is the Spanish term, Terruño, which is everything that terroir is, but adds that the true wines of place are made by the people who belong to that land. That's you, we told Javi. He knew he was.

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