In an unassuming business park in Buellton, California, Fidencio Flores opens bottles of wine that are so new, they remain unlabeled.
“I label everything by hand as I go,” he says, while pouring samples of his 2017 chardonnay, made from grapes he’s tended in the nearby Santa Rita Hills, as well as his 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, made from fruit he’s personally harvested. “It’s the last bit of your baby as you’re giving it off, so you want to have one last touch on the bottle,” he says of his wine.
His label, Esfuerzo, is a small operation. Flores plants and harvests his own grapes, crushes them by hand and then puts great effort into bringing out the expressions he and his family have come to know over four generations of winemaking in the Santa Ynez Valley.
With a small output — just 17 barrels in 2018 — Flores says he puts the customer first with his commitment to supervising every step along the way.
This typically begins with a 4 a.m. alarm.
“I can walk the field in a day, where I can see all the vines,” Flores said. “That’s how I feel more of a connection” to the wine, he said.
Flores’s family connection to Santa Ynez winemaking goes back to his great-grandfather, Salvador Zepeda, who was brought in from Mexico as part of the Bracero Program, instituted during the Second World War to address crucial labor shortages in California’s farming sector when so many working-age men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
Flores said his ancestors in Cocula, Mexico, were cattlemen and farmers, making them ideal transplants to harvest California’s grapes. Great-grandfather Salvador harvested the first grapes for the Firestone family in 1974, and his son, Armando, soon caught the notice of Betty Williams, known as “La Patrona” of Buttonwood Farm and Winery.
“She had a vision that was just beyond anyone else’s of diversified farming, organic farming,” Flores said of Williams, who ran Buttonwood until her death in 2011 at age 92. “Along with her family, my family diversified the property over years. So [in addition to grapes] we have 350 peach trees, olive trees. We provide in-season crops” to restaurants around the valley, he said.
Armando, Flores’s grandfather, remains the vineyard manager at Buttonwood, a job that requires a great deal from anyone, let alone a man of retirement age. It was this fealty to hard work that led Flores to conjure for his wine the name Esfuerzo, which in Spanish means “effort.”
In addition to Armando, Flores’s father, Lupe Flores, has been a cellar master and winemaker at Buttonwood for 25 years. It was only natural that Fidencio would follow them into viticulture.
“That’s where I learned the trade,” Flores said of the hands-on training he received on the Buttonwood farm, “and where I learned what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Flores, now 27, studied horticultural business and crop and soil science at Chico State, which he said was important versus going full-tilt right into the family business — as well as to develop a better understanding of the economic side of oenology.
The day after Flores moved back south to Santa Barbara County, Kalyra winery owner Mike Brown asked if he might like to plant 10 acres of vines.
“I got home on a Friday and said [to Brown] I’ll be there at 6:30 in the morning Saturday,” Flores recalled. “That’s one of the first things [I did] when I got out of college.”
He knew he wanted to start his own wine label, both to continue the work of his forefathers, as well as in tribute to people from south of the border who still work the vines.
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“Up in Napa, there’s a lot more Mexican-American and Latino-American winemakers. Here in Santa Barbara County,” there aren’t as many, Flores said. “We’re starting to break that shell. And for a lot of people here, it means something. They relate it to their [ancestors]. And I think all of us, no matter what culture we come from, put an effort every day into what we do, and that has no race.
“If you put effort in, you’re going to get some result.”
Hence “Esfuerzo,” the effort of which he speaks. The bottle label features the silhouette of Flores’s grandfather, taken during one of those early mornings out in the fields.
Flores prefers to hand-press the grapes rather than use the industrial presses and “all the toys” he can easily access at the Buttonwood estate.
“My family asked, ‘Why are you taking the hard way into the business when you can just use what we have?’ We have all the machines; you can press,’” he said. “I said, ‘Nope, I’m going to use the hand-press for the one-ton and half-ton lots because I really want to make wine how it’s really made.’ I don’t just want to press a button.”
Flores plans to expand his operation at the Buellton business park with additional tanks, where he also does his open-top fermentation. Near the bay where he works, he has a tasting room, which is typically open by appointment.
Flores was also the subject of a recent short documentary, also called “Esfuerzo,” that showed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Like her subjects, director Alana Maiello followed Flores and his grandfather from the predawn hours out among the vines until they wrapped up for the day.
Flores was born in the United States, but says at some point he may try to simulate the perilous journey so many laborers undertake to cross illegally from Mexico. Several of his relatives made that journey, often arriving with injuries and severe debt to the coyotes — and carrying tales of people in their caravans left behind in the desert, drowning in the Rio Grande or forced to courier drugs from the cartels as part of their passage.
“I’m very fortunate not to have a labor problem because most the labor is my family,” Flores said. “So we have about 50 family members that I can pull from and create a crew.”
Many of those same relatives are Dreamers and have attained citizenship, but Flores knows the uncertainty many laborers from the south face as immigration rhetoric has heated up in Washington. Some are deported or remain in America well past their visas and wind up not seeing family for years.
“No one likes to go to sleep at night not knowing that tomorrow’s going to be good or bad,” Flores said.
The guest worker program has improved over the years, he says, which takes away much of that fear and uncertainty, and with wages taxed and entry and exit from the United States above-board and legal.
As a boutique winemaker, Flores wants to give his customers a unique experience, which is why he keeps the operation small so that he can monitor the entire process from planting to bottling.
“If you have good fruit, you get good wine,” he said. “My idea is really giving expression to the grape. That’s why I try for minimal interaction and let the barrel really speak.
“If you farm it well, it will speak.”