Gabriela Fernandez Talks The Talk
The first-generation Napa Valley native amplifies the voices of others while also finding her own.
Early in life, Gabriela Fernandez’s teachers joked her parents had named her correctly. Her gift of “gab” is now part of her livelihood as producer and host of the morning show on Napa’s MegaMix Spanish language radio 1440 AM / 96.9 FM, as well as host of both the podcast series The Big Sip and the first Latinx State of the Wine Industry Summit. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also been the trade and marketing events coordinator at Duckhorn Vineyards since 2019. The common goal throughout all her work is to go beyond making wine merely accessible to Latinos and Latinas like herself, but to transform it into a welcoming, embracing space for anyone who wishes to be a part of it. How does she do that? By focusing on community, connection, and creativity.
“I always joke with people that if I were to die tomorrow, I would say I’ve lived a good life,” laughs Gabriela. (How many people can say the same thing?) Building a good life requires certain things: love, community, a sense of place, joy, discovery. Some are easy to attain, some less so, but during the course of our conversations, Gabriela repeatedly comes back to one concept as the main driver for her path — community.
“Community is always at the center,” she says. “I always go back to visibility and representation and its impact, and how to empower and inspire people to create more of that community.”
Her influence is expanding by the day, but she still holds her circle of community tightly. As a first-generation American whose father hails from Mexico and mother from El Salvador, she was raised with an appreciation for the land to which they came. That land is Calistoga, California, which lies in the northwestern edge of Napa County. Here, wine is so ingrained in the local culture her high school offered viticulture as an elective.
But, she says, the pressure often felt by first-gen kids — putting passion aside for practicality — led her to pursue business administration with an emphasis in marketing in college rather than wine right off the bat, despite her father being a steward of the vineyard for much of her life, as well as her own affinity for the industry. Of course, the universe tends to guide people towards their destinies in its own time.
“I didn’t end up doing too much with the marketing degree,” Gabriela says. Instead, she unapologetically “went after the money,” accepting a position in corporate loss prevention. As the first in her family to get a degree from a four-year university, she felt she could inspire others to realize they too had options on ways to build the future they wanted.
For a while, corporate stability and financial security is exactly what she did want. But at age 24, she looked around and saw various futures ahead of her: bored and secure, or rich with passion? Her mentor gave her crucial advice — if you aren’t absolutely committed to retail, get out before it’s too late. So she did.
Seeking introspection, Gabriela retreated to her stepmom’s ranch in Mexico for a few months of no job, no responsibilities, and no clear plan. But when she was ready, wine was waiting.
After a few years (and a few successful wine label launches later), she realized she missed the connection to community and culture, “which is the core of everything I believe in.” Eventually, she transitioned to a more event-driven role at Duckhorn Vineyards. Shortly after, the pandemic hit, which sparked a crisis of identity (something many of us have felt before).
Thankfully, her furlough was short-lived, and before too long, virtual tastings were catching on in a big way. Being able to share the beauty of wine country to people who would, even outside of pandemic times, lack the means to travel opened her eyes to the educational opportunities out there. It wasn’t that people, particularly Latinos, weren’t interested in wine. It was that wine wasn’t particularly interested in them.
“As a Latin woman of color in the industry, a lot of the reason Latinos don’t engage with wine is that it feels very off-putting,” she says. That exclusion is a huge mistake, morally and financially. Gabriela estimates her programming earned a million dollars in the first year alone. Now in their second year, they’re close to hitting $2 million.
But that’s not all she did during her pandemic furlough. With nothing but time to think, she realized the stories from her wine community simply weren’t being shared.
“That’s when I launched my podcast The Big Sip in 2020, and that focused on sharing these stories and narratives, people’s journeys, specifically Black and Brown individuals in wine, food, and art… people who have these phenomenal life experiences,” she says.
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Using storytelling as the medium to expose would-be wine lovers to the beauty of it, as well as promoting representation within the industry, became paramount. She was already the first Latina producer to be a part of Wine Down Media, the Napa radio station behind her MegaMix morning show, so building a bridge between the local Latino community and the wine community was something already well within her skill set, starting with the very words used to describe wine.
Decolonizing the language of wine, and drinks in general, has become a hot topic as of late, with pushes to redefine the stringent and traditionally Eurocentric vocabulary of descriptors.
“Language is so powerful, whether we’re talking about wine or anything else,” she says. If you’ve never tasted a certain fruit by virtue of your unique life experience, hearing it used as the end-all, be-all descriptor will never make sense. “Having that lens to create programming where everyone feels like language doesn’t need to be a barrier, where people feel empowered to use their own experiences and relay that back in terms of wine language is powerful.”
Once the world was able to gather together again, Gabriela continued to pursue this redefinition of vocabulary by organizing Latin-centric wine and food pairings, which often involve less tannic and acidic wines for less experienced drinkers. There’s a stigma against pairing spicy food with wine, something she says simply isn’t true. She points to one dinner featuring exclusively traditional Mexican food: ceviche with white wine, duck with mole and pinot, even chocolate pudding with homemade churros. “It was such a good event to see people feel so recognized,” she says. “Representation is something I really want to honor in the wine space.”
She’s quick to point out that representation needs to go far beyond the vineyard itself. “We exist in so many areas outside the labor force,” she explains. “There’s lots of pride in the work there, but also let’s start to destigmatize that space and open minds. We’re in marketing, we’re makers, and so many other things.”
Looking ahead, Gabriela knows she’s not alone. “I don’t think there’s a limit to how big we can dream,” she says, pointing to her widespread network of other Latinos and Latinas already working across wine. “I think we're all more than capable of creating impact during our time here… Just take the leap. Say yes to whatever opportunities come your way.”
For more inspiration, follow Gabriela on Instagram at @__latinag, or catch her on MegaMix radio from 7-10 a.m every Monday-Friday. The Big Sip podcast is available on all major podcast platforms.
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What I’m Reading
I’ve been on a good library streak recently, with some back-to-back-to-back novel selections that keep getting better. Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez was a difficult, but eternally timely read about our country’s war against women and girls (more specifically, Black women and girls). The Evening Hero by Marie Myung-Ok Lee did a marvelous job time-hopping through modern-day Minnesota and the Korean War by tying together the facts of war and fiction of the Kwak family. Finally, I’m not quite through Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller just yet, but the odd brother-and-sister duo doing their best to get by in a rural English village after their mother’s untimely death is a bizarre, but strangely beguiling story of family and financial hardship.
What I’m Writing
Officially, a book! The Beer Lover’s Guide To Cider is slated for release in fall 2023, and my manuscript is officially due early 2023. Forgive me if I disappear for a few months into a writing seclusion.
Lake Champlain, in the northeast corner of the United States (and a bit in Canada), was very briefly the sixth “Great Lake.” Personally, I think it’s one of the Greatest lakes, and it has its very own mythical monster to boot — Champ! I got to write about the American Loch Ness for Roadtrippers a few years back, and I’m feeling rather nostalgic about not getting to go on our usual family trip to Vermont this year. If you didn’t know about Champ, now you know!
Do you know of a woman or non-binary person working in beverage alcohol who hasn’t seen the spotlight — and should? Nominate them for a future feature!
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