Over a spotty, off-the-grid Zoom connection, Gustavo Aviña tells me that “when you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
This belief has punctuated much of Gustavo’s life and kept him going no matter the odds. When he was a kid growing up in Mexico, it’s what kept him coming back to work the fields with his father. When he moved to America, it’s what helped him rise the ranks from tractor driver to vineyard director. When drought and wildfires raged through Napa Valley, it’s what got him out of bed in the morning after many sleepless nights.
In this first piece in Lumo’s Heart of a Grower series, Gustavo Aviña—proud family man, Mexican American, and Viticulture Director at Pine Ridge Vineyards—tells us why it’s important to work hard, love what you do, and stay connected to the ground.
Early Lessons About Life & Agriculture
“Life in the field is beautiful, and agriculture is in my veins. That’s how I grew up—connected to the ground.”
Growing up in Mexico as the son of a corn and tomato farmer, Gustavo was born with the grower gene. “I’ve been connected to the ground, to agriculture, since I was a kid,” he says. During the week, Gustavo and his six siblings went to school. But on the weekends and in the summer, he and his older brothers worked the fields with his father. But it wasn’t all work and no play for Gustavo.
“When I was six years old, my mother sent my brother and I to bring lunch to my father at work,” Gustavo says. “Halfway through the journey, we’d sit under a big shade tree to eat, so we were always late,” he laughs. “I told my father that I didn’t think I could work with him because I was too lazy,” he remembers. “My dad said we could help however we could and that it was OK to learn, so we kept going.”
Gustavo kept learning and growing from there. When Gustavo first came to America, he worked entry-level jobs in vineyards but, slowly and surely, he climbed the ranks. Coming to a new country and not speaking the language was tough for Gustavo. Still, he believed he would succeed in America.
After a few years, Gustavo was promoted from working in the “vine row” to becoming a tractor driver. A few years later, he became the vineyard foreman and then manager. Eventually, after years of training and hard work, he was promoted to Viticulture Director at Pine Ridge Vineyards.
“I feel very proud of every step I took to be in this position, especially moving to this country and not knowing the language.”
When speaking of his success, Gustavo tells me that education and practice is key. “When I came to Napa Valley and started working in entry-level vineyard jobs, I knew I would do better,” he says. “So I took viticulture classes until I got my degree.” But for Gustavo, an education in viticulture extends far beyond the walls of a classroom. For him, a boots-on-the-ground approach is key.
Keeping Your Feet Firmly on the Ground
Gustavo tells me there are two types of viticulturists: the one who is always in their truck and the one who stops their truck and walks the vineyard. “I walk the vineyard block by block once a week,” he says with pride. “Being connected to the vines is important.”
“I walk my vineyards once a week, which gives me an opportunity to see if there’s something I need to approach in a different way.”
For Gustavo, staying connected to the land has kept him grounded in more ways than one. “When I came to Napa Valley, I had plenty of opportunities to work inside wineries, but I always declined because I wanted to get my hands dirty and work the land,” he says. He believes that there’s something truly special about building a vineyard from the ground up and seeing—and tasting—the fruits of his labor.
“All of Napa Valley is great, but the Howell Mountain appellation is special to me,” he says, beaming with pride. “The smell of the trees, the land—it’s like another world,” he adds. “The vineyard is balanced and healthy, and the wines are bigger than any other wines in the valley, with more power and intensity.”
“When I open one of our Howell Mountain wines, I know it’s going to stand out. You can really smell the alpine air in the wine.”
Clearly, Gustavo has a deep love of viticulture and wine. But the limits of that love have been tested.
Finding Hope in Hardship
In past years, California’s megadrought and wildfires have hit the agriculture industry hard. For Gustavo, weathering that storm has brought many hard days. Still, in that hardship Gustavo has found hope and a few important lessons about sustainability.
“2008 was one of the worst years for drought,” Gustavo says. “We only had a few inches of rain, and we had some really hot days close to harvest, so we saw dehydration in the roots,” he solemnly recalls. “And then the wildfires came.”
“One day I said to my wife, ‘I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about the fires.’ It’s heartbreaking to see all your hard work be for nothing. She would tell me I couldn’t do anything, but it still hurt.”
To help prepare for drought and conserve resources, Gustavo learned to be diligent with the water he has. “When I have a dry year, I start irrigating the vineyard earlier, and that helps us build a canopy in the beginning,” he tells me. Of course, Gustavo is careful to not over irrigate and waste precious water.
There are other sustainability practices Pine Ridge Vineyards engages in, like composting, automated lighting in the cellar and the vineyard shops, and reducing their bottle weight, which has made their wines more environmentally friendly to ship. Gustavo is also stringent about herbicide use, especially in vineyards that are close to creeks.
“We’re drastically reducing herbicide applications,” Gustavo says. “Instead, we compost and grow cover crops to create more organic matter, which helps to retain water,” he adds. “We replaced the application of herbicides with under-row cultivation. It’s more work for us, but it’s better for our soils.”
To avoid erosion and negatively impacting fish and wildlife, Gustavo and his team are careful about cultivating on hills above creeks. Recycling is a big part of the company culture too. Pine Ridge Vineyards takes dead vines to a green waste facility instead of burning them, and they’re thinking about switching to electric tractors as well, which we jokingly refer to as “the Tesla of tractors.”
Additionally, smart irrigation has helped Pine Ridge Vineyards to better cope with drought and climate change while conserving natural resources.
Focusing on Water Sustainability
“In the past, we used pressure bombs to determine irrigation,” Gustavo says. “Back then, we needed four people to do this job twice a week. Now we have evapotranspiration sensors in each vineyard which do the same thing with a lot less labor,” he adds. “We have also automated the irrigation in some of our vineyards.”
“Harvest is at night for us,” he says. “During that part of the season, our crew is tired, and nobody wants to go irrigate the vineyard during the day after a long night of work,” he adds. “This was such a big problem that it caused us to skip irrigations in the past.” Now, instead of going to the vineyards to open and close irrigation valves, Gustavo and his team use smart irrigation technology.
“I can control my irrigation on my phone or PC from anywhere. I travel to Mexico once or twice a year, and I can irrigate my vineyard from there too.”
For Gustavo, not skipping irrigations has led to better water conservation and more fruitful harvests. “Because I irrigate at night, we can utilize the water better than we can if we’re irrigating at 100 degrees,” he says. “Since we aren’t skipping irrigations anymore, we’ve improved our yield,” he adds.
“After we started automating irrigation, we produced the best fruit I’ve ever seen. The quality of the fruit—the berries, the cluster—is truly superior.”
Clearly, Gustavo puts a lot of passion and hard work into what he does. But, just like those stolen moments under the shade tree growing up, he still finds a way to slow down and appreciate life.
“I would never say no to a really good red wine, but I’m more into whites,” he says when speaking of his favorite pairings. “If I have a good steak, I’ll have a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Pine Ridge Vineyards,” he adds. “When I go for dinner at Fumé Bistro & Bar in Napa Valley, I always order a bottle of our Chenin Blanc + Viognier with a side of calamari,” he says. “I can’t leave the restaurant without having that—it’s incredible.”
I’ll drink to that. Thanks for taking the time, Gustavo.