In the 1970s, Andrés Ibarra left Jalisco, Mexico, with his mother and siblings and settled in Los Olivos, where his father had worked for years as a mule trainer. As the second oldest of 10 kids, Ibarra had to help support his family, so in 1980, he asked for a job from Fred Brander, one of the few vineyard owners around then. When asked if he’d pruned vineyards before, the 17-year-old Ibarra said yes. “I was lying,” Ibarra admits today. “I had never pruned before, but I needed the job.”
That little white lie blossomed into an accomplished career, as Ibarra steadily rose through the ranks to become Santa Barbara County’s first farmworker-turned-winemaker. The inspiring tale is a perfect pairing for this weekend’s Vino de Sueños, the fourth annual farmworker benefit put on by the Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People. Today, Ibarra is head winemaker at Rideau Vineyard, one of the 19 wineries that have made special wines for Saturday’s tasting and sale, and is a walking reminder of the important role that vineyard laborers play, as well as a symbol to those workers that dedication and determination can pull you from the fields to the top of the industry.
The need for money turned into a life’s pursuit the first time that Ibarra tasted wine, which happened one day when the rain pushed him from the vineyard at Brander into the winery. Tasting fermented juice from grapes he’d picked just two weeks earlier, he was surprised to enjoy the flavor. “That’s when I felt like something inside of me [clicked],” said Ibarra. “My interest in knowing how to make wine started to grow.”
Five years at Brander turned into more than 12 years at Santa Ynez Winery, where he worked with a rotating cast of winemakers. “It was a good school for me,” said Ibarra. “Although they went on to hire other winemakers, they never lasted very long. There were periods of time when I was the only one there.” In late 1997, he was hired at Fess Parker Winery, eventually becoming an associate winemaker. In 2005, Iris Rideau came calling, and Ibarra’s been there ever since, making Rhône blends, as well as pinot noirs, chardonnays, and newer varietals for the winery, such as malbec, tempranillo, and alabariño. “When you have the passion for wine,” explained Ibarra, “you really enjoy making just about everything and anything.”
Over time, Ibarra’s family has discovered a number of wines to go with traditional dishes, such as tempranillo with red chile tamales, albariño with rajas, and malbec with cheese enchiladas. “You’d be really surprised by how many wines you can pair with Mexican food,” said Ibarra. “The more you taste and try, you do find those combinations that work really well.”
Ibarra’s also encouraged by the growing number of farmworkers who are following in his footsteps. “I wish I could see more winemakers who started out in the fields. I have nothing against education. Having a degree is great. I encourage my kids to do that,” said the father of three. “But hands-on? It’s very hard to get a better education than that.”
Support the next wave of Andrés Ibarras by attending the Saturday, November 12, Vino de Sueños, Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People’s fourth annual benefit for vineyard workers. The $50 ticket gives you the chance to sample and purchase 19 special wines decorated by area artists, as well as food from New West Catering, the Ballard Inn, and Trattoria Grappolo. Additional PHP benefits include the Cans Film Festival on November 17 at Santa Ynez High School’s Little Theatre and the Harvest Jamz music festival on November 19 at the Solvang Festival Theater. See vinodesuenos.com and syvphp.org for more info, or call (805) 686-0295.