Of Grapes and Love – A story of passion and purpose in the Napa Valley

Written by Nayely De Haro Felix, V. Sattui Laboratory Technician

From a very young age, my family cultivated in me a passion for agriculture and winemaking. Though I was born in the Napa Valley, my parents decided to move us to Zacatecas, Mexico when I was one year old with the intention of introducing me to family members and allow me to experience my first years of life on the family farms and orchards. As a toddler, my mother and grandfather would take me to the peach and plum orchards every summer to witness the bountiful harvest. I was immediately captivated by the bustling of the people, the smell of ripe stone fruit, and the sweet taste of freshly picked fruit.

My curiosity and love of farming continued to grow once we returned to Napa several years later. My mother worked as a Cellar Lead on the winemaking team for Robert Mondavi Winery when I was about six years old, and I loved to visit her at work. I remember being on the production floor during harvest, smelling the sweet doughy yeast actively bubbling in preparation for inoculation. When my mother witnessed my joy and interest, she enthusiastically shared her passion for fine winemaking with me.

A few years later, my sixth-grade class took a field trip to Napa Valley College. Dr. Stephen Krebs, the program coordinator for the Viticulture and Winery Technology Department, asked us to taste the grapes he had spread out on a table and evaluate the sweetness levels. I proudly raised my hand and responded that the grapes were at twenty-four brix and ready to be harvested, much to the amazement of himself and the other students. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a winemaker when I got older. I told him I would be back to take his classes someday. It took a few years, but eventually, I did take his classes as a college student.

In the Spring of 2012, I applied to work at V. Sattui Winery. There were no positions open in production at the time, so I opted to work in the deli and register room, but I persisted in my goal to become part of their winemaking team. I would go into production before work or during breaks to meet the winemakers and production staff, letting them know about my interests and my fascination with wine. By that fall, the Director of Winemaking, Brooks Painter, offered me a harvest internship.

The first few tons of grapes arrived early on an August morning, and the emotions and passion I felt at my grandfather’s orchard as a child came fluttering back. Eventually, my hard work and dedication allowed me to land a job as Laboratory Technician at V. Sattui.

As exciting as my journey into winemaking had been, an even bigger change was on the horizon. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 2017, I met a charming stranger named Robert as we were running towards a winery to take shelter from the rain and enjoy a glass of wine. I was immediately drawn to his alluring eyes, polite manners, and sweet smile. We began conversing, and I found out he was only in Napa for that night. He had been working on a tugboat for the past month, coming from Hawaii to San Francisco where the boat had anchored that day. The next day he would be on his way home to Long Beach in southern California. Although I was disillusioned that he was leaving, I decided to get to know him and enjoy the evening.

We talked about how we had both recently renounced our long-term relationships, and to our surprise, we had both planned solo trips to Iceland because we couldn’t find adventurous friends to explore the world with. Robert tried to impress me by telling me he had planned to get his scuba diving certification to dive the Silfra rift in Iceland. Little did he know, I was an avid scuba diver and had already booked my Silfra dive. I was also planning on getting an advanced certification in the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Spain after I left Iceland. I jokingly invited him to join me on the last half of my trip where I would travel to Spain and Portugal.

The more time we spent together, the more desire I had for the night to linger on. Alas, I had to face the uncomfortable reality that he would be hundreds of miles away the following day. Our evening came to an end with a sweet kiss under the stars and rain.

Two days later, I was surprised to receive a message from him asking what my plans were for the weekend. He wanted to travel back to Napa to see me! We spent a weekend together in San Francisco, and I realized I had never felt such an intense connection with another person as I did with this sophisticated, well-mannered man. When he asked me to fly down to spend Valentine’s Day weekend with him, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Two weeks later I was there.

When I arrived in Southern California, Robert and I went for a walk along the beach on a clear starry night. I had heard many clichés about love at first sight, and I had always thought they were nonsense, until he turned towards me, gently held me in his arms, and asked me to be his girlfriend. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about how we were going to make it work living on opposite ends of the state. The only thought in my mind was about how amazing it felt to be tenderly cherished.

For the next few months, we would call each other constantly and fly to meet one another whenever an opportunity presented itself. During that time, Robert told me his last relationship ended due in part to his previous partner not being supportive of his career. Working as a chief mate on a tugboat required him to take journeys across oceans, which meant he’d spend weeks away from home. My own relationship had ended for a variety of reasons, but a major factor was that they didn’t support my dreams and goals. Robert and I vowed to uplift and support one another’s aspirations – just as I would be supportive of his career goals and respect his occupational requirements, he would be supportive of my career and education objectives. We first said “I love you” surrounded by oak trees and grapevines at V. Sattui’s Hibbard Ranch Vineyard on Mt. Veeder.

After our separate trips to Iceland, Robert and I met in Spain. What had started as a joke had become a reality. We traveled through Spain and Portugal for a month, just like we had talked about on the day we met. The adventure brought us closer together, and we really got to know one another and about how we dealt with stressful situations – lost luggage, missed tours, and language barriers. But there were extraordinary moments as well, like when we explored the depths of the Mediterranean ocean holding each other’s hands while scuba diving.

It was difficult to return home after our wonderful journey in Europe. I daydreamed about him living closer as it was so difficult to be apart! But when he came to visit for the Fourth of July, he had a surprise for me – an appointment with a realtor. I thought he was joking until we arrived at a real estate office! During his time away, he had been looking at homes online and making calls. It was his way of showing me how much he loved me. He was willing to leave his hometown, family, and friends to be with me. That same day we looked at three homes. He made an offer on one, and by September 2017, we were moving in together!

It felt surreal to be moving out of my parents’ home and moving in with this wonderful man I had known for only months. At the same time, everything felt so flawless, like it was meant to be. There were a lot of changes that came with this big move. For the first time, I was in an adult relationship. I was in a relationship where my significant other cared about me. He encouraged me. He respected me. He made my happiness a priority as I did his. For the first time, I loved and was loved. The universe that conspired to help us find one another put us through a whirlwind of emotions, adventures, and one magical journey that still goes on.

This past spring, I graduated from Napa Valley College with an A.S. degree in Winemaking and Viticulture, as well as an A.S. degree in Wine Marketing and Sales. This fall, I will be studying at France’s prestigious Bordeaux Sciences Agro to complete my bachelor’s degree in Viticulture and Enology.

And best of all, Robert and I just eloped in mid-July, saying “I do” amidst the same vines and trees where we first said “I love you” at Hibbard Ranch Vineyard. The only people present were my sister Valeria, who got ordained a day before to perform our ceremony, my mom Benita, and Jason Moravec, our winemaker, along with his wife Sasha and their baby Zoe, who were our witnesses. Working together at V. Sattui has brought us so close together, we’ve become a family. I was a witness at Jason and Sasha’s wedding, and a few years later, they became ours.

The enthusiasm I had for winemaking as a child has only grown with each harvest. My desire to learn gets stronger every day. I am excited to see what happens next – in my career, in love, in my passions – and I can’t wait to see where the next adventure takes me!