He doesn’t have a vineyard or a winery or a marketing budget.
Or qualifications in wine production.
Or the money or time to age his wines.
But he has a dream. And his wines have gained a cult following since the launch of Parra Wines in 2019.
The early releases, from purchased grapes, included a single-vineyard Syrah, Albariño, and Tempranillo, a “carbonic-style” Tempranillo, and a rosé made from, of course, Tempranillo.
One of a growing number of Hispanic winemakers in Oregon, Sam has been cornering the market in the Willamette Valley’s more esoteric grape varieties. This year, he plans to make an Albariño, Riesling and Syrah, as well as Tempranillo three ways again. All the grapes will be purchased from single vineyards in the Willamette Valley.
Sam tells me he has just bottled his 2020 Tempranillo, from the Zenith Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills AVA, and will launch it during Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15).
Sam’s grandfather came from Mexico and worked for Beringer Vineyards in St Helena, California, for 34 years. This inspired Sam (above) and many of his relatives to find jobs in California’s wine industry. While his uncles became garage winemakers and eventually founded the Napa Valley winery Vinos Unidos, Sam went into sales and marketing, and gained experience of wine clubs and hospitality before deciding it was time to follow his winemaking dream. In the summer of 2016, he moved from his home in St Helena to “more affordable” Oregon with his wife, Allison.
“I’m the only one of the whole family of 54 living in Oregon and I love it here,” he says. “I want to encourage others in my family to move to the ‘state of dreamers’.”
In Oregon, he gained further stake money working mobile bottling lines and took a job in hospitality at the Archery Summit winery, working four days a week, giving him one day with Allison and two days to work on his own wine brand.
Sam worked with veteran winemaker Todd Hamina at Biggio Hamina Cellars in McMinnville to make his first wine, a Tempranillo. Now his range of wines are produced in the Grochau Cellars in Amity, where he worked the bottling line but had to save up to meet their minimum tonnage requirements.
Most of his wines have been rushed through to meet a bottling deadline, but they don’t appear to have suffered.
The winemaking behind the quick-turnaround Albariño is interesting.
Sam says the numbers on the young vines from One Heart Vineyard in Oregon’s South Salem Hills were “great to make a sparkling”. But he was confident he could make something like the wines he enjoyed while travelling in Spain.
He added a little sulphur and put the juice into a 500L Marchisio tank to let it settle for a couple of days, then racked it to a stainless-steel cube for a minimal addition of bentonite. “I added the bentonite right away so it would start to bind the tartaric acid from the beginning,” he explains, “because I knew I was going to be racking so often, because I didn’t have a choice – I knew the date when the co-op was going to bottle and that was going to be the date that I bottled my wine.”
After another day he racked the clean juice back into the Marchisio tank for fermentation with Viniflora CH16.
“I knew I had a very small timeline to work on that wine,” he tells me, “but I was very confident in the yeast strain that I was going to use – that it was going to be a very efficient process.”
The wine was racked three more times over the next two months, with the addition of cream of tartar between the second and third rackings. “That’s lots of clean-up work on that little tank,” he points out.
The tank doesn’t have a cooling jacket, so he put it outside to take advantage of the winter weather for cold stabilisation.
The wine was then filtered and bottled within four and a half months of crushing the grapes.
“You can see there’s a lot of work for one little wine,” he says.
The rosé is also interesting. He makes it like a white Tempranillo but adds a splash of red to get the desired colour.
“I could have bottled it as a white Tempranillo,” he says. “But I’m not crazy about the colour. It’s too kind of golden pale, not quite clear. I’d just rather make it pretty by adding some red wine.”
Sam has also launched a second line that will be “more consistent for branding” – a rosé (above) plus white and red blends. “That’s the one I plan to grow to go out on distribution,” he says, while keeping the single-vineyard wines for his premium Parra label. “Those will be the surprise for the folks buying direct and that is the best business model for me to keep.”
Nearly all sales at the moment are through the mailing list he’s built up by getting good media and social media exposure and building his Instagram followers.
From starting on a shoestring, he is now selling his unusual range of wines for $24-$50. “I’m very lucky to be branding a Latino luxury wine, to be selling wines right away with a pandemic happening and so many folks unemployed – a brand that nobody knows… I’m truly blessed.”
In the future, he'd like to do more to support other Latinos getting started in the trade. “I’m looking to the future for my business to grow,” he says, “where I plan to hire more inspired Latinos that want to get their foot in the door in the wine business. It is rare for Latinos to be owners of vineyards, wineries, or wine brands.”
Sam is co-chair of the Asociación Hispana de la Industria del Vino en Oregon y Comunidad (AHIVOY), an organisation working to create “opportunities and empowering Latinx and Hispanic vineyard workers of the Willamette Valley to overcome socioeconomic challenges”.