As 2015 draws to a close, the material evidence of DC’s first Latin Wine Market is more tangible than ever. The counters are built, the lights are hung, and the tiles are sparkling. If printed on paper, the list of inventory might stretch from wall to wall. Anticipation is strong, but there is still some work (and waiting) to be done. Since New Years is a time of contemplation, Grand Cata’s co-founders Pedro Rodríguez and Julio Robledo recently sat down to reflect on the formation of Grand Cata over the last four years and the events in both their own lives and in history that have gotten them to this point. Here’s a look at their conversation:
How did a guy from Chile and a guy from Puerto Rico end up working in wine in Washington, DC?
JULIO: My major is in Journalism and I love telling stories. There is no better feeling of adrenaline than delivering exclusive breaking news coverage. But when I arrived to the US in 2007 from Chile, I found myself with a huge limitation: I didn’t think my English was good enough to work as a journalist here. Because of that, I decided I’d leave the newsroom for a while, study in an ESL class, and work in other fields. One day on my way to class, I saw a sign outside of a boutique wine shop looking for part-time workers. I decided to apply. The day of the interview, I was really nervous and was apologizing for my English. But I still remember that the manager reassured me: “You don't need to speak good English to sell wine.” I knew I was in the right place.
PEDRO: As a former International Relations professional and DC being a hub of international activities, I came here for career opportunities. Back home, I worked for many years in the restaurant and hospitality sector where I developed a true sense and care for food, customer service, and connecting with people. So after four years at a desk job, I got out of the 9-5 game and thankfully identified and returned to my true calling for all things related to Latin culture, gastronomy, and wine.
How does wine connect with Latino culture?
PEDRO: Since I was born in Santa Barbara, the heart of California’s Central Valley wine country, I was in a very wine-rich environment from the very beginning. Historically, California is also an important place for the Latino community, both as a historic part of Mexico and as an agricultural mecca fueled by Latino workers, just to name a few reasons. Growing up in Puerto Rico, though it is a non-producing country, wine was always part of special occasion and festivities with family and friends. Since the island is marked by Spanish heritage, the wines we had access to were mostly Spanish, as well as Argentine and Chilean. They paired very well with our “criollo” gastronomy. Wine represents history, traditions, geography, science, art, and culture, all things that I grew up enjoying. Wine is often present in combination with celebration, bringing people together, telling stories, and sharing histories. That’s why it is the perfect vehicle for sharing our Latino heritage.
JULIO: The culture of wine is huge in Chile. The first grape vine was planted in 1554 by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Aguirre. Since then, the country has been known for growing quality grapes. And yet, everyone has access to it. If you are at a party or a barbeque and there is no wine on the table, you are probably not at a Chilean party. I would even consider wine as a cultural unifier. It is on every table, from los huasos, the Chilean country cowboys of the South, to those of the tallest corporate glass high-rises in “Sanhattan”. That could be because opening a bottle of wine reveals something universal in us. It is about the ritual of sharing.
Did living in DC make this cultural connection more apparent?
PEDRO: Since the moment I arrived in DC, I have had to sustain an almost continuous educational approach with many people I interact with on a daily basis, explaining the colonial relationship Puerto Rico has with the US and how this condition has prompted millions such as myself to leave the island in search of a better quality of life. This got me thinking about the need for a space here where this history can be accessed and shared in a communal environment. What better way to start that conversation than connecting, speaking, educating, and inspiring patrons to enjoy the products I grew up with and to increase their appreciation of Latin America culture, wine, and gastronomy.
And of course, that space is also important for getting connected with the DC-based Latino community, where they can find many things they cherish from back home. When you come from far away and you run into reminders like that, it can really bring a smile or make someone’s day. The need for both of those spaces in DC is the motivation behind Grand Cata.
JULIO: That feeling of education through conversation is so true for me as well. In that first job at the wine store, I learned that I was able to tell stories about my home country, that I could expose people to South America, that the reason why the customer returned to the shop wasn’t only about the wine, but that experience. I realized that, like when I was a journalist, I was still telling stories that were making an impact with people. Now, with Grand Cata, we can broaden and continue that mission, by expanding the way American people consume Latino wine and transport them across the region.
I totally believe that Latin America has so much to offer and is still unknown. To be honest, part of the reason for that is simply lack of attention by the establishment. It is sad to see how many, many retailers minimize, hide, or discount the space for South American wines. I think they are underestimating the region. At Grand Cata, we are going to change that. We want to equate Latino wine with quality wine. There are so many fantastic wines made by families businesses that are still not even available in the US. Those wines are a better representation of what we actually consume in our home countries.
What does being Latino in the USA mean, personally?
PEDRO: I cannot hide the pride I have for my Puerto Rican heritage, and being by myself in the states I always miss home. In the Caribbean, there’s a slower pace of life than here. We smile more. We are a very warm people always finding an excuse to celebrate something.
I also lived in Barcelona, Spain for two years and visited Latin heritage countries such as Portugal and Italy. I've also made a point to travel to many Latin American countries in Central and South America in the past few years. This has helped me connect to my Latino neighbors and understand how similar we are in many ways. From Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil: all of them represent a piece of my heritage. Even though Latinos come from so many different places, there is still so much we share: language, similar traditions like in music, fútbol, and gastronomy, and shared history relating to colonialism and the effects of US foreign policy.
Beyond all that, the way we enjoy life with family and friends as a centerpiece is probably what we most have in common.
JULIO: I love living here, but what I miss most about Chile is my family, my friends, my context. We live life a little less worried about material things and value our community more. I also really miss those big Sunday family asados that starts at noon and go until it is dark outside. That sense of union sometimes is hard to find here. I often try to recreate that.
Definitely living here changed the way that I related with the Latino community. Chile is like an island. We are surrounded by the tallest mountains on the continent – the Andes, the largest ocean in the world – the Pacific, Antarctica – which is just ice, and the Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth. So we have not always paid that much attention to what is happening outside of our territory. But here, I’ve come to realize how much I share with other Latinos the same roots and identify with the same feeling of being abroad. I am also really amazed by how many Latinos are willing to go so far from home in order work hard, not only to make their own dreams true but also to help others in their home country. That is something that I am really proud to see in our community.
What does the American dream mean for the Latino Wine Co.?
JULIO: First, we have to pay homage to the path laid before us. Latin American small business owners are at the foundation of a rich history of immigration, opportunity, and perseverance in this country, and especially DC. The neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan were shaped by Latino enterprise for decades. While I do believe we are adding something new to the retail scene in Washington, DC, at the same time we have a big responsibility to do things in a good way. So we are here to make Grand Cata successful, but at the same time, share our culture and making people aware that we are an extension of what other Latinos have done here before. Without them, Grand Cata couldn’t exist. Colmaditos, mercaditos, and bakeries have done an amazing job establishing, expanding, and preserving the Latino culture in this city as well as establishing an important economic infrastructure that has benefitted everyone. We are grateful for that. As the second wave of that tradition, we hope to be a bridge for the community as well.
PEDRO: We are just getting started but we have many plans to make a positive impact, both locally in the DC Shaw community and in the future, in our home countries. Our philosophy is to always give back. For us, education is a tool to empower and inspire others to believe in themselves, to create, to connect, to always continue to learn.
The US nation’s capital represents an opportunity, a space to create, to integrate, and connect. As part of not only a nation, but also a continent built from the hard work of immigrants, our duty is to continue this wave of creativity, innovation, and work ethic. Like anyone from Alaska to the tip of la Patagonia, we embody this spirit of American entrepreneurship. The very sense of collaborating to create something new is part of what keeps me going as well as my reward. I’m about to live my dream.