A Harvest of Dreams

The winery's brands–Corte Riva and Cortez 78 (Source: facebook.com/corteriva)

Hidden in the hills of Penngrove, California, away from the touristy bustle of downtown Napa, lies a Filipino treasure. It’s the home of Corte Riva–a Filipino-owned wine label that in a few short years has earned accolades from the industry, and grown from the seed of a dream to a successful brand in a highly competitive wine market.

The story of the Cortez and Rivera families is a heartwarming and truly inspiring one–about how big dreams and hard work can shape the destiny of an immigrant family.

Corte Riva’s founders, Lawrence Cortez and Romel Rivera, hail from Cagayan Valley and La Union, respectively. They moved to the United States with their families in 1978 and got their start in Napa as grape pickers, the bottom of the winemaking food chain. It was a lonely existence in those days. Unlike other places in California, the Napa Valley has no large Filipino population to speak of. For Lawrence and Romel, there was no community support system, nobody to speak their language to--just long tiring days spent in vineyards, picking, pruning, hauling crates and watching for frost on cold spring nights.

By sheer determination and hard work, they each made their way up the ranks, earning employment and a hands-on education at prestigious wineries like Clos Pegase and Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars. Aside from creating his own wines today, Lawrence still works as cellar master for Pride Mountain Vineyards in Calistoga, and Romel is assistant to wine maker Bob Foley. Apparently, the strong Ilocano work ethic dies hard.

Lawrence Cortez blending the 2009 vintages (Source: facebook.com/corteriva)

The two friends eventually became family, with Lawrence’s marriage to Romel’s cousin, Nieves. The operation of Corte Riva is still very much a family affair. Nieves takes the reins as sales manager, their nephew Richie Rivera is marketing manager, a member of their extended family acts as graphic designer and webmaster, and Lawrence and Romel continue to create new taste experiences, expanding the brand with innovative new blends.

Love for family is so ingrained in them that it is quite literally their brand: The Corte Riva logo is the image of a vase that Lawrence’s family brought with them all the way from the Philippines. His parents used to drop money into it every day. As a child, Lawrence asked why they did this, and his parents would reply, “Because one day, this will be your fortune.”  And that indeed has come to pass.

The Corte Riva logo is the image of a vase that Lawrence’s family brought with them all the way from the Philippines.

Even their wine names are personal: Cortez 78, which marks the year of their arrival in the U.S.; the Firepit blend, an “everyday” wine in honor of the family’s summertime home barbecues; and the highly acclaimed Mabuhay line, which celebrates their Filipino heritage. 

A lucky few (this writer included) can occasionally see the inner workings of the family in a more private setting. The Cortezes host informal dinner parties at their home in Saint Helena, featuring Nieves’ superb cooking and, of course, copious amounts of delicious wine. One such dinner, in which they invited a visiting Philippine senator, led to his enthusiastic shipping of over 30 cases back to Manila to be served at his daughter’s wedding.

Corte Riva's Nieves and Lawrence Cortez (Photo by Jonathan Cortez)

The meals are pleasantly relaxed, filled with happy conversation, with neighbors and extended family drifting in and out of the house, and a passel of dogs announcing every arrival with enthusiastic barks. In such an idyllic setting, one is tempted to forget the sheer force of will and long hours this family put into the creation of the dream that is Corte Riva.

Not that any of them have any intention of resting on their laurels. The year 2012 was a hugely successful one for the winery, despite a competitive and sometimes uncertain market. Nieves has taken on an operations manager to ensure that business processes are fulfilled with maximum efficiency. Marketing Manager Richie also launched their Mabuhay wine club, enabling fans in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond to have their favorite blends delivered right to their doorstep every month (it has been a huge success). They also worked numerous foodie events throughout the region, exposing more wine lovers to their unique brand.

A dinner event at La Soleil Restaurant in San Francisco to promote Corte Riva wines among foodies (Source: facebook.com/corteriva)

This year, plans are in the works for Lawrence and Romel to develop a sweeter blended line, which Nieves is betting will resonate well with Asian palates, and hopefully, our kababayans back home. “We owe our success to our hard work, which we learned from our Filipino heritage and culture,” say Nieves. “It’s our inspiration.” 

Filipinos have responded enthusiastically. Many Filipino restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area now feature Corte Riva as part of their wine offerings, and Pinoys visiting the West Coast now make it a point to seek out Corte Riva bottles as pasalubongs and souvenirs. There’s a distinct pleasure in enjoying a world-class wine, straight from the heart of American wine country, created by our own people.

As inspiring and successful as it has been, the story of the Cortez and Rivera families is by no means over. There is an empire to build, more wine labels to produce, more wine aficionados to convert and more money to be put in the family vase. For Corte Riva, the best is yet to come.

Author Michi Salta
Author Michi Salta

Michi Valeriano Salta is a video producer, TV host, writer, and marketing professional based in San Francisco, CA. She founded Ampliphi Media in 2008 and hosts the TV show "Adobo Nation," aired every Sunday on The Filipino Channel.