As the bin filled with pale-colored grapes began to tilt, Rosa Fierro used a rake to aid their descent onto a conveyer belt on their way to the juicer. She tasted the fruit inside her Livermore winery, giving a thumbs up to what she estimates will be her 11th vintage.
Just a few years ago, this time of day, instead of jeans and a T-shirt, Fierro would've been head to toe in business attire heading to her job as a legal assistant in a San Francisco law firm. But after learning to make wine from her winemaking friends and falling in love with making wine, she went all in.
"Two years ago, I found the place next door and quit my job and here I am," Fierro said.
Fierro opened Fierro Cellars along the row of Vasco Road wineries, adding a brick and mortar tasting room to her operation. She gave her wines names reflecting her Latino culture, like quatro and de la luna. She used her own impressionistic photography of wine leaves at the bottom of the barrels as wine labels.
Get a weekly recap of the latest San Francisco Bay Area housing news. Sign up for NBC Bay Area’s Housing Deconstructed newsletter.
"It’s really a dream come true, owning my own winery and running it all myself," Fierro said.
Although her name is on the bottle, Fierro thinks of her winery as a family operation. Her mom works the tasting room. Her son helps out with the crush. And she counts the region's close-knit winemakers as family, too.
"We get together and have these big wine tastings so we can guide each other," she said.
Fierro's family came from Spain and Mexico, settling in New Mexico before it was even part of the U.S. Fierro herself was born just a short drive away in Castro Valley. She absorbed Bay Area culture – took a city job – never imagining her path would lead to the vineyards of Livermore, to a room filled with wine-filled oak barrels, setting her clock by the grape harvest.
"For the love of the grape, you just have to keep chugging along," she said, pulling a pile of grapes onto the belt.
Fierro's first foray into winemaking came from wine tastings. She worked in a tasting room and began to befriend winemakers. She was especially jazzed they'd ask her to help with the crush. She was helping a friend make a batch when the calling took hold.
"One night, I had too much to drink and we were pressing some port in the garage and I was just totally hooked after that," Fierro said.
She doesn't mind the long hours, the heavy lifting, the work moving barrels. She is chasing a dream.
"It takes a lot of guts to quit a high-paying job as a legal assistant to open up your own winery," said her son Jeremy Kontelis. "So yeah, there’s definitely some admiration there."
In everything Fierro does, culture and heritage are integral elements. She calls up the family every time there's a new vintage to try. She feels most at home when family is around and making holiday tamales or simply sharing a meal. But there was a time when her heritage felt out of sorts with the rest of the world.
"When I was a little girl, my school told my family not to speak Spanish to me because they want the kids to integrate in with the English-speaking kids," she recalled. "So, I kind of feel like I was stripped a lot of my heritage."
In an industry run by men, Fierro stands out. As the Latina owner of a winery, she's forging new ground, although the old tropes still turn up.
"I’ve had people come in and ask me if i was the cleaning woman," she said, shaking her head.
In recent years, Fierro has won numerous awards for her wine and achievements as a female winemaker, winning respect from her winemaking peers in the region.
"I think she has a love for making wine," said winemaker Darin Winton. "And once you get around people that actually love to make wine, you will see their passion and you will see them grow."
Fierro doesn't plan to grow too much. She loves getting hands on with her grapes, deftly shaping their flavors into prized wines.
As she watched the last of her bins of granache grapes ride the conveyer belt to the juicer, there were no regrets about shaking off her former career to pursue her passion. Every bottle seemed to reflect her journey.
"The wine bottles are just filled with love and hard work and passion," she said.