Author:Fernandez, Elias

IT WAS LIKE nothing I'd seen or experienced before. Being in our nation's Capitol, meeting President George W. Bush, and being honored alongside people I admired, was deeply moving. As I soaked it all in, I took a moment to silently thank the people who got me there--my mentors.

Growing up in Napa Valley in the 1970s, my first mentors were my parents. They were farmworkers, who worked in orchards and vineyards and acted as role models for a work ethic that keeps going no matter what. My mom pushed me to take that work ethic out of the vineyards and apply it to school.

My high school track coach, Toby Wolf, also pushed me to do my best. Every time I was about to hit the bar he'd set for me, he raised it higher, expecting more. Eventually he named me captain of the track team because, as he told our team, "Some of you are more gifted runners but no one gives it the kind of effort Elias does."

In my senior year I got a memorable push from my math teacher, Gordon Anderson. In that last year of high school I was feeling the symptoms of "senior-itis," a laziness that overtakes those about to graduate. In my last quarter I planned to avoid a lot of things including an advanced mathematics course.

My math teacher had other plans. He met me in the hallway one day and said, "I signed you up for that advanced math class; you need it." Initially I was annoyed but later was grateful. That class laid the foundation for success in college, where my winemaking classes involved a lot of advanced math.

Again, a mentor had taken the time to give me a push, to help me see that I could accomplish more.

Just out of college I got my first job at Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley. It was tough work as John Shafer, who founded the winery, his son Doug, who was the winemaker, and I, were learning how to grow grapes, make wine, run a cellar, and get the wine out into the marketplace. Those first ten years were the most challenging of my life.

But I remember distinctly...

To continue reading