Marcus mejia, Winemaker
“you boys are not bad hombres”
Marcus Mejía is the founder and owner of Bad Hombre Wines. We’d met at an event in May where Marcus was pouring wine. I was intrigued by his story and the concept of wine activism, and knew I wanted him to be part of the project. We met up in NE Portland over tacos and margaritas. We talked for nearly two hours and I was struck by our similarities. We both grew up in rural parts of Oregon, lived in Italy, and have basic knowledge of a variety of languages, which has jumbled our renewed efforts to learn Spanish.
Our meandering conversation went from talking about language learning and perceptions of race to the struggle to record family memory and how to pass on a sense of heritage to the next generation. Marcus is an incredible storyteller and, to give his story plenty of space, I omitted most of my commentary while editing and condensing the interview. Enjoy!
Carly: What’s your background?
Marcus: I was lucky enough to grow up in a place predominantly mexicano or Mexican-American in Eastern Oregon. I’m mixed race. My mother’s side of the family is mexicano. But my father’s side is African-American and Native American. One of my earliest memories is getting in a fight with a friend of mine who said I wasn’t Mexican. <laughs>
Carly: Do you speak Spanish?
Marcus: I was raised by my grandparents, who veered away from speaking Spanish in the household with me. When they raised my mom and my uncle, they specifically chose not to speak Spanish, so they wouldn’t have an accent and be subjected to any sort of ridicule. As sad and disheartening as that is, that was the time and it was also the community and culture. When they raised me, they stuck to that.
I’m still trying to center myself in some part of the world where I can learn Spanish. There was a short period of my life where I did that, I went to Costa Rica for a while to do a reforestation project in 2008 and it went pretty well.
Carly: Yeah, I’m in the process of trying to pick it up again.
Marcus: Me too. About four months ago, I downloaded all this stuff and even did the sleep program, where I’d listen to Spanish recordings at night. It’s a weird desire and a small chip on the shoulder. Life’s been good, I’ve been happy and lucky, but at the same time, there is something missing a tiny bit. I wish I could quit beating around the bush and just do it.
Carly: Is it just the language?
Marcus: That’s one part of it. It’s the entrance to a larger cultural link. I think ultimately, like all cultures and America in general, everybody is seeking some form of acceptance or a theoretical seat at the table with everybody else. And it’s good sometimes, it propels us, but sometimes it’s really hard. Even though you’ve had amazing times, sometimes you get the cold shoulder and that sticks with you.
Carly: Yeah, finding a dialogue between the culture in which you are in and the culture you or your family are from takes a lot of work. The conversations I’ve had for this project so far all recognize that tension. Many, like me, were pretty detached from their heritage. Many people have a foggy understanding of their heritage and it can be difficult for parents to try and share that. People get caught up in living the day to day, and with good reason. Kids tend to be interested in what’s around them, like most of us. But I think that exposure is important. I wish I’d had more of it.
Marcus: Yeah, I got lucky. When my grandparents raised me, they raised me in - for all intents and purposes - a Mexican-American household. I was so lucky to be able to have that. It was culturally Mexican. We had my family all around, my tios and tias, aunts and uncles, there was a difference. It wasn’t fiestas every weekend, but we got together and hung out.
Carly: Did you hear stories about how your Mexican family came up here?
Marcus: Luckily, my great-grandfather Don Luis Vendrell, was recorded back in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, so I have some information. That was on my grandmother’s side. Her maiden name is Vendrell. They came up during the Mexican Revolution. He came with his mother, my great-great-grandmother Donna Christina De La Cruz. They came to work, he worked on the Hoover Dam, he had his paperwork and citizenship and all that. He chose to go back for a family reason. That’s my grandmother’s side of things. My grandfather’s side, all we really know is that his family is from Guadalajara. He was orphaned at a young age. A lot of people don’t even talk about things, they don’t know where things come from and then someone passes of importance and knowledge and then it’s gone. That’s why I’m so interested in your project. I think about my daughter or son someday. How will I explain to them about my side of the family and what they’re a part of. I want them to know and love all these things.
Carly: The “what are you” question seems inevitable, right?
Marcus: Oh yeah! I’ve wanted to make some sort of brand with “What are you?” I hear it at least once a month. If you could guess, how many ethnicities or cultures have people asked that you’re from within your lifetime?
Carly: Probably at least 10, 20 would be pushing it. But I think it’s such an advantage these days. You can blend into so many different cultures. I’ve had people think I was from Italy, Spain, Greece, anywhere in the Middle East. Rarely Mexico though.
Marcus: For me, it’s at least once a month, or when traveling. While I was living in Florence, I would get approached at least once a week and people would speak Brazilian Portuguese to me. It’s interesting how people try to dissect your visual identity.
Carly: So how did you get into wine?
Marcus: I graduated in 2010 from Oregon State University, where I studied graphic design and marketing. I became a little disillusioned with the world of graphic design because nothing was tangible. I felt like I was making things to be discarded and it was disheartening. I wanted to get back into something that had deeper value. I went back to live with my grandparents in Eastern Oregon, rediscovering my roots and what I’d like to do with my life. I was working on the ranch with my grandfather who was literally digging irrigation ditches, and it was so tangible. You can feel it in your back at the end of the day and I wanted to get closer to that.
The world of wine fit perfectly in there. It has artistry, it has alchemy, it has science. It has all those things that are enriching and you’re always searching to understand them deeper, like art. But at the same time, it’s based in agriculture, it’s based on something that’s as solid as the ground you walk on.
I studied for a time in Italy and that made a large impact on me as far as the world of wine went, I didn’t know anything prior to that. I was lucky enough to meet some people who took me to Tuscany several times and I learned a bit about the process of making wine and the lifestyle. It is romantic, but it’s also very similar in a way to Mexican-American culture. Everyone is really tight. It was like home. While I was working with my grandfather, we made a trip to Southeast Idaho and there’s a small viticulture area out there. I talked with a gentleman who told me I should check out Walla Walla, Washington and the things going on with wine there, specifically Italian varietals. Long story short, I ended up going to the community college there to get a second degree in enology and viticulture. And then everything took off. I got my degree, I began working at K Vitners and Charles Smith Wines. I cut my teeth and really enjoyed it. My boss at the time, Andrew Latta, he became my mentor when it came to wine. I told him I wanted to go abroad and do a vintage and he said I should, it would make me better.
First, I came back to Oregon and did a vintage here in 2014. That was really fun and the people I happened to work with were all Australian. They were great, a lot of fun. A good friend said I should go to Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne in Australia to make wine because it’s comparable to here, but you learn a lot more. So I lived in Australia for 4 months and then in New Zealand for another 2 months. When I came back, I took a job with Stoller and was there for about 3.5 years until I began working with Union Wine Co.
Carly: And where does Bad Hombre Wines fit into that?
Marcus: After the 2016 elections, I was frustrated and then that turned into anger and then I wondered why because I’m not an angry person. I was working at Stoller at the time and ended up taking some time off to go back home and visit family and friends. Since I started working in wine, every time I’d visit, I’d bring my grandmother a case or half-case of rosé. At some point during the visit, while drinking rosé at her kitchen table, we talked about the election. My grandmother was the first person in my family to really seek education, she was the first woman in my family to get a degree. She went to Boise State University while raising my mother and uncle, doing night school and while being a teacher’s aide at the elementary school. She did it all while my grandfather was working at the factory.
My grandmother is a champion of life, she did it all for us. Everyone thinks she’s this nice lady, a sweet schoolteacher. But she is the lioness of our family.
She has a lot to offer, but she keeps it to herself because of the culture and she’s super polite. But after a little rosé was in her, she started to say what she thought. She said, “You, your cousins, your friends, you boys are not bad hombres. You’re good boys. It makes me really mad.” She was upset enough to bring it up in conversation, the fact that it was disheartening to her. That was about all we talked about it, but I heard it loud and clear.
As I was driving the 7 hours back to Newberg, I thought about it a lot. That’s the heart of my family. She went through so much her entire life to get me to where I am and now she has to sit at a table and confess a bit of a loss. It’s tragic to hear that. All the work she’s put in. And she’s just one human being in one small culture in this entire nation. I was fed up with it.
So I worked my 9-5 during the day and would come home at night and figure out how to start an LLC, how to acquire fruit, and how to make this a thing. Initially I didn’t know what to call it, but the resonance of Bad Hombre kept ringing. Bad Hombre Wines is actually a dba [doing business as] of Mejia Fermentation Co. Initially when I started the brand, I filed the paperwork and they wouldn’t allow the name. So, I created the Mejia Fermentation Co.
Andrew Latta, my mentor from my first days in wine, helped me with the logistics and I created one pallet (56 cases of 12 bottles), which is pretty much gone by now.
Carly: And where do you want to take it from here?
Marcus: I started Bad Hombre Wines so a conversation could be had, regardless of your culture or political affiliation. For one, no one is going to get mad at rosé. It’s a very affable drink. When I was initially thinking about it, you can bring the bottle of Bad Hombre to Thanksgiving and have that conversation with your dad about how he may or may not have voted, have that talk with whomever. Try to understand.
As time has gone on, it has become evident that people have made their dividing lines and that void is getting wider. That’s the most disconcerting thing to me. I’m sure it’s always been there, but now it’s more visible. The veneer is gone. It’s a raw wound you can see.
I want it to be better, but I don’t have any answers other than trying to produce a wine and doing the only thing I know how to do To get people to communicate.
I was inspired to make the brand and the wine, to bring up a conversation that needs to be had now about what’s going on. Because if people will just communicate with one another, maybe things won’t be so bad.
Carly: Wine is a connector, it’s a community builder, it breaks down walls, doesn’t it?
Marcus: Exactly. There is a reason art exists. We’ve both had the chance to live in Italy. There’s a reason the Renaissance happened, we’re not devoid of those aspects as human beings. It’s very visceral. Even in times of severe hardship or even in times of great fortune, you’re going to appreciate it. Perhaps even more in times of hardship. Art is experienced is so many different ways. With wine, you take it in. If you have a chance to share a glass with someone you care about, it transcends into art. You delve deeper.
Carly: I did my undergraduate thesis on protest art as a form of resistance against the war in Iraq. Mostly street art and stuff. But when I first learned about your wine, I realized, that’s what your wine is. Protest art.
Marcus: Yeah, sometimes you need to say something in any way you can. And I’ll keep doing that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.