Felipe Hernandez is the vineyard manager at Oak Savanna. Around the valley, he is known as Don Felipe, and spoken of by both his peers and subordinates with conspicuous emphasis on the well-deserved and hard-earned title of respect.
In 1972, Felipe came from Jalisco, Mexico, into the United States by the most common route: He jumped the border fence. A friend who lived in the valley had told Felipe there might be some jobs with the newly formed Santa Ynez Grape Growers, an association of farmers that included Brooks and Kate Firestone. Felipe still remembers the long hot days he spent planting grapes during those first years, and how Kate would often appear in the fields late in the afternoon with a tray of cold drinks. Besides grape planting, during his “off hours” Felipe worked whatever odd jobs he could find, including mowing the lawn at the residence of the owner of La Zaca.
The original Zaca plantings were vast, and because of the size, several managers were needed to oversee the different blocks. By 1977, Felipe was managing the hillside plantings, which needed tending by hand, since the steep terrain made working by machine impossible. The hillside terrain was eventually parceled off from Zaca and is what comprises the Oak Savanna Vineyard today. By the 1980s, Felipe was so valuable to the grapes that he was asked to move into a little house on the property that had been built for him and his family. Several of his viticultural “inventions” have become standard Santa Ynez grape growers’ practice, including the interplanting of rows with grain and grass crops, bird netting applications, grafting techniques, and vineyard hygiene standards.
Today Felipe is the manager of Oak Savanna Vineyard, a co-owner of the neighboring Koehler Vineyard, consultant to a handful of other wineries in the valley, and the vintner for his own wine label, called Feliz Noche. He is the father of five, including four grown children, all of whom have gone to college. Two are engineers, one is a registered nurse, and the other (a daughter!) is an aspiring FBI agent. His youngest, Little Felipe, is only ten years old.
To us, Felipe represents the American Dream. But like everyone who knows him, we just abbreviate the superlatives and call him Don Felipe.
From Oak Savanna Vineyard owner Sandy Hill's book Fandango