The gig: At 65, Robert Reyes is living his childhood dream of running a vineyard and winery. Reyes owns Reyes Winery in Agua Dulce, situated on a 17-acre hillside near the Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles County. His reds and whites, which sell for $18 to $35 a bottle, have won 62 awards in less than four years of commercial operation. Finding his way into the wine trade followed decades of setbacks and success, capped by his 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Business Assn.
Orange wine: Reyes grew up in the Dominican Republic and remembers that his Aunt Emma frequently brought her homemade fruit wines to family gatherings. "I sipped some of her orange wine," Reyes said. "I remember thinking some day it would be fun to learn how to do that." Reyes came to the U.S. at age 14 and later studied at Monroe Business School in the Bronx, earning an associate degree in business administration with "an emphasis on computer programming and operations."
Branching out: Reyes worked as a programmer for Great American Insurance Group but after less than two years he got the itch to run things his way. He opened a small sewing business after the insurance company transferred him to Los Angeles. "The sewing business was started with a few dollars from my paychecks," Reyes said, "plus a few dollars borrowed from a couple of friends. And a wing and a prayer." At age 22, Reyes started making blouses with eight employees; within a few years, he employed 25 people.
A different blend: Reyes wasn't going to depend on one business; he studied to become a real estate agent, then used the knowledge another way. He began investing in real estate, buying his first apartment in 1973 with conventional bank financing. In 1984, he bought a steel fabrication plant. "I always have a plan," Reyes said. "Know where you are going to be in a few months or a year or two years. I believe in having more than one goal."
Out of the cellar: Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed his biggest venture yet, a Florida shopping center. Just three years later, the steel fabrication company had to be closed when oil prices collapsed and contracts to build gas stations were canceled. Reyes also had properties in Florida that he had to sell at below-market rates because the interest he was paying on them was too high. "That is something you have to do at times to survive," he said. "When there are failures in your business, you just have to keep going. You can't dwell on it. Maybe you become a little more cautious, but you move on and do the best you can."
Uncorking his dream: Reyes was back to buying, improving and flipping real estate when a friend called in 2001 and told him about a piece of land in Agua Dulce that might work as a vineyard. "He said, 'But there's already been an offer on it.' I said, 'Offer them more.' " Reyes got it for about $330,000. "I hired a consultant to lay out and design the irrigation system. I learned that from him. He helped me lay out everything and plan it." Reyes didn't start planting grapes until 2004. "At the time I had no idea what 16 acres even looked like," Reyes said. "I planted it all, not really thinking I wanted to go commercial."
Taking root: "It took me 4 1/2 years to get a license from Los Angeles County," Reyes said. "It took awhile for them to figure out what they needed from me. There hadn't been a plan to start a vineyard in Los Angeles in many years." Cold weather was another challenge. "We lost all our grapes to frost in one night in 2011," Reyes said, noting that he had to import grapes from another vineyard that year. For inspiration, Reyes often turned to books by motivational trainer Zig Ziglar, whom he can quote from memory: " 'You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win and expect to win.' " Now, he takes pride in pointing out that Dominican Republic officials have turned to him for consulting help in improving its wine industry.
No whining: Currently, "the water table is so low that we're having to truck in water three or four times a week, about 4,000 gallons each time," Reyes said. The cost is "about $1.1 million, and counting," he said. "We're in our fourth year. Hopefully we will break even this year. We're a little better known now, but probably 98% of the population in Los Angeles doesn't know we exist." Despite the hurdles, "I do not regret doing this," Reyes said. "It was a goal and a dream, and I still have a passion for it. I know a lot of people who would love to have a situation like this." He enjoys painting his own labels for the vintages. His favorite wine to date is a port that has been aging in barrels for eight years.
Personal: Reyes lives in Downey with Rosa, his wife of eight years. He has three adult children. An avid scuba diver, he prefers the waters off the Dominican Republic. "Here [in Southern California], you have to go on a boat for a long way, wear a lot of equipment," Reyes said. "There, we go down to the beach and dive where we like without thick rubber suits. The water is clear and warm. It's uncomplicated there." Reyes also leads regular hikes up into the hills near his vineyard, where the participants' reward is a visit to the winery's tasting room.