Riverhead resident Seferino Cotzojay, the first Guatemalan-born assistant winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, comes alive, his eyes sparkling, as he walks among the vines, sharing his thoughts about the passion he brings to each harvest.
Now 30, he’s one of the youngest assistant winemakers on the North Fork canvas, but he’s made great strides, and now, has launched the first-ever Long Island Latino Vinters Associaton.
LILVA is meant to organize Latinos working in the industry and also, provide them with a place to share information and a haven during times of crisis when they may need a helping hand.
According to its mission statement, LILVA is a non-profit organization founded this year to “promote and support the Latino community in the Long Island wine region, to advocate quality standards for its members, to promote and support the contributions of Latinos in the wine industry and to support education and professional development.”
Cotzojay is joined on the LILVA committee by Miguel Martin, winemaker at Palmer Vineyards and Victor Pirir, winemaking assistant at Raphael.
Of his new venture, Cotzojay said, “I’m very excited.”
Born in Guatemala, Cotzojay came to the United States when he was only 15 and attended high school in Phoenix, before joining his brothers, who were working on the North Fork.
Although he lived first in Mattituck when he began working on the North Fork, Cotzojay has moved to a new home in Riverhead.
When he first began an internship at Bedell in 2005, Cotzojay had never even tasted wine.
But he worked diligently, learning every corner of his craft, from cleaning tanks and drains to creating vintage wines. He revels in the entire process, from picking and sorting grapes, to pump-overs — a technology used in a winery to increase extraction — to fermentation, to bottling the wines.
Cotzojay said he was motivated to form LILVA in January because he saw “tremendous levels of expertise” among Latino colleagues, who, he said, were highly skilled in every aspect of production, from leaf pulling to pruning, to the actual harvest.
The new organization, Cotzojay said, will also help welcome new Latinos to the North Fork — and provide a support network when they find themselves in a medical or other emergency. In addition, the plan is to build a scholarship program for high school graduates heading to college to major in viticulture or in the culinary field, hoping for a career in food and wine.
Remembering the dark days in December after Bartolone Miguel of Peconic — Miguel was a beloved member of the Pellegrini Winery staff — was killed in a head-on crash in Greenport, Cotzojay said members of the Latino community went door to door to collect money to help his family.
The tragedy exemplified how an organization such as LILVA could help in an organized way during times of crisis, Cotzojay said.
The aim of LILVA, an idea he’s nurtured for months before it blossomed this spring, is to promote the efforts of Latinos in making world-class wine on Long Island, he said.
Formal meetings and fundraisers will be held in the months ahead. Speakers will give forums on educational topics, providing an opportunity for Latinos to share expertise and garner new skills.
Cotzojay said LILVA will help members to build self-esteem and become even more deeply rooted in the Long Island winemaking community as the efforts of all involved are recognized. Working in the vineyard, no matter what the weather, “you still have to get the job done,” Cotzojay said, adding that one of the reasons for LILVA is to acknowledge every person’s unique talents and dedication to the craft.
“Wine starts in the vineyard. It takes a lot of people to make great wine,” he said.
A new website and Facebook page will serve as clearinghouses for information, Cotzojay said. The website is in both Spanish and English, to help newcomers navigate with ease.
The idea for LILVA was born right before Cotzojay went to Guatemala for the holidays and, upon his return, he started working full force on the effort, supported, he said, by Rich Olsen-Harbich, Bedell winemaker.
“LILVA is a great idea and long overdue. Sustainability is also about people and this organization will help serve the needs of Latino winery and vineyard employees who are so important to what we do,” Olsen-Harbich said. “Seferino feels passionate about this issue and there’s no better person to head up this organization. I’m very proud of him and this is great for our community.”
“I’m so thankful for his support,” Cotzojay said. “It’s been a lot of work, but I’m so happy to see this take off.”
Going home, a world away from the North Fork to a humble home where his father farms beans and corn, Cotzojay said his parents do not really grasp the level of success he has reached and have no frame of reference for his life in the United States. “They don’t really understand, but they are very proud,” he said.
Cotzojay’s love of the land was cultivated as a little boy, working on the farm with his father.
And just as he learned at his father’s side, and later, as he pored over books at Bedell to absorb every step of the rich winemaking process, it’s that deep love of learning that Cotzojay hopes to share with other Latinos, providing them with educational opportunities so they can take wing and soar. “Anyone with the passion to learn can succeed,” he said.
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