Winemaker Seferino Cotzojay, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in search of better opportunities when he was just 15, knows first-hand the challenge of trying to learn a craft while living in a foreign land.
As a teenager, Cotzojay attended school in Phoenix, Ariz., where he overcame cultural barriers and learned English. His next move was to eastern Long Island, where he began working alongside winemakers at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. There, he paid close attention to the way they spoke about the varietals that grow in the region and the wine they produce.
While other immigrants might view agricultural work as a stepping stone toward finding jobs in other industries, Cotzojay, now 30, has spent the better part of the past decade working his way up the viticultural ladder. Today, he’s assistant winemaker to Bedell winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich — and he wants to help other Latinos who are on the same path.
Since the early 1980s, countless Hispanic vineyard and winery workers have assisted with the harvesting process and played an integral role in producing wine. Long Island vineyards and wineries employ about 250 full-time and 100 part-time workers, Cotzojay said, accounting for 25 percent of the total agricultural workforce in Suffolk County. From vineyard work to winemaking and sales, Latinos have helped the region’s wine industry flourish.
The Long Island Latino Vintners Association, which was founded in May by Cotzojay, aims to unify people like him and celebrate the dedication and contribution of Hispanic workers to the local wine industry.
Cotzojay said the idea to form LILVA stemmed from a collective passion rather than a conflict.
“I saw the tremendous level of expertise our crew puts into every vintage,” he said. “Latino workers are highly skilled in the art of tending vines — from pruning to shoot thinning to harvest — all critical elements of making great wine that they influence directly.”
LILVA will focus on preserving the region’s unique wine industry, collaborating with industry leaders, fostering young professionals and working with community organizations to ensure the viability and growth of winemaking, Cotzojay said.
Currently, he said, LILVA doesn’t require a membership fee and meetings will be held as often as needed.
So far, its committee includes Olsen-Harbich; winemaker Miguel Martin of Palmer Vineyards in Aquebogue; and Victor Pirir of Pindar Vineyards in Peconic.
Pirir, who has worked at Pindar for the past five years, said he was on board as soon as Cotzojay contacted him about joining LILVA.
“I was honored that Seferino asked me to join the committee,” Pirir said. “I believe LILVA is a great way to help each other in case of any emergency and to recognize the contributions the Latino community makes in our wine region.”
Sister Margaret Smyth, director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, said she was happy to hear about the organization’s official formation.
“Anything that involves coming together as a community is usually positive,” Smyth said. “I’ve never heard of anything like LILVA in the area and I think it will definitely grow over the next few years.”
In addition to the needs of workers, LILVA also recognizes the importance of sustainability and social responsibility associated with making wine on Long Island.
“Sustainability is also about caring for people,” Cotzojay said. “Wineries and vineyards need to work in harmony with the environment to build a community between vineyards, workers and the land.”
Having worked in the wine industry for 10 years, Cotzojay said there was no better time than now for LILVA to come into fruition. In the future, he said, the organization hopes to offer scholarships to local graduates pursuing the study of viticulture and oenology.
“I feel like LILVA will not only bring good things to us, but also the entire region,” Cotzojay said.