(Photo: Courtesy Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association)
Located within a 90-minute drive of San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County and Palm Springs, Temecula, California, is home to around 50 wineries, including immigrant- and first-generation-owned Akash Winery. Married couple Ray (born in Uganda) and Nalini Patel (born in Kenya) are of Indian descent and had always liked wine and gardening, respectively, but hadn’t worked in the wine industry before. In 2010, the family bought a 20-acre lot, and since then the immigrant American dream has come alive, with a tasting room that opened in 2019, a planned resort to be built on the property, award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and rosés, and a new venture, Akash Brewing. For this edition ofVoices In Food, Akash Patel, Ray and Nalini’s son and namesake winery owner, talked to Garin Pirnia about creating a winery from literally the ground up, South Asian American representation, his parents’ journey, and how he hopes Temecula will be the next Napa.
My parents both emigrated from Africa. They were refugees and kicked out by [Ugandan despot] Idi Amin, in the ’70s. They went to London, Canada and then ended up in a small town in the states, in New Mexico — that’s where I was born. My parents started a motel business there. They bought a broken down motel, fixed it up, ran and operated it, and did it again to the next one.
In 2001, we moved to Orange County, and my dad said, “Let’s buy a motel in Temecula.” So we were going to buy a motel in Temecula, but the deal didn’t work out. My parents said, “Well, there’s like five wineries out here. What if we got into that and maybe put a resort out here on that plot of land?” For 10 years, we scoped the area out seeing how it was going to grow, and it started to grow. And we found 20 acres of land, in 2010. [When I was about 20 years old] my parents kind of just looked at me and said, “Well, you know, if you want to figure this out, here you go.”
There weren’t utilities or anything — no vineyard, just weeds. And so we started from scratch. It took us nine years to develop it, and I was learning how to grow the vineyard and how to work with the county and build something here in the state of California, which was a big learning curve. Once the vines were ready, we hired a winemaker [Renato Sais], and he’s been by my side since 2014. You have to be a little crazy to be able to get in the wine business because it’s not an overnight business. It’s generational.
Numerous times, customers have pulled me aside and thanked me for making a place where they feel welcomed and comfortable. They say, ‘Sometimes we go to other wineries and we don't feel that.’Akash Patel
I wasn’t forced into it. I wanted to bring my parents’ dreams to fruition, and now it is my dream and I hope my children one day will want to take it on. I want to make sure I’m putting out a good product. I want to make sure I have a quality experience. These are the wines that I would want to taste, so that’s what I’ve been trying to put together.
In 2019, I decided to take a big leap of faith and triple our production, and we crushed a hundred tons — then the pandemic hit. So it was like, well, we still have to worry about this wine that we’re working on, but now we have this next harvest. What are we doing? I had to cancel a lot of contracts and only harvest what was on our property. We stayed afloat. It was one of those times where I just had to work harder than ever by myself. This last harvest, we went up to 130 tons, and this year we plan to go to 150 tons.
We've experienced so much pushback with this project. I would never be like, ‘Yeah, it's because we're brown.’ I just wouldn’t say that. But could it be? Sure, maybe.
I don’t believe Temecula was a diverse area as far as the wine tasters and drinkers, but it has slowly transitioned. I and other people of color and immigrants are bringing a more diverse clientele to our property. Numerous times, customers have pulled me aside and thanked me for making a place where they feel welcomed and comfortable. They say, “Sometimes we go to other wineries and we don’t feel that.” We’ve experienced so much pushback with this project. I would never be like, ‘Yeah, it’s because we’re brown.’ I just wouldn’t say that. But could it be? Sure, maybe. It’s not that we don’t think about it sometimes.
In the beginning of the project, we weren’t dealing with the right people. They take advantage of you because we are new in this industry and new in this area. So you feel a lot of that. We still have neighbors who try to complain about us. During COVID I was being innovative, and I was maybe bending the rules a little bit. But I was trying to survive. We were hosting drive-in movie events and my neighbor didn’t like it, so he complained about it. Then the county shut us down. Things like that have occurred. It’s an interesting game you have to kind of play. But I’m just going to prove people wrong and show people we can make good wines. We can make a place where people want to come to, so then they’re going to have to respect me, you know?
I want to bring more people to this valley. I want to make it more popular. I’m just hoping to raise the bar so that the next person raises the bars and we create a place similar to Napa with that kind of prestige. I want to expand the brand and maybe make it a household name someday — that would be really cool.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.