Q & A with Nicolas and Sirilo Cornejo, Clendenen Vineyard Management

Nicolas Cornejo was born in Michoacan, Mexico and raised his family in Sonoma County. He worked for many years with John Clendenen at Clendenen Vineyard Management, and when John retired, he wanted to sell the business to someone he could trust to carry on. Today. the Cornejo family owns the business and Nicolas manages the vineyard crew. His son, Sirilo, manages business development and operations. Nicolas’ wife, Marisella, oversees the day-to-day office work and accounting. They are no stranger to the Petaluma Gap, having worked with the Noble Family on the development of their vineyard about 15 years ago. Here’s their story.

Sirilo, you grew up in Santa Rosa, with your mother and father; your dad is recognized for his expertise in growing high-quality grapes with a relentless pursuit of quality. Can you tell us about some of your childhood experiences tagging along with your dad as he worked some of the best vineyards in Northern California?

I started tagging along with my dad when I was about 8 years old. He was the supervisor at that time and was able to bring me along during the days that I was not in school. We would leave early in the morning and would go from vineyard to vineyard visiting the different crews and sometimes meeting winemakers. My dad would meet with crew leaders to show them and give them examples of the work that the winemakers would request. I saw a lot of the examples firsthand done by my dad and I got to participate in many of them. It was nerve-wracking in the beginning because I felt if I made a mistake, the vines would die [haha]. I always enjoyed the picturesque views of the vineyards in the early mornings throughout Sonoma County.

Your father taught you how to leaf, prune, and sucker grapevines.  When did that training start?  Did you have your own set of tools?

Training started when I was tagging along with my dad on the weekends and during school vacations. In Latino families, you’re expected to help when you’re free. Every time we were out in the vineyard, it was an opportunity to learn a new vineyard task. My dad let me borrow many of the tools that I needed. I was lucky that I got to use new tools right out of the packaging.

When did you know that you wanted to follow in his footsteps?

I knew that I wanted to be involved in the industry after I started working for the company during my summer vacations during high school and during vacations while attending Santa Rosa Junior College. It was very interesting being involved with the day-to-day grape-growing activities. I wanted to know more about the scientific reason behind why activities in the vineyard were done a certain way, at certain times, and the effect those activities had on winemaking. I transferred to UC Davis in the Fall of 2010 to learn from esteemed professor, Dr. Andy Walker. 

You attended UC Davis and focused on both enology and viticulture, though you knew at an early age that you wanted to work in the vineyard.  Why did you make the effort to also study enology? Were you ever tempted to make your own wine?

I wanted to learn and understand what winemakers were looking for in the vineyard and be able to communicate with them using the same terminology. When a winemaker requests a task in the vineyard, I now have a better idea about why and how that might affect the end product and can now I can teach my dad. I tried making wine at home years ago but failed [haha]. I did not keep up with my microbial management and it went bad. It’s not easy when you go from making wine at the UC Davis teaching winery to making wine at home. I’ll leave the winemaking to the winemakers.

Your father worked with John Clendenen from the beginning of Clendenen Vineyard Management.  In 2017 he bought the business.  How did that come about? How did you decide to focus on managing the business and have your father focus on managing vineyard operations?  Is it easy being a father-son team?

John had decided that he was going to retire and had begun thinking of the best way to so. When I started working full-time after Davis in 2013, he started teaching me the inner workings of the business and thought that my dad, with my help, would be the best choice to continue the business. He decided that he was ready to retire at the end of 2016 and that I was ready to manage the business. The business side is something that has grown on me over the years and I’ve always enjoyed working with numbers. Being able to guide the company in the right direction as the Director of Business Operations is something that brings me joy because I’m not only helping the company but I’m also helping my family. Now I get to work alongside my mom, Marisela, as well. She oversees the office, accounts receivable, and is involved in all decision-making. My dad’s 30+ years of vineyard management experience is remarkable. He knows his way around every vineyard activity like the palm of his hand and his attention to detail is immaculate. His ability to manage crews and relay information from winemakers is incredible. It was a no- brainer that he should continue as the Director of Vineyard Operations since it’s something that he loves. It’s not easy being part of a family business. There are a lot of feelings that come up throughout the year. We have our disagreements but in the end, we find a compromise and come together to decide what is best for our company.   

You’re on the board of directors for Ag Health Benefits Alliance.  Can you tell us about this organization, what its purpose is, and how you got involved?

Ag Health Benefits Alliance is a non-profit organization created by winegrowers in Napa County that provides affordable health insurance to agricultural employees. It was started in 1972 and has been serving Sonoma County and other nearby counties as well. Our company has been using their services for more than a decade. After many yearly meetings for our health insurance renewals, the Executive Director thought I would be a good candidate to join the board. I didn’t think twice and now I have been a board member since 2019 and I enjoy being part of the group.  

Nicolas, you must feel proud to have your son as your business partner and to see him thrive.  Can you tell us about any particularly proud moments?

I’m very proud of how resourceful and resilient he is. He always does his research and finds a way to get things done correctly. Our industry is inundated with laws and regulations that require a lot of attention and focus to stay in compliance. His attention to detail regarding those issues keeps us aware and on top of any potential pitfalls. I’m also very proud of his professionalism when communicating with clients. He always listens to the client’s needs and includes them in the decision-making. He’s always looking to provide the best service possible. I couldn’t be prouder!

We often see winery dogs; do you have any vineyard dogs that spend their days out in the vineyard with you?

We don’t have any vineyard dogs, but we do have a calico cat named Pantera, who will follow us everywhere we go just like a dog. She’s very good at catching gophers too! 

Nicolas, you grew up in Michoacan, Mexico; do you ever travel back there to see family or friends?  There are so many wonderful things to celebrate about the Mexican heritage; what is your favorite tradition to carry on? Your favorite food?

I hadn’t been back to Michoacan for about fourteen years and finally went in 2022. The last time I was there before was in 2008 after my mother passed away. I love the Mexican fiestas with a lot of music and delicious food. I love to dance; it’s my favorite pastime. It’s something that I truly miss from Mexico but I’m glad that I can do that here too with the people that I love. I love carne asada tacos and good spicy salsa to go with them.

Clendenen Vineyard Management planted at least one vineyard in the Petaluma Gap, the Noble Family Vineyard, several years ago.  Does Clendenen Vineyard Management focus on the evaluation of vineyard sites, planning or planting grapevines, ongoing vineyard maintenance, harvest, or all of the above? What size vineyards have you worked with?  Do you have time to take on new clients?

The Noble Family Vineyard was one of our first projects in the Petaluma Gap. It was a great experience working with Ron Noble and we appreciate him for giving us the opportunity to develop his vineyard. Clendenen Vineyard Management focuses on evaluating new & existing vineyard sites, planning, or planting new vineyards, ongoing vineyard maintenance, hand harvest & mechanical harvest, and anything in between to complete the full growing season. We have a full local team ready to provide labor and we have our own equipment for full vineyard management services. We like providing the client the ability to communicate with us directly to ensure the best service can be delivered. We are currently accepting new clients and would love to share our knowledge, experience, and professionalism with you.

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