Seferino Cotzojay is the first Guatemalan-born assistant winemaker in the local industry.
Posted by Lisa Finn (Editor) , August 06, 2013 at 04:15 PM
North Fork Patch
When Seferino Cotzojay first stepped into Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, looking for work, he had never even tasted wine.
Today Cotzojay is the first Guatemalan-born assistant winemaker, and one of the youngest, in the local industry — and he's responsible for wines so well-received on the national canvas that one 2009 Merlot was served at President Barack Obama's 57th inauguration ceremony.
"He's my righthand man," said Bedell winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich. "He's integral to the wine-making process."
While the prestige of employ at a well-known winery is a far cry from his humble roots, in some ways, Cotzojay said, the North Fork summons up strong feelings of home.
Born in Guatemala, Cotzojay's journey to the United States brought him first to Phoenix, where he attended high school — in a city that never felt like home — and later, to the North Fork, where his brothers worked.
"It's nice to be surrounded by family," Cotzojay said.
Eight years ago, in 2005, Cotzojay applied for an internship at Bedell during the harvest season.
"I had no experience at all," he said.
But his meteoric rise to success at the winery was fueled by a passion for learning and a commitment to his craft.
First, Cotzojay worked cleaning the tanks, floors, and drains.
After a week, Cotzojay saw the winemakers going through the steps to create vintages, and his future was clear.
"It got to me," he said. "I knew then that this was what I wanted — to learn more about it."
Poring over books at the winery, Cotzojay set out to learn everything he could about the business. "What I liked was that anyone with the drive, interest, and ability to learn, can succeed," he said. "I've been reading a lot and I want to learn more."
Cotzojay also expands his field of knowledge by watching, tasting, and listening intently to other winemakers about the trade — and learning invaluable lessons from Kip Bedell, founder of the winery, and Olsen-Harbich, his mentor.
"He's the best I've ever worked with," Olsen-Harbich said.
Step by step, Cotzojay learned the winemaking process, from sorting grapes, to pump-overs, a technology used in a winery to increase extraction by emptying the fermentation from the bottom of a tank and then pumping it to the top.
After his internship ended, Bedell asked Cotzojay to stay on. "I'm very proud," he said.
For his parents, a world away, it is difficult to comprehend the level of success their son has achieved, when they have not much knowledge of the winemaking process, or of wine, at all.
Cotzojay went home for Mother's Day in May, to his humble home where his father farms beans and corn. "Since I was five, I helped my dad on the farm," he said.
Recalling his first days in America, Cotzojay said, "The culture was new to me."
But the winery touched Cotzojay, instantly instilling within him a sense of destiny. Of winemaking, he said, "I like the whole process," from picking and crushing the grapes, to fermentation, to bottling the final product.
When he learned that a Bedell wine would be served at the inauguration, Cotzojay was thrilled. "There are no words to describe it," he said. "It's really a success. You don't dream of something like that happening and once it's there, it's so exciting."
Despite the level of success he's reached, Cotzojay said he's not content to rest on his proverbial laurels. "I want to keep growing, keep learning more and more. Just like that first week — when I knew I wanted to learn more about winemaking. After eight years, I still feel the same way."
The secret of his rise to the top is simple, Cotzojay said: "Find your passion."
Single and living in Mattituck, Cotzojay said he has no yearnings to travel elsewhere; even the siren songs of French or Italian vineyards do not tempt him. "I want to stay in this area for as long as I can," he said. "This is part of me now."
Asked about the challenges North Fork wineries face, even after 30 years of successful production, Cotzojay is candid: "Many people still don't understand the region," he said. "We need to teach young adults, introduce them to wines. Our climate is beautiful, as are the aromas of our wines, which are crisp. This is what people need to know."
Describing what it felt like to become assistant winemaker at 26, Cotzojay said it was a great experience — and one others can achieve, as long as they have the drive and desire to learn.
"To make wine, you put soil and climate and humans together — it's a piece of art."
Wine, he said, has strong cultural significance. "A bottle of wine brings friends and families together," he said.
Gesturing outside to the lush vines, Cotzojay smiled. "This is my life."
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