Jesus Guillén, one of the few Mexican Americans to serve as head winemaker at a major Oregon label, died on November 5 after a brief and unexpected battle with cancer.
Guillén was working at White Rose Estate, where he was the head winemaker, around the mid-October harvest when he started to feel a pain in his back, says winery owner Greg Sanders. He rested for a few days but collapsed while at home. At the hospital, doctors discovered a tumor on his spine.
Over the next few weeks, Guillén underwent several operations, but ultimately doctors said the cancer was too aggressive to treat, Sanders said. Guillén died on November 5.
Sanders said he was still digesting the diagnosis when he learned of Guillén’s death. Guillén’s family, including his father and brother who also work at White Rose, were hit hard by the news, Sanders said.
“You don’t think of cancer as being imminent,” says Sanders.
Guillén had a unique path to becoming a winemaker. The 38-year-old was a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, and moved to Oregon in 2002. While learning English, Guillén worked in the field alongside his father, Jesus Guillén Sr., the vineyard manager at White Rose Estate. He quickly developed a taste for good wine and dove into learning everything he could about the winemaking process.
In 2006, Guillén got his first break by salvaging 1,300 vines destroyed by voles at nearby Vista Hills Vineyard, creating a solid wine called Survivor, which the winery still produces today. Shortly after, he created his own label, Guillén Family Wines, and was named head winemaker at White Rose Estate, where he crafted one of the state’s highest-scoring pinots noirs.
“He was a world-class winemaker,” says Sanders.
Sanders also described him as very proud of his Mexican heritage. On the website for his wine label, Guillén included the tagline “Made in beautiful Oregon … Por Manos Mexicanos,” which translates to “by Mexican hands.”
Guillén was also working to help other vineyard workers do what he did: pivot within the industry—if they aspired to do so. Alongside Miguel Lopez, winemaking production manager at Domaine Roy & Fils, and Sofia Torres McKay, owner of Cramoisi Vineyard, Guillén was working to establish an organization that provides career growth opportunities for Oregon’s vineyard workers.
“Because of the positions we are in, we have the ability to open that door for the rest of the workforce,” Lopez said. “It’s sad because [Guillén] is not going to see it... There’s this huge wake or hole or crack that has been left, it’s really hard to figure out what we do next. It’s really hard to see me going forward without him.”
Talk to anyone who knew Guillén, and they end up using the same words to describe him.
“Jesus was doing great work and wasn’t bragging about it,” says Dave Paige, head winemaker at Adelsheim. "I’m glad at least in the last couple years he got a little more notice for what he was doing.”
“He [was] obviously a very talented winemaker, but what really separates him and what stands out the most is how kind, humble, and thoughtful he was,” says Gavin Joll, general manager at White Rose Estate, who worked alongside Guillén and his family for 12 years. “He was a great soul and a pleasure to work with and be around. He cared a lot about those around him.”
Chief among those he cared about was his family. Guillén leaves behind a wife and 10-year-old son. To help support Guillén’s family, the wine community has come together to pitch in.
Assistant winemakers and cellar masters made Guillén Family Wine’s 2018 vintage, which allowed Guillén’s family to spend more time in the hospital in his final days.
It’s too early to say what will come of the label in the long term. To help sell the existing inventory, Winter’s Hill Estate is hosting a benefit wine tasting and sale of Guillén Family Wines on Saturday, November 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tasting fees and wine purchases will go directly to the Guillén family. Friends have stared a GoFundMe page for the family, and his label’s wines can also still be purchased online at guillenfamily.com.