JFW Language Program

Sylvia Puentes remembers the time she was teaching a class in English for Spanish-speaking employees and one of the attendees was a gentleman we’ll call Jose. Sylvia’s target was to improve participant’s communication skills and to expand their career possibilities at JFW, not only by strengthening their language skills, but also through helping them raise their self-esteem.

“Jose kept saying, ‘Oh, I can’t learn, I’m too dumb,’” Sylvia recalls him saying. Of course, Jose wasn’t dumb at all. But the 40-something year old, who worked at the company’s Lakeport facility, felt like he’d gone about as far in life as he could.

Sylvia wasn’t buying it.

“I knew he was a hard worker,” she says. “I was seeing him drive an hour each way [to the class] from Lakeport to Healdsburg, with all the notes he’d taken from the previous class. He’d show me English phrases he had written the night before, to ask his manager. This was a man who was demonstrating, with everything he did, that he was NOT dumb! He had a tremendous work ethic. So there was a disconnect.”

Sylvia, a training and development specialist with JFW, had a little chat with Jose. “I asked him, not in a forceful way but with respect, if it was actually true that he was ‘dumb and can’t learn’ and if he would be willing to let go of everywhere he had heard it from anyone and had bought as true — his parents, his family, his friends, whatever. And he nodded his head: ‘Yes.’”

Sylvia’s relationship with Jose was through the Jackson Family Wine Language Program. Launched in January, 2013, it was designed, on the initiative of JFW President Rick Tigner, to improve communications between English and Spanish-speaking employees in bilingual work locations. Unique in the California wine industry, the program offers, not only live classes, but online courses, workbooks, individual tutoring and, as we’ve seen in the case of Jose, personal encouragement and confidence-building. And it’s not just a one-way language course: English speakers can learn Spanish, as well.

Tigner had discovered what he called “the language/communication gap” that existed between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking employees while he participated in the T.V. reality show, Undercover Boss. Determined to help bridge that gap, he asked Sylvia to develop the program. As of this summer, 128 JFW employees have successfully participated, including Jose. And with the on-going support of JFW EVP Chief Operating Officer, Hugh Reimer, the company plans to continue offering this program in the future.

Did Jose eventually earn a promotion through his efforts in the Language Program? Sylvia grins broadly and says, “He did! And I kid you not, he looked taller the next time I saw him. He told me, ‘You changed my life.’ That’s what I’m trying to bring to the program: something that’s different.” It seems to be working.

Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.