Casanel owner Nelson DeSouza

If Nelson DeSouza wrote an autobiography, nobody would believe it. Born in 1942 in an impoverished part of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the man is a rags-to-riches tale come true.

I first met him around 2014 when I started exploring the Virginia wine scene. The guy was – is – charismatic as heck. Even today, at 76 years young Nelson still mows the lawn and does handiwork around the property (ask him about the tables he’s crafted from wood taken from the property – he’s very proud of them). Nelson started off by telling me how he was born with a hammer in his arm; at first I thought he was bragging. An hour later, I came to believe it.

Nelson first visited the U.S. in 1957 on a 90-day visa to visit his father, a naval officer who at the time was stationed in the here as part of a submarine purchase deal. The culture shock was profound, but it left enough of an impression on him that he resolved to return as soon as he could. That turned out to be a 5 year delay, but eventually he made it.

He started off doing carpentry and other odd jobs until moving on to construction. From there, he became a businessman (he still brags about his concrete business) and eventually starting Casanel Vineyards – joined by two daughters who also work with him.

To me, Neslon is the epitome of the “American Dream”. He was kind enough to share part of his story.

“When I was a baby, my parents didn’t have a crib; they took two chairs and put them together and put the box on top of it. That was my crib. We didn’t have electricity. But when you’re born an American, it’s like you’re born in a golden crib.”

“I didn’t know how poor I was until I asked my father for a bicycle. But a new bike would cost him 6 months of his salary. So when I was 12 I worked some jobs until I could buy my own bicycle. It’s not like here in the USA, where you can get a new bike every year. That bike was at least 10 years old, but I had my bike”.

“My father worked in the naval attaché office in the USA. I visited him in September 1957 on a 90 day visa. I didn’t know what to do, so I worked little jobs, building things. America was paradise! So after I left, it was like going to hell. I had to wait 5 years in hell until I could get back to paradise.”

“Would you take responsibility for someone you didn’t know? Maybe for a month? How about a year? My father knew an Argentinian-Brazilian man named Julio Gallo. He convinced Julio to write me a Letter of Call so I could immigrate to the USA.  Julio figured he could find work for me since he saw me working when I was visiting. He had to sign a document promising to take responsibility for me for 5 years. Would you take responsibility for someone you barely knew for 5 years?”

“I went to the US embassy in Rio for my interview. The ambassador was the most important man in the country. He asked me a lot of questions; I only had a 2nd grade education so I thought I was going to fail. Then he asked me if I was a communist. I told him – my father was a Naval officer; I wanted to go to the USA to work. How could I be a communist? Eventually he had me raise my right hand and swear. Then I got to return to paradise. I was born again on September 22, 1962. That’s my American birthday”

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