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MEET THE COUPLE BEHIND SENOR SANGRIA by Malia Rulon Herman

Maplewood residents turn favorite party drink into a popular bottled beverage


Maria Camelo and Rick Martinez
Maria Camelo and Rick Martinez started Señor Sangria nearly 15 years ago.

It all started because Rick Martinez couldn’t cook.


Instead of bringing a dish of something to share at friends’ house parties, Martinez would show up with a jug of homemade sangria, which included red wine, Minute Maid frozen concentrated orange juice, apple juice, lime, sugar and a dash of brandy.


“The reason I made it is that everyone brings something to a party,” Martinez explains.


That went on for a while, with his sangria getting more and more popular among his friends, who started requesting special batches.


Finally, “one drunken night,” his girlfriend, Maria Camelo, turned to him and said, “You should just bottle this sangria you keep making for parties, and we should sell it.”


So they did.


Three years after Camelo’s big idea, the first bottle of Señor Sangria Classic Red debuted in 2009. Classic White followed two years later.


Now, nearly 15 years, one wedding and two children later, the couple is about to take their small business to the next level with the launch of a new flavor, apple raspberry, and single-serving cans of sangria spritzer.

“We are so excited about it,” Martinez said, adding that they hope the new flavor, which includes brandy, will be out by the end of the year in time for the holidays. The cans are expected to debut in the spring.


Tony Thornton of Shore Point Distributing, an early supporter of Señor Sangria, said he can’t wait for the new products to roll out, especially the cans.


“Ready-to-drink cocktails are big,” Thornton says. “It’ll be a game changer.”


Martinez and Camelo attribute their company’s success to not being afraid to follow their dreams, something they learned from their parents.


Martinez, a first-generation Cuban American, was inspired by his parents’ move to the United States in search of opportunity. Camelo’s parents, who are from Portugal, moved first to South Africa and then this country for the same reason.



“That’s part of what fuels us,” Camelo says. “Our parents took risks in coming to the U.S. They uprooted their whole family. If they could do that, we can take risks to have a business that is successful.”


Luis O. De La Hoz, chairman of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said helping Martinez and Camelo grow their business has been rewarding, and not only because their sangria is delicious.


“For minority business owners, access to capital is the biggest challenge,” De La Hoz says. He told Martinez what he needed to do to qualify for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan, he says, and two years later the couple landed the loan.


“During that time, we learned a lot of things,” De La Hoz says. “We learned that the best way to promote sangria is to allow people to taste it. But you also need people to pay attention to your family story, because when people get connected with the journey, they love it even more.”


That story might have started when Camelo told Martinez that they should just bottle and sell the sangria, but the journey from that night to the launch of their business took three years of research and development, including sourcing ingredients.


“We looked, and we couldn’t really find anything on the market using good wine and real fruit juice,” Camelo says. “We wanted something where you could just open the bottle and drink it and it tastes homemade.”


To do that, she says, they needed to create a beverage that tasted like Martinez’s homemade sangria but was made without artificial ingredients, flavors or preservatives.


“You can’t use Minute Maid cans,” she says, “not when you’re making 50,000 cases.”


Her comment makes Martinez chuckle. “When we were making sangria at home, we were not thinking about starting a business,” he says.


They turned to a food lab, which helped them create a shelf-stable recipe with ingredients they

Maria Camelo and Rick Martinez with their children
Maria Camelo and Rick Martinez live with their children in Maplewood.

could source on a large scale.


The pair ended up partnering with a winery in upstate New York to import merlot and sauvignon blanc from Chile, combine the other ingredients, and bottle the final product. Apple and grape juices were sourced from other growers. The couple imported Alfonzo mango puree from India for their white sangria. They also use a blend of juice made from navel and Valencia oranges.

“A lot of people said, ‘It’s never going to work,’” Camelo says, acknowledging that even after the three years of trial and error it took to finalize their prototype, they still needed buyers.

“Thank goodness Rick is charming and passionate,” she says, “because convincing a retailer to taste an unlabeled random sample in a plastic jug is … let’s say challenging.”


Meanwhile, Martinez sold his apartment in Hoboken to finance the venture, moving into Camelo’s Maplewood home, where the family now lives.


The investment paid off. Señor Sangria has surged in sales from about 1,800 cases in its first year to 55,000 cases in 2022.


You can find bottles of the sangria at Buy Rite in South Orange, the Wine Barrel in Maplewood, Maplewood Wine and Liquor, the Wine Library in Springfield and other nearby retailers. In fact, it’s sold in more than 800 New Jersey liquor stores. It’s also served in restaurants and even Yankee Stadium!


“It is popular,” said Ricky Patel, store manager at Maplewood Wine and Liquor. “It’s one of the best sangrias out there. Also it’s local, so people know that and they ask for it.”


Daniel Ellis says that when he was planning the big spring fundraiser for Tuscan Elementary School in 2020, he immediately thought of Señor Sangria and Martinez, a fellow Tuscan parent.

“I talked to him about being a sponsor and serving sangria,” Ellis says, “and he was totally on board. He created two different cocktails to serve. It was very much a hit.”


Tara Connell, another Tuscan parent, says she has known Martinez and Camelo since their kids were in kindergarten together. As an early supporter and (until recently, when Connell sold CKO Kickboxing) a fellow small business owner, Connell was e-mailed a preview of the designs for the new canned Señor Sangria beverages.


“They look great. I’m so excited about their cans,” Connell says, adding that more than the drink itself, Señor Sangria is about “the really great people” behind the beverage.


Thornton of Shore Point Distributing adds, “In my field, you see a lot of products come and go. You get a lot of pitches.” What makes Señor Sangria stand out, he says, is “the authenticity, the flavor profile” and the secret ingredient of love.


Martinez “loves what he’s doing, and he loves the brand. You can tell,” Thornton says. “It’s a home run.”


Malia Rulon Herman is a fan of Señor Sangria, having first tasted it at the Turtle Back Zoo’s Brew at the Zoo event in 2016. She can’t wait to try the new flavors!


For more information, visit senorsangria.com or follow on Instagram @senorsangria.


Try making these drinks at home


Señor Sangria Easy Fall Cocktail

Makes 1 drink


This drink leans into the fall flavors of warm cinnamon and cranberry, which pair well with red sangria. The cocktail is elevated by using orange rounds to garnish instead of cubed fruit. Make large batches of the cocktail in pitchers or drink dispensers. Set up glasses prefilled with an orange round, a cinnamon stick and mint leaves, then let guests serve themselves. Set out brandy, bourbon or both for those who want to take it up a notch!

Señor Sangria Easy Fall Cocktail
Señor Sangria Easy Fall Cocktail

5 oz. Señor Sangria Classic Red

2 oz. cranberry apple juice

1 oz. seltzer

Cinnamon stick, mint and orange round to garnish

Brandy or bourbon (optional)




Spicy Jalapeño Mango Sangria
Spicy Jalapeño Mango Sangria

Spicy Jalapeño Mango Sangria

Makes 1 drink


8 oz. Señor Sangria Classic White Sangria

6 jalapeño slices

1 lemon wedge

Tajín or Trader Joe’s chili lime seasoning, to taste

Ice


Instructions

1. Put chili lime seasoning on small plate; rub rim of glass with lemon and dip rim into seasoning.

2. Muddle three jalapeño slices in glass.

3. Add ice and sangria.

4. Float lemon wedge and three jalapeño slices; sprinkle with more chili lime seasoning.


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