The loss of Ulises Valdez


All of us were saddened to hear that Ulises Valdez passed yesterday.

Ulises was one of the first people I met in the wine industry and he had a huge impact on me. When we were doing preliminary soils testing in our vineyard in 2009, our soil scientist rented a backhoe to dig pits. As we were in the field digging, a guy in jeans and a straw cowboy hat walked up and introduced himself—it was Ulises. Turns out we had rented the backhoe from him (unbeknownst to me) and he was curious as to what the heck we were up to! Coincidentally, my teacher and mentor Kristin Lowe had, the day before, mentioned Ulises’ name as one of the top farmers in the Russian River Valley and someone we should seek out if we went forward to develop our vineyard. The next day, there he was standing in front of me. Some things are meant to be, I guess.

Ulises’ story has been told many times and by many people. What strikes me is that it is, in my view, a uniquely American story. No Mayflower involved--Ulises immigrated here from Mexico, raised himself up, became a citizen, and started a family and a farming business which now employs over 100 people. His Chardonnay was served at the White House to the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, which always struck me as fitting. When we were last in DC visiting our daughter we were pleased to see he was featured in a Smithsonian exhibit on Hispanic winemakers. Though hard work, determination and the opportunity that America offered, he had made the leap from farm laborer to a winemaker whose wine was served in the White House.


From that first meeting, Ulises went on to become our advisor and mentor. He helped us develop our vineyard, was our first vineyard manager and, I’m sure, his involvement in our little vineyard gave our customers the confidence to give us a shot. Along the way, he transferred some of his passion for quality and exacting farming standards to us through his example.

My “Ulises” story is this: One day, I was irrigating the vines and I noticed that an animal had chewed through the drip line along Laguna Road, creating a “geyser.” I saw it, grumbled and started walking back to the barn to get the supplies to fix it, turned around and walked back. I arrived in time to see Ulises’ truck pulling away. In the time it had taken me, he spotted the problem while driving by at 45 miles per hour, jumped out, fixed it and was off about his day.

I’m grateful to have known Ulises, and all of us here in the Russian River Valley will miss him. He was a true icon. Our hearts go out to his wife and kids.

Ulises with Celeste and Clay after our first harvest in 2013.

Ulises with Celeste and Clay after our first harvest in 2013.

Harvest 2017 at Gantz Family Vineyards


Gantz Family Vineyards measures itself on quality and not quantity, but after last week's harvest, we were pleased with the results. As a relatively young and small vineyard experiencing only its fifth harvest, the main thing we want to see is improvement year over year. We were pleased to see growth in 2017, with an abundant amount of Pinot Noir fruit harvested and delivered to winemaker Kosta Browne Winery.

As it goes with farming, it was down to the last minute before we were absolutely confirmed on the picking date/time. It was supposed to be at 2 a.m., Wednesday morning (September 13), so Celeste figured she had time to rehearse with her a cappella group Tuesday evening, come home for a nap, and start fresh. No such luck! Our vineyard manager, Jim Pratt of Cornerstone Certified Vineyard, announced that picking would start at 10 p.m., Tuesday night (September 12). So Celeste left rehearsal early and hit the ground running! We like to provide lots of "fortifications" for the crew; Clay made sure the crew knew where the snacks were and proceeded to make pot after pot of coffee.  

Both of us help with the "sweep" harvest, picking up the grapes that the crews drop or miss. But later in the evening, it became apparent that because of our new leafing strategy, it was hard for the guys to find and pick the fruit, particularly in the Pommard and Calera blocks. So Celeste decided to go out and pull leaves away, just ahead of the crews; it's a task she's planning on taking on again next year. She can't do it all, but it certainly helps.  

The crew started at 10 p.m. and finished at 6 a.m., working through the mild, 61-degree night. Just as the last crew member emptied his tub into the bin, a few raindrops began to fall. As the last bin was fork-lifted onto the truck, the rain started to pour in earnest, complete with lightning and thunder. We couldn't believe our luck! 

Delivery at Kosta Browne Winery

Delivery at Kosta Browne Winery

The Mariafeld 23 clone, which we introduced into the vineyard last year, performed better than expected and Sam Ausburn, Kosta Browne's viticulturist, was pleased about the quality. It was a nice result, especially because deciding to replace some of our Calera with the 23 wasn't an easy decision. We do feel like the results validate (at least initially) some of the steps we took for the first time this year:

  • The fourth cane in the Calera calmed the vines and resulted in better set.
  • A new leafing strategy helped protect the grapes when we had the Labor Day heat spike.
  • The grapes seemed to respond well to a regulated deficit irrigation strategy.

Because it is farming, we have to give a big nod of thanks to Lady Luck. Our row orientation (E-W) combined with our leafing strategy helped to protect the clusters from the hot weather. An E-W row orientation is unorthodox, but we picked it (with counsel from our former vineyard manager Ulises Valdez and Kris Lowe) because of the way our site was laid out and because, in our spot in the Russian River Valley, we were not too worried about sunburn. This year was not ideal for growers by any stretch -- with heat spikes, wide temp fluctuations and rain during harvest -- so we feel like we were very fortunate.


Missed the 2017 growing season?

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Labor Issues in the Russian River Valley

Gantz Family Vineyards, ready for harvest 2017.

Gantz Family Vineyards, ready for harvest 2017.

The labor concern has been a topic in Russian River Valley for a while. Lately, it’s been a pressing issue due to the aging of the existing labor force, Mexico’s improved economy, and the current political climate. We're hearing stories about crews being overbooked and having to leave a field before it's completely picked. In other circumstances, the harvest takes longer and the crew isn’t available at the time the next field is scheduled.

We attended the Russian River Valley Winegrowers annual Paulée dinner last week (which was super fun!) and everyone's talking about the current heat wave, which is rushing harvest, and the lack of labor. Winemakers are saying "pick now" and there can be up to a week delay before it actually gets done. That can dramatically change the ripeness and amount of sugar built up in the grapes, as you can expect. Plus the danger of sunburn and predation is higher once you've raised the bird netting and leafed to make picking more efficient. All those ripe grapes are exposed to weather, birds, raccoons, opossums, turkeys and whoever is interested in eating the delicious fruit of our labor.  

Clay and I are lucky with our small space, but even four acres is more than the two of us could do in a night. We'll be out there with the crew at any rate. They work so quickly and methodically, but don’t have the time to get every single available cluster, many which are hiding behind leaves. Remember, it’s dark out at 2:00 a.m.! We follow behind them to pick up what they missed.  

This year we might end up doing even more, leaving the talented crews to do the most important job. We might be lifting the bird netting and leafing by ourselves. That was fun last year and I think I have a pretty good handle on it, but it’s still a lot of work for two people who haven’t seen our 20’s for a long while. We just need to be prepared to work quickly and efficiently to prepare the vineyard for harvesting. Too bad all the grandkids are in school!  

There is more talk in the local industry about mechanical harvesters. People are discussing the possibilities of co-ops, leasing from vineyard managers and other creative ways of sharing one of these very expensive pieces of equipment. Of course, they still need operators and obviously can only do one vineyard at a time. If three vineyards are all told to harvest at the same time by three different winemakers…well, you can see the problem. Owners of smaller vineyards like ours may find mechanical harvesting a real challenge and most people would prefer to harvest by hand, but in the current climate, we may not have any options.

We don’t talk about politics much in these blogs, but we encourage the federal government to get its act together and pass reasonable immigration reform that allows for the workforce that we in the agricultural community rely on. Putting politics before practicality is a recipe for disaster. Some states have tried to farm without immigrant labor and it’s been a calamity.

In an LA Times piece written by Russ Parsons, he states "According to the latest statistics compiled by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state produces almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the country, as well as a whopping share of the livestock and dairy.” It’s not realistic, in fact virtually impossible, to farm it without immigrant labor. These are not just strong back and willing hands, but individuals with the knowledge, expertise and experience base upon which we so strongly rely.

We need to set aside partisan politics to come up with a solution that works.

Bird Netting Revisited

"Because we’re a young vineyard, we haven’t had to address the issue of wine-grape predators. Turkeys, squirrels, possums, and raccoons are pests but Jake is pretty good at spotting them and getting them on the run.”

Oh, how young we were... The above is a line from a blog we wrote in 2014 about bird netting. A year later, we started using netting ourselves.  


And now, we’ve learned wine-grape predators are out at night and early, early morning, long before Jake rouses himself. In fact, there’s so much activity that when we take Jake out at night for his last “walk”, we have him on a leash. Otherwise he would chase after anything in the vineyard, with some occasionally unhappy results (Skunk!).


Last year, the 4 to 5 rows closest to a long wall of cyprus trees were decimated by local fauna whose little hands picked fruit out between the small openings of the bird netting. We’re guessing primarily possums and raccoons. They don’t range further in, as it leaves them too exposed to other predators. But then, they didn’t need to, feeding on the ripening fruit closest to their hideout. So this year we draped those rows with a different style of netting that hopefully will discourage their nighttime raids. Of course, Jake had to check it out to be sure it was going to work. We’ll keep our fingers crossed!


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Keeping Track of Your Gopher Traps

Keeping Track of Your Gopher Traps

One issue that we have is that while our gopher traps, called The Gophinator, are quite hardy, they do disappear as predators drag them away with the dead gophers. Attaching a length of cable to our traps and connecting them to the ground with a flag or stake allow us to identify where they are and keep the predators from taking off with them.