The loss of Ulises Valdez

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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.

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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.