Ulises Valdez

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.

Pruning and the Beginning of Our Second Growing Season

In the “It Never Gets Old” category, we woke up early Tuesday morning to a line of cars parked in the vineyard. That can only mean one thing: It’s time to begin this year’s growing season by pruning the vines. When to prune and how to prune are the first of many decisions we make each growing year. In almost every respect, they are the most important decisions.

Harvest: The Final Step of Our First Growing Season

On Sept. 27, 2013, four years to the day that we fell in love-at-first-sight with this property on Laguna Road, our Pinot Noir grapes were harvested for the very first time and delivered to the highly esteemed Kosta Browne Winery. 

Hedging a Vineyard

Hedging is one of several canopy management practices we employ during the growing season, and it is just what it sounds like—you go through and prune the vines to eliminate excess vegetative growth from the top and sides in order to make a uniform canopy that looks like a hedge.

Bud Break: Step Three of Our First Growing Season

The first time I saw one bud open, on April 4, I was ecstatic. "We've got bud break!" I shouted. But Clay, ever the pragmatist, felt we couldn't "call" it until 50 percent of the vines showed leaves. From that first moment to the 50 percent mark was about an hour, it seemed. Suddenly the entire vineyard was a sea of green.

Appreciating the Under-Appreciated Farm Laborer

I think we Californians have a fundamental misconception about our immigrant agricultural workforce. We tend to think that farmworkers are low-skilled laborers doing a job that anyone could do, and, yes, there is plenty of hard, backbreaking work involved in farming. However, my experience is that a lot of skill and experience is necessary to do many of the jobs well, and when you insist on perfection, every job has to be done well. Not anyone can do it.

Our Hopes for Our First Growing Season

In 2009, Celeste and I found a bit of property off Laguna Road with an old farmhouse overlooking an empty field, untended fruit trees and a kiwi grove running wild. Even then, standing under the five towering redwoods that spoke of the property’s history, we felt the tingle of potential. This year, we will see that potential realized. After a year in the greenhouse and two years in the field, our 3.75-planted acres of vines will finally bear fruit that will be sold to a winery.