We wine writers hear tons of stories about people who give up successful white-collar careers as doctors, tech gurus and the like to follow their winemaking dreams. "I just felt the need to get back to land," says the retired cardiologist whose closest contact with "the land" before buying a vineyard was telling the gardener where to plant the tomatoes. Ho-hum. While the cardiologist's origins make him no less passionate about winemaking than the lifelong farmer, the story does get old after a while.
That's why I love to hear about guys like Ulises Valdez. I interviewed him a few months back for a business story in Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, and was both impressed and fascinated by the path he took to become one of Sonoma County's most successful vineyard managers, growers, and now, winery owners.
His story is well known among Sonoma County grapegrowers and vintners, but not many folks outside the industry have heard of Valdez. Fans of Paul Hobbs and Aubert Wines have probably already experienced the fruit of his labors.
Valdez, 41, was born in a small village in Michoacan, Mexico, and jumped the border at age 16 in search of vineyard work in California's Dry Creek Valley.
Despite being under-age, not speaking English, and having no experience working in vineyards, Valdez landed a job with a vineyard management company.
Valdez caught on quickly, and soon realized that his calling was in the vineyard.
His status as an illegal immigrant might have limited his career to low-level vineyard pruning work, but as luck would have it, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made him a legal temporary resident, and eventually led Valdez to become a U.S. citizen.
Once he no longer had to look over his shoulder, the ambitious 17-year-old made a deal with his boss: Valdez would work without pay for a whole season in exchange for a partnership in the business.
Getting Down to Business
As co-owner of Florence Vineyard Management, Valdez set about acquiring long-term vineyard leases, developing the properties and selling the fruit to his winery clients. Before long, he was working with A-list vintners including the likes of Mark Aubert of Aubert Wines in St Helena, Paul Hobbs of Paul Hobbs Wines in Sebastopol, and Kent Rosenblum and Jeff Cohn of Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda. He developed friendships with the vintners -- Aubert in particular -- who recommended Valdez to friends, mentored him, and taught him to appreciate drinking great wine.
In 2003 he bought out his partner’s share in the company and changed its name to Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management Inc. (His sons are still too young to join the business, but Valdez is a guy who's always thinking about the future.)
Valdez now farms about 1,000 acres of Sonoma County vineyards, including 120 acres that he leases or owns, and he’s earned a reputation as one of the county’s best vineyard managers and growers.
Grapes from two particular Valdez-developed vineyards are most in demand: the Ulises Valdez Vineyard (also known as Laguna Road Vineyard) in the Russian River Valley and Silver Eagle Ranch, near Occidental. Both are sources of vineyard-designated wines from Aubert (he labels his as "UV") and Paul Hobbs. His vineyards are mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, along with Zinfandel, Syrah and other varieties in smaller amounts.
Although he maintains good relationships with most of the vintners he works with, Valdez has had clashes over the years. "I have a couple clients that I’m not working their property anymore, but we still get along pretty good. There’s no hard feelings on my side."
Grower to Vintner
In addition to his self-confidence and endless drive, Valdez is known for his optimism, warmth and willingness to help out his friends. That’s why, when he decided to start his own wine label in 2004, Valdez’s friends lined up to help. Jeff Cohn, then with Rosenblum Cellars, along with Hobbs and Aubert, pitched in as consulting winemakers for the new Valdez Family Winery label.
"I think it’s the way you treat people," Valdez said. "Now I understand when people say, ‘What goes around, comes around.’ You help people, people help you."
Although he specializes in farming Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Valdez’s favorite wine is Zinfandel. (He says it’s more rustic than the other varieties, and therefore more suitable for a guy like himself.) The Valdez Family line-up includes several vineyard-designated Zins, along with a Pinot and a Chardonnay.
In May of last year, the 2008 Valdez Silver Eagle Vineyard Chardonnay from Russian River was served at the White House, at a state dinner honoring President Felipe Calderón of Mexico. (Not bad for a guy who crossed the border illegally in 1985.)
In keeping with Valdez’s personality, the wines are fruit-focused and bold, with plenty of spice in the reds.
Case in point: The 2008 Valdez Russian River Valley Silver Eagle Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60) is smooth and balanced, with aromas of ripe raspberry and woody spice, and flavors of ripe red raspberries and cherries.
The 2007 Landy Vineyard Zinfandel from Russian River ($38) is concentrated, sweet and smooth, with raspberry and chocolate notes.
The 2008 Silver Eagle Chardonnay ($50) served at the White House is a rich, mouth-filling wine, with aromas and flavors of ripe pear and vanilla.
The Next Step
At this point in their careers, many people would have thought: “OK, I can die happy. I’ve achieved more than I ever could have dreamed of!” But not Valdez. The success of his wine label got him thinking about the next step: building his own winery. (Until just recently, his wines were made at a custom-crush winery.)
Just in time for the 2010 crush, he got the new Valdez Family Winery up and running. He also hired a full-time winemaker: Amanda McPhee, who formerly worked with Hobbs.
The winery is nothing fancy -- a no-frills space in an industrial park in Cloverdale, at the northern end of Sonoma County -- but Valdez couldn't stop smiling when he showed me around the facility last fall.
He's planning to set up a small tasting bar in one corner of the room -- a wooden plank laid across two wine barrels -- where he can welcome visitors later this year, once the permits come through.
You can bet that Valdez's makeshift tasting room won't be nearly as nice as the one owned by the cardiologist-turned-winemaker I wrote about in the opening paragraph -- but it will definitely be the real thing.