The best vineyard managers are a bit like horse whisperers who—because of a deep understanding of their four-legged charges—can work miracles. Vineyard whisperers have an equally profound understanding of vines. They know what to focus on and how to bring out the best in a given vineyard. And every star winemaker depends on a vineyard manager to provide the raw materials essential to creating great wine.
Unfortunately, we recently lost one of the best—Ulises Valdez, who died on September 12 at the age of 49. He left behind a collection of outstanding vineyards producing some of the finest wines in California. Those of us who worked closely with Ulises will miss him sorely.
I first met Ulises in the spring of 2010 when a friend asked for help with his ailing Scopus Vineyard at the top of Sonoma Mountain. I called Ulises, who was then also growing grapes for my business partner, Leslie Rudd. “Can you help me with this vineyard?” I asked.
“Sure, Amigo,” he said. It was funny, but Ulises called everyone, “Amigo,” in a way that made each of us feel like his best friend.
Maybe that’s because Ulises never lost touch with his humble roots. He grew up in a poor Mexican household, where he was one of 8 children. At age 16, he came to California as an illegal immigrant with barely any formal education. But he worked hard and learned fast. Eventually he graduated from picking strawberries to picking grapes; and ultimately he became a very skilled viticulturist.
Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Ulises became a temporary legal resident of the United States. Ten years later he became a permanent resident, and eventually he was able to bring his wife, Adelina, to California. The couple worked jointly to run their highly successful vineyard management business, which also includes Valdez Family Winery.
In a sense, Ulises embodied the very essence of America’s immigrant spirit. He set an example for all to follow; and he also reminded us of just how important immigrant labor has always been in America. Mexican agricultural workers have long been the backbone of California’s agricultural community, and the current crackdown on immigrants throughout the nation is being felt acutely throughout California. Sometimes I wonder if our lawmakers have any idea how they get food on their table or wine in their wine glasses. I suspect many don’t.
Back on Sonoma Mountain, Ulises’ viticultural regimen transformed Scopus vineyard into a healthy and beautiful Chardonnay hillside. He managed this vineyard with me for nine years. And while he also owned his own vineyards and managed many more for his clients, he still found time to walk Scopus regularly with me and keep things on track. That was Ulises: He combined a stellar work ethic and can-do attitude with a sincere dedication to his clients, friends and family.
The day before he died, he was exploring the vineyard without me. So he called my phone and left a slightly winded message as he walked:
“Amigo. Just calling to say, “hi.” I’m here on the property, and I’m a little concerned about botrytis (mold). It’s in a lot of nearby vineyards. But things look nice and clean here.”
I can’t bring myself to erase that voice message. Shortly after hearing it, I called Ulises for what turned out to be our last conversation. Had I known, I would have told him how amazing he was; how supportive he had always been; and how honored I am to have known him. I hope he’s listening now.
We picked our 2018 Covenant Chardonnay Lavan a few days after Ulises passed away. His son, Ulises, Jr, organized the pick, and the wine is now dry and aging beautifully in barrels. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes one of our best vintages ever.
I’ll never open a bottle of Scopus Vineyard Chardonnay without thinking of Ulises Valdez. His legacy lives on not only at the top of Sonoma Mountain, but throughout much of northern California wine country. The vineyards he planted and farmed will continue to produce excellent wines for a long time to come.