"My parents instilled in us to work hard and be sincere," said Elizabeth Valdez, winemaker for Valdez Family Winery. Elizabeth, 29, is the oldest daughter of the late Ulises Valdez Sr., one of Sonoma's most renowned vineyard managers. When Ulises passed away unexpectedly in 2018 at the age of 49, it was a horrible shock for much of the Sonoma wine community.
For his family, it was devastating. But it was also a time for resilience and courage. Elizabeth, who had already taken on the role of winemaker for the family brand in 2016, needed to keep the small brand going. Her brother, Ulises Jr., 26, took charge at the vineyard management company their father had started.
Hard work and sincerity remain constant tenets within the family business. Valdez's energy, dedication, knowledge and ambition can be seen in each of his four children, Elizabeth, Angelica, Ulises Jr. and Ricardo, as well as in his widow, Adelina, as they work together to preserve their family's legacy. They are also a powerful symbol at a time when Latinos work hard in positions in many U.S. wineries, but are still underrepresented in winery ownership and winemaking positions.
The family has scaled back since Ulises Sr.'s passing, reducing the acreage they farm for clients. At its height, the company managed approximately 1,000 acres, which Elizabeth says was stressful even with her father at the helm.
One of the biggest challenges Ulises Jr. has had since taking over is balancing the workload of the company's 50 employees, many of whom have been working with the family for more than 10 years. "We take pride in being able to employ our crews year-round, which provides them with a stable income," he said. Most vineyard workers are seasonal employees.
Because the family winery owns vineyards and leases others, they can keep staff working in those plots when their client wineries don't have work for them. "Although we cut into our profits performing these activities, as a family and company, we believe that everyone working to make the business successful shouldn't have to worry about not being able to put food on the table," said Ulises Jr.
The winery has also decreased production from a couple of thousand cases to just a few hundred. Elizabeth said growth within the company would come with time, but she feels grateful and proud to be in charge of running one piece of the family business. "It was his dream, and it's now ours," she said.
Ulises Valdez Sr. epitomized the American dream in the wine industry. Born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Valdez lost his own father when he was just 7. Working in local fields for little pay, he saw no future. "When I was 15 or so, I told my mother, 'I don't want to die in this village,'" he told Wine Spectator in 2007.
He came to the U.S. at age 16, eventually finding his way to Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, where he joined his older brother Nicolas Cornejo working in local vineyards. Ulises Sr. became a U.S. citizen in 1996 and quickly gained a reputation as a soil whisperer and vineyard specialist. He teamed with Jack Florence Jr. as a partner in Florence Vineyard Management Company. After saving enough money, Valdez bought out Florence in 2003 and changed the name to Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management.
In 2004, Valdez released his first wine under his namesake brand, Valdez Family Winery. He also began acquiring vineyard property, often via long-term leases with options to buy. Today, the family owns the prized 50-acre Silver Eagle Vineyard in the western hills of Russian River Valley and leases another 150 acres throughout Sonoma County. They farm grapes for dozens of wineries, including Aubert, Pahlmeyer and Paul Hobbs.
Still dreaming among the vines
Ulises Jr. made an early decision to follow in the family business. "He always followed our dad into the vineyard," recalled Elizabeth about her brother. "He looked up to him and wanted to be just like him."
Ulises Jr. says he feels a great honor in carrying on his father's legacy. He says his father told him producing premium grapes includes paying attention to each vineyard's needs. Balance and patience were among the chief principles imparted to him. "While pruning vineyards with him, he would be working down a row, pause, then turn to me and say 'Todo tiene que llevar un balance,'" he said. Everything has to have balance. "As he would say this, he would be leaving fewer or more buds on the current vine than the previous one."
Mark Aubert says Ulises Jr. has already garnered respect among many winemakers due to his approach, which he believes he learned from his father. "He understands that everything we do has a cause and effect," said Aubert. "He's respectful and cautious, and as a winemaker gives input, he digests that and there becomes a synergy between the winemaker, grower and vineyard." Aubert says he and Ulises Jr. just finished planting 10 acres of vines near Sebastopol, and he never questioned Ulises Jr. on anything. "He would say, 'This is how my dad did it,' and I'd nod and we'd keep moving."
Elizabeth's interest in wine came much later. She began working in the cellar in 2013. "I didn't know much about wine at that point, even though Dad had tons of cases from great wineries," she laughs. Over time, she learned from esteemed winemakers, including Aubert and Jeff Cohn, who jointly made Valdez's first vintage before Ulises Sr. hired a full-time winemaker. Eventually, Elizabeth's applied effort prepared her to take over as winemaker.
Cohn said she is a great winemaker in the making. "She never lets her ego get in the way," he said. "Early on, I spent a lot of time with her, discussing the process, and when she took over, I'd visit regularly and taste through barrels and monitor ferments to make sure everything was going OK. She caught on fast because she's passionate about what she's doing."
Aubert concurs, calling her a sponge, much like her father was. "She wants to align herself with people that are doing all the right things, and the sky is the limit for her; you're going to hear about her winemaking endeavors."
Angelica, 28, and Ricardo, 22, also stepped into roles after their father's passing because the family needed them. "Ricardo has different goals; he wants to go to business school. And Angelica, [who] was living in San Francisco, also returned home to support the family, including payroll, data entry and other administrative duties," said Elizabeth. Their all-in mentality and dedication to preserving the family business is demonstrable.
Ulises Jr. says their mother, Adelina, is a savvy businesswoman who has played a significant role in keeping the company afloat during the transition. Cohn called her the anchor that holds the ship in place. "She can foresee things very clearly, which has helped keep things going steadily. The person in the background is often the most important."
Building a future
Despite taking on various family business roles, the Valdez children are focused on furthering their education. Elizabeth, Angelica and Ricardo are enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College. Elizabeth plans to transfer to the University of California at Davis to complete its viticulture and enology program, and Ricardo has his eyes on transferring to the University of Southern California for business. Ulises Jr. is a U.C. Davis graduate.
Ulises Sr. and Adelina impressed upon their children the importance of education. Elizabeth believes education can help pave the way toward more Latinos holding winemaking or ownership positions in wine. "I just know from what I'm seeing as a student from my generation," she said, noting that school was not an option for her dad or many other immigrants. "Now, there are foundations and scholarships geared toward helping Latinos."
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For many years, there has been a preconceived notion that Latinos in the wine industry were just the farmworkers. Although there are Latinos doing the cellar work and making the wines, they are still underrepresented in winery ownership and winemaking positions.
Ulises Jr. says he's noticed that, when it comes to hiring for higher positions in wineries or vineyard management companies, preference is often given to young adults who recently finished a degree but have no hands-on experience. The company's main cellar hand or vineyard foreman, who has copious hands-on experience but no formal education in winemaking, is made secondary to the college grads in both pay and authority.
Elizabeth admits that the wine business is intimidating. "It takes a certain type of person to strive for the goal of owning a winery," she said. The biggest thing she believes needs to be done is to encourage inclusivity for all without labels. "[Latinos] are still held to a different standard. I hope that someday everyone will be recognized for their wine's quality, not just their ethnicity or gender."
Ulises Jr. concurs. He still sees pay and work condition inequalities. "Anybody working in an intense-labor job such as viticulture work should not have to work two jobs to make a living wage." He adds that a long-overdue overtime law was recently passed for agriculture workers but notes that it is not paired with a higher minimum wage, meaning pay is still too low for many.
Elizabeth says that while racism hasn't been apparent to her, sexism has. "I shared my aspirations of making wine over lunch with my dad and the CEO for a winery," she remembered. "And [the CEO] told me to stick to sales because I was pretty and could succeed in that. I'm proud of my heritage and grateful for the opportunity given to me, and I want to be recognized for my hard work."
There is perhaps no more challenging time to be a small winery. Surviving the challenges of the pandemic and managing the stresses that erratic weather, drought and fires have brought during recent harvests have taken their toll on many. Cohn says he's impressed that the family has been able to continue building organically. "They have made a commitment to their father and are following through," he said. "I don't think they lost a step. They're focused as ever."
Aubert echoes Cohn. He always believed Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management was going to be the vehicle for winemakers and grapegrowers in Sonoma to do great things and elevate the region as a whole. "We always worked on the premise that the best is yet to come. They manage all our vineyards, and I couldn't do what I do without them. Sonoma deserves people like the Valdezes."
The family's ambition may be their biggest inheritance from Ulises Sr. Elizabeth has her eyes on one day building a new winery near the Silver Eagle Vineyard. "We're going to get to the point where we're going to succeed," she said. "I feel like his spirit is still around, and I think he would be proud of us. I hope to get us back to the point where he was and do more."