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Beloved California Vintner Ulises Valdez Dies at 49

A Mexican immigrant who started as a vineyard laborer, Valdez became one of Sonoma's most renowned vineyard managers and a winery owner
Ulises Valdez was known for his vineyard knowledge and his trademark smile.
Photo by: Colin Price
Ulises Valdez was known for his vineyard knowledge and his trademark smile.

Aaron Romano
Posted: September 12, 2018

Ulises Valdez, who emigrated from Mexico to work as a vineyard laborer in Sonoma County, then rose to become one of California's most renowned vineyard managers and founder of his own family winery, died early this morning of a heart attack. He was 49.

Valdez was widely considered one of the most knowledgeable and skilled vineyard managers in California. He was equally regarded as one of the most warm and loving personalities in the industry. "He was a brother from another mother," said Jeff Cohn of Jeff Cohn Cellars. "His family is my family, and vice versa; and our relationship has been that way since 1996 when we first met him."

Valdez was also an example of the American dream in the wine industry. Born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, he was one of eight children. His father died when Valdez was just 8, forcing the resolute youth into the fields around his village to help support his family. Valdez left Mexico at age 16, successfully crossing the California border on his third attempt. He found his way to Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, joining his older brother Nicolas Cornejo, who had come to the U.S. earlier in the year. Together they worked in vineyards.

Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Valdez became a legal temporary resident of the United States, and 10 years later he became a permanent resident. In the interim, Valdez returned home to marry his wife, Adelina. Even though he could now travel to California legally, Adelina could not, so Valdez once again braved the journey across the border to bring her back to Sonoma County.

"He's the poster child for immigration," said Saxon Brown's Jeff Gaffner, who has known Valdez for 20 years. "I knew his uncle when he came here as a kid, and he always worked hard and hustled; his evolution is something our industry should be proud of."

It didn't take long for Valdez to carve a path from vineyard worker to vineyard manager. He teamed with Jack Florence Jr. to become partners in Florence Vineyard Management Company, farming Florence's father's vineyard. After saving for more than a decade, Valdez bought out his partner in 2003, and changed the name to Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management Inc.

Valdez had learned a lot about viticulture in a short period of time and had gained a valuable reputation in the industry, growing high-quality grapes for clients such as Mark Aubert, Paul Hobbs and Jayson Pahlmeyer. That brought in more business. "He's got exhaustive knowledge of the soils in Sonoma," Aubert told Wine Spectator in 2007. "And he has the understanding [that comes with] making his own wine. He's a rare breed that can balance all the factors."

Today, the company employs a staff of 100 and farms over 1,000 acres for the aforementioned wineries, as well as Arista Winery, Ram's Gate, Rivers-Marie, Three Sticks, Kosta Browne and countless others. "He was a gem in this industry," said Cohn. "He understood what it took to make great wine, literally from the ground up."

Valdez will be remembered for the twinkle in his eye, his laughter and his big smile underneath his signature straw cowboy hat. He was a passionate, hardworking and determined perfectionist in the vineyard; as well as a loving, caring father and husband at home. "Conversations always drifted to family, and about his sons and daughters getting involved in the family business," recalled Mark McWilliams of Arista.

In 2004, Valdez released his first wine under his namesake brand, Valdez Family Winery. He opened his own winery in 2010. Because vineyard land is expensive, Valdez opted to acquire vineyard property via long-term leases rather then buying—the winery now owns or leases 100 acres. His daughter Elizabeth took over winemaking duties in 2016, and her siblings Angelica, Ricardo, and Ulises Jr. are all involved in both the winery and vineyard company.

Valdez's death comes at the peak of harvest in Sonoma County. McWilliams was shocked to hear the news from Ulises Jr. at 6 a.m. this morning, when the young man delivered grapes to Arista. Numerous local vintners and longtime clients have rallied around the family, offering to lend a hand in the fields, cellar or offices.

McWilliams said it's what Ulises would have done for them, recalling a story from Arista's first harvest of their estate vineyard in Russian River Valley, which Valdez had planted and farmed. "One of his men didn't fully strap the fruit down, and [when he] came around a corner, half of it dumped onto Westside Road," said McWilliams. Valdez called him crying, and replaced the lost fruit with grapes from his own vineyard at no cost. "He loved his work, and loved being in the vineyards," said McWilliams. "It was what he was meant to do; he's an absolute icon."

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Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  September 12, 2018 7:10pm ET
What a sad day. Such a nicely written story about a very special man that everyone in the Sonoma wine business knew. He had a big personality, self motivated and self taught as a vineyard manager. A great loss for viticulture and winemaking. So saddened by the news. Rest in Peace Ulises.
Charles Chambless
Stow, Ohio, USA —  September 12, 2018 9:37pm ET
Wow! Only 49. He was an amazing man. A big loss.
Chris Moody
St. Louis, MO —  September 12, 2018 10:00pm ET
We had the pleasure of tasting his family's wines at their tasting room in Healdsburg and it was a lovely experience. Our hearts go out to his family, a great and wonderful man.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  September 13, 2018 2:07pm ET
I had never met Ulises but I have heard such great things about him from some of the winemakers he worked with. Many like Mark Aubert and Thomas Rivers Brown give him so much credit for the quality of wines that they are able to produce. A big loss to Sonoma and the wine industry in general. A true success story for immigration in California. RIP and I wish his wife and kids as much success as possible in carrying on his legacy. I will buy some of their best wines I can find and toast him in my small corner of California.
Mark Horowitz
New York, NY —  September 13, 2018 4:20pm ET
I never met Mr. Valdez, but I've enjoyed his wines. He is, indeed, a shining example of the value of the immigrant to American culture. My sincerest condolences to his family.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  September 14, 2018 1:58pm ET
Hard to believe. Fantastic guy and they don't come more well-respected.
Eric Binau
Napa, CA —  September 14, 2018 5:20pm ET
UV told me his story of swimming the Rio Grande and arriving on a Sacto flight soaking wet with the cloths on his back. He is/was more of a success story than anyone I've met. He was a good guy with a twinkle in his eye knowing that we all ride our luck to our own outcome. I haven't seen him for some time but I really, really can't believe I won't see him again. RIP UV.

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