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Living the dream

  • Ulises Valdez operates Valdez Family Winery, in addition to managing and selling 900 acres of fruit from Ulises Valdez Vineyard to other area wineries.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

This time of year, it can be tough to track Ulises Valdez down. The renowned vineyard manager is swinging from chardonnay vineyard to pinot noir to zinfandel and lots of other varietals in between.

The vineyards he oversees and leases, in addition to one, Silver Eagle near Graton, that he owns, amount to about 1,000 acres in all. They stretch from Annapolis to Bennett Valley, with dips into the coastal wilds of Cazadero.

Does anybody know the vineyards of Sonoma County better than Valdez? The Mexican native, barely 40 years old, has been farming here for more than 25 years. Handed pruning shears and thrown in as part of a vineyard crew, he slowly worked his way up to becoming among the most sought-after vineyard managers and sources of high-end fruit in the state.

Valdez Family Winery

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"He's one of the most compassionate winegrowers I have ever met," said winemaker Mark Aubert. "We've collaborated on many vineyards together, some of which have achieved the highest wine reviews in Sonoma County. His is now one of the most sought after vineyard management companies in Sonoma."

His clients include the who's-who of both Napa and Sonoma — from Aubert, a producer of exquisite chardonnay, to Arista Winery, Paul Hobbs, Ram's Gate, Rivers-Marie, Schrader Cellars, Three Sticks and Kosta Browne.

"If somebody calls me and has five acres and they're looking for high quality, they want to do the best, I'm always there for them," Valdez said. "We can choose our clients. If they're nice, I don't mind working with them. If they're looking for quality, I don't mind working with them."

His determination to work with good people interested only in producing good wines makes life difficult logistically, especially this time of year. With a crew of up to 120 people, Valdez works with mostly smaller 5- and 10-acre vineyard gems, about 50 different sites in all.

"I'm trying to learn to say no," he said with a laugh. "I'm a grower, I'm a vineyard manager and I'm a winery guy. It's not easy."

Pinot noir is his top concern, with chardonnay close behind. Third is what he calls "his beautiful zinfandel."

"I love zin. It's somebody like me, simple, it can be big but at the same time it's just good, it's fruity," he explained. "I just love zin, and you can get it at better prices. To make a really good pinot, you have to be really, really high-end, where it's farmed, it's harder to get yields, but you get the quality."


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