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.
"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."
Quality is everything to Valdez, and it's reflected in his grape prices, which typically run from $18,000 to $20,000 an acre.
"I don't think I'm the best, but I get along with the wineries and they like the way we do things," he explained.
"I think of (vineyards) really personally, deep inside of me. It has my stamp when I deliver the grapes to a winery and they say it's the best, clean fruit, thank you. That keeps me going."
In 2004, Valdez launched Valdez Family Vineyards, which has just opened a tasting room on Mill Street in Healdsburg. Along with several different vineyard-designated zinfandels — Valdez's personal pride — they make sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon.
Starting with the 2011 vintage, he's simplified his offerings somewhat, from five separate zinfandels to two vineyard designates (St. Peter's Church Vineyard in Alexander Valley and Botticelli in Rockpile) and 1,000 cases bottled as Sonoma County appellation. The latter is a blending of all his favorite vineyards, from Russian River Valley to Rockpile and Dry Creek, which will retail for $28.