Ulises Valdez, a Mexican immigrant who rose from picking grapes in Sonoma County vineyards to working with top local winemakers and ultimately to running his own family winery in Cloverdale, died Wednesday. He was 49.
Valdez was born in 1969 in the state of Michoacán and went to work at an early age after the death of his father. At 16, he crossed the border into California and joined his brother, Nicolas Cornejo, in Sonoma County to work in the vineyards of the Dry Creek Valley wine region. Valdez uses his mother’s last name.
He benefited from passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which allowed him to become a legal temporary resident of America. Ten years later, he became a U.S. citizen.
Valdez soon became a foreman at Jack Florence’s vineyard, working with the owner’s son, Jack Florence Jr., a recent graduate from UC Davis’ wine program. In 1986, Valdez approached Jack Jr. and said he wanted to become a partner in Florence Vineyard Management Co. He said he would not take a salary the following year, in return for an equity stake in the business. At the time, Cornejo, now the owner of Clendenen Vineyard Management in Healdsburg, helped his younger brother with expenses, the younger Florence said.
“It was the perfect complementary relationship,” Florence said. “Farming came really natural to him. So often, something breaks or there is a problem in the vineyard … there wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix.”
In 2003, Valdez bought out Florence’s stake in the company and changed the name to Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management Inc. in an amicable parting, Florence said.
The Valdez company oversees and leases about 1,000 vineyard acres, which includes St. Peter’s Church in the Alexander Valley, producer of a renowned zinfandel fruit. And despite taking different paths into the industry, the company has worked with top local winemakers such as Paul Hobbs and Mark Aubert to produce its premium wines.
Those winemakers respected Valdez because he never was shy to speak his mind about the grapes he grew, which vintners said was combined with his incredible commitment to deliver pristine fruit.
“There were never leaves. The fruit was always clean,” said Jeff Cohn of Jeff Cohn Cellars in Sonoma. Cohn said Valdez only worked with winemakers he liked.
“It was a give and take,” Cohn said of Valdez’s relationship with winemakers. “He was always open to ideas … there was always a little, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ ”
In 2004, he launched his first vintage of Valdez Family wines and opened a small winery six years later. He also opened a Healdsburg tasting room in 2013 near the town’s roundabout, but ended up closing it.
Valdez had a heart of gold, Cohn said. One Thanksgiving, his family celebrated the holiday at Cohn’s house in Alameda. Cohn did not recognize an extra child who accompanied Valdez that day. It turned out to be a neighbor’s child whose family wasn’t celebrating the holiday, so he brought the child along to join the Thanksgiving gathering.
“That was the type of person he was,” Cohn said.
In 2009, Valdez was honored at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair as the Outstanding Young Person in Agri-Business.
He is survived by his wife, Adelina; sons, Ulises Jr. and Ricardo; daughters, Elizabeth and Angelica; and brothers, Rigoberto and Nicolas Cornejo.