“It will give shape to the wind. It will go over the hills and into the sea, like a ribbon of light.”
– from environmental-impact report for Running Fence
Lost amid the whirlwinds of news—COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd and resultant demonstrations, opportunistic rioting and looting—is the obituary of the artist Christo, who has died at age eighty-four.
With Jeanne-Claude, his wife and collaborator, Christo gave the world wondrous, larger-than-life art installations in public spaces. All were open to everyone at no cost; Christo and Jeanne-Claude financed the projects themselves. They were all temporary, gone without a trace after a couple weeks, with no environmental damage and no public expense.
“The industry has reached the point of acute oversupply due to diminishing volumes sold. That will lead to vineyard removals — and fallowing in some cases — and reduced returns for growers.”
When I moved to Sonoma County in 1995, it seemed every bare patch of ground — and acres formerly planted with apples, hops and other crops — was being planted with new vineyards; until 2008, that is. The wine business recovered from the recession, but is now facing another downturn.
“We’ve had a lot of Spanish-speaking workers. I say, ‘Thank Heaven for them.’ We’d be a lot further from recovering if it weren’t for them.”
As we’ve been told, Mexico and Central America are sending “not their best” across the border into the U.S. We are being overwhelmed by drug gangsters and rapists, according to the current occupant of the White House. Well, maybe not overwhelmed, exactly.
A new recovery-and-reconstruction work force has developed to keep pace with the more frequent and more severe weather events. (Nothing to do with climate change!) Like migrant agricultural workers following the crops, this emerging workforce is also mobile, following disasters: New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Houston after Harvey; North Carolina after Florence; Florida after Irma and Michael. Much of the cleanup and rebuilding is the work of laborers and craftspeople who entered the country illegally.
Ulises Valdez was born in 1969 in Los Cuachalalates, a tiny village in Michoacán, Mexico. At age ten, he quit school and went to Mexico City to work in his cousin’s flea market. Two years later, he went to work cutting sugarcane. At age sixteen, on his third attempt, he crossed the border and joined his brother in Sonoma County. Ulises lied about his age and was hired to prune vines in the Dry Creek Valley.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress passed and the President signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The law, referred to as the Reagan Amnesty, gave illegal immigrants the opportunity to become legal residents. Valdez took advantage, obtaining temporary, then, ten years later, permanent resident status. In the interim, he went back to Mexico, married and brought his new wife to Sonoma County.
Valdez progressed from vineyard worker to vineyard manager to partner in a vineyard management company to sole owner of a vineyard management company. In 1996 he became a U.S. citizen.
Over the years Valdez also began leasing and purchasing land and planting vineyards. He supplied premium grapes to high-end wineries. The Valdez businesses employ 100 people and manage more than 1,000 acres of vineyards. In 2004 Ulises Valdez produced the first wines for his own label. Six years later, with 100 acres owned or leased, the Valdez Family Winery opened. His daughter Elizabeth became the winemaker in 2016. Her sister and two brothers also work in the business.
Ulises Valdez died of a heart attack September 12, at age 49, in the midst of harvest frenzy. Sonoma County vintners and longtime clients are showing their respect, supporting the family, helping in the fields, winery and offices.