In 1985 Ulises Valdez couldn’t have started much lower on the totem pole. From a small Mexican village, he was only sixteen and spoke no English when he jumped the border into California and signed on as a field hand at a vineyard management company. It was a fortuitous match. Immediately feeling at home cultivating grapes, he learned the business quickly. So Quickly that a year later he approached the owner with a bold and daring proposition — the kind of proposition that could only come from an ambitious visionary with the ability to design and construct the trajectory of his own destiny.

The seventeen year old teenager informed his employer he would be happy to work for a full season without a penny in exchange for being made a partner in the business. By that time he had already been declared a legal temporary resident (leading the way to his eventual citizenship), so once he was officially proclaimed part-owner of Florence Vineyard Management, he was now free to begin acquiring long term vineyard leases to develop the vineyards and sell the ripened grapes to their winery clients. Clearly the ability to negotiate contracts with seasoned adults wise in the ways of business and wine is not a typical ability found in the seventeen year old set. But pull it off Valdez did until 2003 when he bought out his partner’s share in the business and changed its’ name to Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management Inc. With this name, he set the stage for the future time his sons would be old enough to join him in the business.

His next challenge was to create his own wine label. A year later in 2004, helped by the close relationships he had formed with friends in the business and fellow wine experts, he brought out his wine labeled “Valdez Family Winery.” It did well from the start. Last year his Valdez Silver Eagle Vineyard Chardonnay from Russian River was served at the White House state dinner honoring Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico.

Had Valdez hit his peak? Was it time to let up, to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor? Hardly. For him, it was now time to climb up the next step on his accomplishment  ladder and establish a winery of his own. Up till then his wines, mostly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel had been produced at a neighboring winery. But he wanted his very own winery and last year just in time for the grape harvest, he got it — a simple utilitarian set-up in an industrial park. Never one for bells and whistles, he informed a visiting reporter that he was planning an area for visitors to taste his wines, a bar that would consist of a wooden board placed over two wine barrels. Streamlined. To the point. Authentic.

Rags to riches stories like Valdez’s have always appealed to me. Do you have any favorite success stories of others who have also made that great leap?

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