Calling the Pick in Honor of Ulises Valdez

When I sat down to write this journal entry, it was with the intention of focusing entirely on the practice of “calling the pick”; a crucial decision that signals the start of harvest, and, ultimately, the birth of a wine. Then, on September 12th, a longtime friend and treasured colleague, Ulises Valdez, died suddenly at the age of 49, and so I want to spend a moment remembering this dear friend and singular man.

Ulises was one of the most gifted, knowledgeable and intuitive vineyard managers in California. He and I worked on numerous vineyards together; perhaps most notably the Edward James Estate in Russian River Valley. When Ulises and his vineyard management company, Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management, set about planting the estate with me, it was almost as if Ulises had a preternatural ability to see the vineyard in its completion. His confidence around the vine underscored his ease with the natural environs of Sonoma County. His understanding of the entire growing region and its diverse topography and soils was breathtaking to behold, but he was very down-to-earth when sharing his knowledge.

Though I have many fond memories of working with Ulises, the one I will treasure the most is one he often repeated; randomly, Ulises would phone me up early in the morning over the years—oftentimes at 6:30 am—simply to say, “It’s a beautiful day. Calling to wish you a great day, Paul!” These calls always made me smile and they were a genteel and fun way to start the day.


Harvest is an intense yet joyous time of year. My crew and I are energized by a rare combination of anticipation, adrenaline and impatience leading up to the first official pick of the season. Of the numerous decisions made during harvest, calling the pick is the most crucial I will make at each one of the estate vineyards we farm.

For me personally, being the steward of estate vineyard sites is like being a husband and father; one of the crucial roles I hold is that of listener. I gain a greater understanding by consistently paying attention.

An entire growing season—its singularity, strengths and weaknesses—are all reflected in that one crucial decision. And, it’s irreversible; ultimately, the pick decision will effect everything about a wine, from its texture to flavor profile; from its intensity and power to its color, from its acid levels to its structure. While there are adjustments that can be made later on in the cellar to effect the state of a wine, I prefer to try and call the pick accurately so that the fruit already has everything it needs to find its distinctive voice by the time it reaches the crush pad.

For me personally, being the steward of estate vineyard sites is like being a husband and father; one of the crucial roles I hold is that of listener. I gain a greater understanding by consistently paying attention. For example, at Goldrock Estate in Annapolis, ripening can be uneven due to inclement weather and an oftentimes relentless maritime influence. As such, when I call the pick, I “filet” the vineyard, which is to say, I call the pick, block by block and row by row. If part of a vineyard row remains unripe, I will have the crew pass through it, harvesting only the ripened clusters. We’ll then return, oftentimes days or even a week later, to pick the remaining fruit, when flavors are mature. The awareness of wanting to exercise this practice on certain vineyards occurs to me earlier on in the season. Paying attention through the entire growing season does make me quite aware of indicators out in the vineyard and how those will inform the actual 2018 harvest.