Food + Drink, Sonoma Wineries, What's New in Sonoma County

These Latina Winemakers and Winery Executives Are Making a Splash in Sonoma County

Meet three Latinas who have achieved success in an industry that can often feel like a white man's world.

When Ulises Valdez established his vineyard management company in Cloverdale several years ago, he named it Valdez & Sons and proudly placed its logo on company trucks. At the time, his sons, Ulises Jr. and Ricardo, were still too young to work. But his daughters, Elizabeth and Angelina, were busy helping their mother, Adelina, with timecards, billing, accounting and other administrative tasks for the company.

“It’s just how it was,” said Elizabeth Valdez, now 29 and the Valdez Family Wines winemaker.

In the traditional culture of Latino immigrants such as Ulises Sr., who came from Michoacán, Mexico, to Sonoma in 1985, it was men who did the physical work, provided for their families and taught their sons to do the same. Women kept house, cooked meals and cared for the children, training their daughters for future marriage and motherhood. It wasn’t much different than how most U.S.-born families functioned until the 1950s and ’60s, the divisions of labor very much determined by sex and not ability nor aspiration.

Over time, however, Elizabeth Valdez showed her father that hands-on experience in the cellar, training by acclaimed winemakers such as Jeff Cohn and Mark Aubert and enology coursework at Santa Rosa Junior College and UC Davis had prepared her for the tasks of rolling barrels, shoveling out tanks, driving forklifts and producing excellent wines.

“In 2015, my father finally said, ‘I think you’re ready,’ and I made my first vintage of wines in 2016,” she recalled.

Elizabeth Valdez. (Courtesy of Valdez Family Wines)

Ulises Valdez Sr. died of a sudden heart attack at age 49, at the start of the 2018 harvest. Despite their sorrow, Elizabeth continued with the winemaking and, the day after his father’s death, Ulises Jr. delivered just-picked grapes to other wineries contracted for the family’s vineyard management services. “Padre” would have been proud of his kids.

“He taught us to work hard and we’ll keep doing that,” Elizabeth said. “It takes all of us to do the work he did himself. We’re proud to be a family business, which he always wanted.”

A place for women

Monica López’s parents, Al and Dina López, were already successful businesspeople when they entered the Sonoma wine industry.

The couple previously had worked in design and publishing; at one point they owned the iconic Lowrider Magazine. After selling the publication, they went into real estate and eventually bought 40 acres off Mark West Springs Road in northeastern Santa Rosa in 1998. They built a home there, and Al planted a hobby vineyard from which he made wine.

“The vineyard was a passion project for my parents, which evolved into a winery. We like to say it was their 10th career,” Monica López, 37, explained. “My brother, Francisco, and I were guided by our entrepreneurial parents to work hard, be passionate about what we do and do it with integrity.”

Monica López. (Courtesy of Aldina Vineyards)

López is now CEO of Aldina Vineyards and Bacchus Landing Cellars in Healdsburg, a 52,000-square-foot project scheduled to open in spring 2021 that includes tasting room spaces for Aldina and other wineries and indoor and outdoor event spaces.

“It feels like a man’s world in the wine industry, but there is definitely a place for women in it,” she said. “We have a priority of involving Latina women in our business. Our winemaker, Belén Ceja, makes our wines at Heirs of My Dream, a custom-crush winery she owns, with her sister, Ellie.”

More visibility

Twenty-three years ago, Ana Keller, the youngest of Arturo Keller’s four children, left Mexico City for the United States and a career in winemaking. Armed with a biochemistry degree yet zero knowledge about how to grow grapes and produce wine, she learned the ropes quickly at her father’s Keller Estate east of Petaluma. She soon made it a showpiece property and winery and played a major role in creating the Petaluma Gap AVA.

Ana, 49, embraced a philosophy now quoted widely from the mouth of Sara Blakely, founder of the Spanx shapewear company: “Hire your weaknesses.”

“I stepped into running (Keller Estate) and had to wear lots of hats,” Ana said. “I realized I had to hire good people to help.”

Like López at Aldina Vineyards, Keller works hard to get more Latina women into the wine industry. There are plenty of job opportunities available to them there, she said, in addition to winemaking. Skills and experience in administration, human resources, legal work, hospitality and design are highly sought after at most wineries.

“One in four jobs (in Sonoma) is related to the wine business,” Keller said. “I’ve met women who think being Latina is not an asset in the wine industry. They believe it’s hard enough being female and don’t share their heritage when employers can see it as an asset. This is a time for Latinas to step up and make themselves visible.”

Wines to try

In addition to demonstrating the success women and Latina women can experience in the wine industry, the Aldina, Keller and Valdez wineries produce gran vino. Here’s more about them in a nutshell.

Aldina Vineyards: The brand of Monica, Francisco, Dina and Al López is best known for its cabernet sauvignon, produced from the Aldina Vineyard in the Fountaingrove District in northeast Santa Rosa. Their winemaker, Latina Belén Ceja, also bottles small amounts of chardonnay and rosé from Ceja Vineyards grapes grown in the Carneros region. The López family’s Bacchus Landing Cellars tasting room complex is scheduled to open in spring 2021 on the outskirts of Healdsburg. Aldina will be joined by a handful of other wineries, each with its own 1,800-square foot space and access to a rooftop event/tasting space.

707-799-1821, aldinavineyards.com. No tasting room at this time; order online.

Keller Estate Winery: As estate director, Ana Keller continues the vision of her father, Arturo Keller, operating an estate that combines vineyards, winemaking and olive groves for oil and outdoor art. Arturo’s love of classic cars, many of which are displayed or stored at the winery, factored into his purchase of the estate. The Keller La Cruz Chardonnay and El Coro Pinot Noir, made by Julien Teichmann, are superb, as is a somewhat hidden gem, a meaty Rhone Valley-style red blend called Rotie. If there is one winery at which to experience the winds and fog that shoot through the Petaluma Gap AVA in the afternoons, this is it. The views are spectacular.

875 Lakeville Highway, Petaluma, 707-965-2117, kellerestate.com. Open for outdoor tastings; schedule appointments online.

Valdez Family Winery: Adelina Valdez and her children (Elizabeth, Angelina, Ulises Jr. and Ricardo) now live on their Silver Eagle Vineyard, planted by Ulises Sr. in 2006. It’s a prime spot in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, planted to chardonnay and pinot noir grapes that go to top producers. Winemaker Elizabeth keeps some of the best rows for the Valdez Family Wines label, and while production was intentionally reduced after the 2018 death of her father, the gems remain in her Silver Eagle Chardonnay and Silver Eagle Pinot Noir. Her brother, Ulises Jr., is in charge of the farming, though every Valdez is involved in the business.

707-291-8030, valdezfamilywinery.com. No tasting room; order online.

Editor’s Note: Travel, dining and wine tasting can be complicated right now. Use our inspirational ideas to plan ahead for your next outing, be it this week or next year. If you visit restaurants, wineries, and other businesses during the pandemic, remember to call ahead, make reservations, wear a mask and social distance.

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