An American success story – Chuy Ordaz
By the time he was 20 years old, Jose Jesus Ordaz, the son of a vegetable farmer on the shores of Lake Chapala, had tried and failed to cross the US-Mexico border 32 times. The 33rd time was a charm and he is now celebrating 40 years as a resident of Sonoma County, almost all of them spent in the Sonoma Valley. This is his story.
Ordaz is universally known as “Chuy” (pronounced “Chewey) to everyone he knows. Today, he owns Palo Alto Vineyard Management which services some of the finest vineyards in Sonoma Valley as well as others in Alexander Valley. He has his own vineyard in the Russian River area, raising a fine Pinot Noir under the Ordaz label. He has a home in Sonoma, where he and his wife and business partner Beverly Jung Ordaz have raised their six children, three of whom are college graduates. But it wasn’t always so.
Chuy was one of 11 children born to his parents at their lakeside farm in Michoacan in 1953. He grew up with farming and sold grapes in a fruit stand when he was 15.
“My older brother sent a letter to me and my younger brother telling us to come to the United States,” Chuy recalled. “Dad told me to take my little brother to the U.S. and that’s how I came. I never went back.” That was 1973.
Even with the help of a ‘coyote’ providing border crossing services, he wasn’t successful at the start. After being caught and returned 32 times, “the guy doing the paperwork didn’t even ask my name. He said ‘keep trying and some day you’ll make it.’ And I did.”
The Ordaz family in Mexico. Top row (L. to R): Berta, Maria Luisa, Kathelena, Rosaria, Antonio, Jose Luis, Jesus (Chuy). Bottom row (L. to R): Nimfa, Maria de los Angeles, Josafina, Jesus, Jose, Jose Guadelope (Pepe).
His first work was for Korbel on the Russian River, but he didn’t work in the vineyards long. An INS raid sent him scrambling to the woods where he cut and stacked firewood for six months. He met his future wife Beverly Jung through his roommate at the time and they were married four years later. They celebrated their 36th anniversary last December.
“I got my papers 35 years ago and I’ve been a citizen for 10 years, now,” Chuy says. He has no reservations about who he is, where he came from, or how he got here. It was the path many people took to California and the United States.
He is really proud of his kids. “Our oldest daughter Josepina graduated from Dominican as a nurse, Epifanio graduated in business from Santa Clara, Chuy Jr. works with me and goes to Santa Rosa Junior College, Jesus also went to SRJC and works at Sonoma Mission Inn. Placida graduated from Fresno State with a degree in criminology and works in the concealed weapons permit unit for the state.”
While he didn’t have much of a choice where he worked for the first six months after he first got to Sonoma County, almost the entire time since then has been spent in Kenwood. He’s done everything from breaking rocks with a jackhammer, to planting, making wines, working on bottling lines... almost everything thing to do both inside and outside a winery.
“I was the first full time employee for Mike Lee and John Sheela at Kenwood Vineyards and Winery until they sold,” Chuy recalls, “Then I started my own business and got my contractor’s license.” His business is located on Adobe Canyon Road, just behind the Vineyards Inn.
John Sheela remembers Chuy’s first day vividly.
“The weather was changing and we needed to get the grapes done,” Sheela recounted. “Someone came in and said, ‘They aren’t picking.’ I charged out and found the guys sitting around. They all pointed to Chuy, the leader. He spoke very little English. It was all about the price we were paying per box. I asked ‘What do you want?’ and he said 35 cents a box.’ From that time, I knew he was a leader. He was very organized, he was smart and had a way about him even though he had no formal education.”
Chuy’s job at Kenwood was taking care of the clients they bought their grapes from. “I was checking the vineyards and helping for quality and everything they need for the winery.” This included inspecting the vines, removing excess leaves, pruning vines and excessive grape clusters, watering, weeding, and everything else that goes into raising a fine crop of vintage grapes.
From the beginning, Chuy was the interface between the field and the office, hiring the people he needed to take care of Kenwood’s growers. He has a strong sense of family and often hires his relatives and their relatives, providing him with a workforce he can train and trust to be there. He services up to 20 growers today with crews that have ranged from 75 to 80 people in the past.
Those growers include Bob Uboldi, Francisco Vineyards, Beltane Ranch, Montecito and many more.
Today, however, with increased border security and the economy, he’s having a hard time recruiting workers and is down to a crew of 43 for the upcoming harvest. He’s looking for more help every day.
George MacLeod has been a friend and customer for almost as long as he’s been here, as a supplier to Kenwood. “He called Mike Lee at 11 a.m. and said, ‘Please send Chuy; I need help.’” A newcomer to the business, the newly retired Monsanto-engineer-turned-vintner had tried to pick his first harvest with his family.
“We thought we could pick all our grapes but saw after half a day that it wouldn’t work,” MacLeod said. “I told Mike that if you want to see our grapes before Christmas, you better send Chuy.”
“Chuy’s story is the essence of what we like to think about our country,” MacLeod said. “You can come here and get a job and make it. His story is that story. The dream is still alive.”
Kaaren Lee couldn’t agree more. The owner of Montecito Vineyards on Nelligan Road, said, “He has an innate, vast knowledge of how things grow, particularly in vineyards. He just gets it. He knows what he’s doing and I always trust him to do the right thing. He talks it over with you and gives you a choice, but in the end you always come back to his first suggestion.
“Chuy is the American Dream.”