Mike Lee: A good man gone, heritage intact

Mike Lee, a founder of Kenwood Vineyards, died at the beginning of May. He was an unlikely sort of pioneer winemaker—the son of a San Francisco policeman, very much a city boy, and giving the impression that he’d rather be partying than anything. But when his family bought the derelict Pagani Brothers winery and vineyards north of Sonoma in 1970, he pitched in, taking short courses at the University of California at Davis and walking the vineyards with every grape grower who’d give him the time, and he and his family quietly built Kenwood into a powerhouse, producing more than 250,000 cases when it was sold (for a reported $50-million) in the mid-1990s.
       His philosophy was simple: restraint, “nothing over the top,” he liked to say, and he’d always add, “let the vineyard do the talking.”
       Along the way, he became a convert to organic farming, and adapted many of Kenwood’s vineyards, while encouraging growers whose grapes he bought to do the same. After he retired, he went to work for Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County, owned by Patty Fetzer Burke, a daughter of Barney Fetzer, patriarch of the leading California organic wine family. He let the vineyard do the talking there, too.
       Now another circle is closing, with the recent sale of Fetzer to Concha y Toro of Chile, one of the world’s largest wine companies. Previous owners Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel’s, etc.) had allowed Fetzer’s commitments to organics, and quality, to degrade, and according to a source at the winery I spoke with, there’s good cheer and optimism about now being owned by a wine company as opposed to booze barons. Perhaps the new owners should have a Fetzer family reunion and really re-start the ball rolling. . .

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