Mike Lee, who founded Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma with his family in 1970 and was a key figure in the creation of the Sonoma appellation, has died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 66.
Image courtesy of winebusiness.com
When the Lee family purchased the ageing and rundown Pagani Brothers Winery, they inherited a 55ha vineyard planted to Zinfandel and Sauvignon Vert.
They kept the former, replanted the latter mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, and invested in new oak barrels.
Within 20 years, the winery was producing more than 250,000 cases of premium wine.
In 1975, Lee was instrumental in banding together the local wineries into an association seeking appellation status.
Of the nine wineries around the town of Sonoma, eight joined in (Sebastiani was the lone holdout). They were successful, and today Sonoma Valley is a recognized and esteemed AVA, with 96 wineries.
The family sold the winery to Gary Heck,owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars, in 1996. Lee remained as winemaker until 2003.
In the 1980s he converted much of Kenwood’s vineyards to certified organic, and sought contracted growers who would do the same.
One was Patti Fetzer Burke, of the family that founded Fetzer Vineyards, California’s organic pioneers. After a brief and restless retirement, Lee joined her at Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County as winemaker.
Lee was widely known as gregarious and generous with time and advice. In a recent interview, he said, ‘We thought making wine might be an interesting way to make a living. We had no idea how great it would be.’
Written by Brian St Pierre