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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mike Lee, founder of Kenwood Vineyards

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Winemaker Mike Lee passed away this week.   Mike, along with his brother and brother-in-law, bought an old jug winery in northern Sonoma Valley over 40 years ago.   By jug winery I mean you'd bring in your own container and get it filled with either white or red.   Much of the Sonoma County wine business was like this at the time.   Many were convinced a new premium winery in Sonoma Valley in 1970 was a weird idea and doomed to failure.

Success came at a reasonable pace during the '70s then Kenwood Vineyards rode the wave of the popularity of California wines in the '80s and became a large player to where even the founders would sometimes shake their heads in amazement.

Their first big break was when deciding to not just make a reserve Cabernet, but to make it as a yearly Artist Series using a different artwork for the label every vintage.  The first was a painting of a nude on a hillside.  The government regulators, the BATF, said no and the controversy started.   The best publicity is free publicity and Mike and family were off and running.

Their other big breaks were in getting a long-term contract for the Jack London Vineyard and making a distinctive wine with distinctive bottling from those grapes.  Another was putting out a great Sauvignon Blanc in large quantities just when Sauv Blanc got popular in the mid-80s.   Case production soared.   John, the brother-in-law responsible for the financial side of the business, called the Sauv Blanc "Chateau Cash Cow" when he would stop by after work for a glass.

After I moved to Sonoma County in 1980 Kenwood Vineyards became my first favorite winery.  Mike, Marty, and John were great guys to work for.  I know because while I had another "real" job during the '90s and early in the '00s I worked part-time in the Kenwood tasting room for about a dozen years.   In a business that can attract the rich and snobby these were regular guys with a regular work ethic.

Mike could make Zinfandel--really good Zinfandel.   Not like the high alcohol fruity stuff you see now.  This was Zin you wanted to age for awhile.  This was Zin you wanted to have with a meal.   Mike made Zinfandel the way God meant Zinfandel to taste.

Mike left us too soon.

Story from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.