Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mike Lee: Pioneer, Winemaker, Gentleman

Mike Lee (Santa Rosa Press Democrat)
"He was just one of those people who loved other people." That's Sonoma County winemaker Charlie Tolbert, talking to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about another Sonoma County winemaker, Mike Lee, who died of a heart attack while playing golf in Santa Rosa on Monday. Tolbert's comment sums up Mike Lee with absolute precision and accuracy.

Mike Lee's fondness of other people was unselfish, positive and persistently supportive. He helped aspiring winemakers find their way, and on the competition circuit, where he was an amiable and insightful judge, he approached wines with an appreciation for both what the winemaker seemed to be seeking and what the consumer likely was expecting. I last saw him a week ago, at the West Coast Wine Competition in Healdsburg. He was a person you were always glad to see for his relaxed demeanor, the equilibrium he struck between seriousness and playfulness, the persistent twinkle in his eyes, and the brightest and happiest smile on the planet. He was a person of quick and firm opinions, but he didn't try to dominate, and was always eager to give and take in a forthright yet respectable exchange of opinions. He was trim and vibrant, and his abrupt death has stunned his colleagues and friends.

Mike Lee, with other members of his San Francisco family, founded Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma Valley in 1970. That may not seem so daring now, not with wineries scattered the length of Sonoma Valley, but four decades ago such a gamble only rarely was undertaken. And from the start, Mike Lee played a pivotal role in putting Kenwood Vineyards on a solid foundation by making clearcut wines at readily accessible prices, a philosophy he followed throughout his three decades overseeing the winery's cellar. (The family sold Kenwood in 2003, and in 2005 Mike Lee became the winemaker for Pattiana Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County. He assumed that role after a buddy, former Sacramentan Casey Burke, was killed in a plane crash. Burke was married to Patti Fetzer, the other principal behind Pattiana. She subsequently married Gregg Hileman, and he and Mike became good friends. It was Hileman with whom Mike was playing golf when he collapsed Monday.)

But what was Mike Lee's mark on California wine? For one, Kenwood's sauvignon blanc early on set a standard that other wineries strived to match. He sought out and capitalized on outstanding vineyards, then handled their grapes in a way that expressed fundamentally their place. This was true of other varietals as well, but sauvignon blanc is what brought him his first widespread acclaim. He made clean and fresh wines, released at prices that put them within grasp of an American audience that was only just starting to discover wine. This was a standard he continued at Pattiana.

Mike Lee wasn't a celebrity winemaker. He didn't promote himself. He wasn't as interested in raising his profile as he was in raising the profile of fine wine. In talking with him, his focus persistently was on the vineyard, the culture, the wine. He listened as much as he talked. He was a true gentleman. His sudden passing reinforces the values he represented so naturally - understand, respect, share, smile.


  1. You comments are spot on! I'm still in shock - Mike was one of the funniest and most personable guys you could ever meet in this business. He will be sorely missed by his friends.

  2. A celebration of Mike’s life will take place Monday, May 16, 11:00 AM at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, California. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions to the Casey Burke or Tom Hobart scholarships at the Santa Rosa Junior College c/o SRJC Foundation 1501 Mendocino Ave. Santa Rosa, CA 95401-4395.

  3. What a man...what a loss.
    I was one of the many that were influenced by, so appreciated and respected Mike Lee as an industry associate, leader and friend. Mike gave me my first job in the industy and persistantly encouraged me, like so many, to increase this passion and creativity in wine through education. He did this and mentored not only employees, but with every interested consumer that visited and wanted to learn and with trade and should be mentioned in being one of the first in developing single vineyard designate wines helping to revolutionize the industry's education and distinguishing itself is what put Sonoma Vinters on map. His kind nature, passion for/of life Will surely be missed, but rembered by all.

  4. I will miss Mikes sense of humor and friendship.