Mike Lee, co-founder and former co-owner of Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma Valley who had recently been making the wines at Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County’s Hopland, died of a heart attack on May 2, doing one of the things he loved most—playing golf. He was 66 years old.
He had just celebrated his 41st harvest last fall, telling his family (wife Kaarin and daughters Britt, 27, and Katherine, 24) this past Easter, “I have the perfect job, I love what I do and I spend just the right amount of time doing it.”
“We grew up with a man who loved going to work every day,” said his daughter Britt.
Lee started making wine at Kenwood in 1970 after he, his father, brother Marty and brother-in-law John Sheela together purchased the old Pagani Winery in the town of Kenwood.
He learned hands-on how to make wine, deepening his knowledge through short courses at U.C. Davis. By the mid-1980s, Kenwood was making more than 100,000 cases of wine, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay would soon follow.
After attending a Fetzer seminar in the mid-1980s, Lee committed himself to sustainable farming, eventually cultivating 270 acres of certified organic grapes at Kenwood. The winery was sold in 1997 to Gary Heck of Korbel, though Lee stayed on until 2003.
Lee, still at Kenwood, was among the first to take notice of Patianna Organic Vineyard, which Patti Fetzer launched in 2003; The vineyard had been certified organic in 1993. Lee started buying the grapes for his own wines.
Fetzer’s husband K.C. Burke made the first Patianna wines beginning in 2003. But he and friends Tom Hobart and Karl Esposti died in a single-engine plane crash near Fresno in 2005, on their way to Arizona to play golf. Waiting for them was Lee.
Fetzer vowed to carry on, enlisting Lee, her friend for over three decades, to make the wines.
“When he released the 2007 Patianna Sauvignon Blanc,” Lee said. “That it was one of the finest wines I’ve made in my 39 years as a winemaker."