The man credited with raising the quality of Sonoma County’s wine grapes, rootstock pioneer Richard Kunde, died Thursday at the age of 75 in Santa Rosa, California.
He and his late wife, Saralee McClelland Kunde, became pillars of the region’s agricultural community. They raised countless dollars for a variety of causes and charities from the 4-H club to the Sonoma County Fair, where the two first met.
Last year, Kunde gave a $1 million gift to the Sonoma County Fair Foundation to support agriculture education, with the goal of making it possible for more young people to try their hand at farming.
Born and raised in Glen Ellen, he was a member of the family behind the Kunde Family Winery. The winery was founded by his grandfather, Karl Louis Kunde, in 1904. In addition to growing wine grapes and making wine, the family has long raised Hereford cattle.
One of five children, Richard Kunde did not join the family winery. Instead, he graduated from U.C. Davis and pursued a career in improving grape vines. He bought a struggling nursery called Sonoma Grapevines in the early 1980s, offering cloned vines for the first time to area growers. He became the largest seller of grapevine rootstock in the country.
He and Saralee, the daughter of a California dairy farmer, eventually became grape growers themselves, farming a 265-acre slice of the Russian River Valley that they called Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard.
Kunde had been in declining health even before he lost his wife to cancer in 2014. He died early Thursday at Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center, The Press Democrat reported. He is survived by his daughter, Catie, his son, Matthew, and one granddaughter.
“He leaves behind a long legacy of advancing grape science, protecting farm life and inspiring Sonoma County youth to pursue careers in agriculture. Rich will be greatly missed by the entire grape growing community,” the Sonoma County Winegrowers said on their Facebook page.
A memorial service is scheduled for February 24 at the Saralee and Richard’s Barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.