King of the castle
The hard work and good life of Steve Ledson
Amy and Steve Ledson
We are sitting at the counter of Superburger on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa.
It's maybe not the venue you'd expect for lunch with a multimillionare tycoon who owns half a nearby city block, two wineries, a construction company, several homes, a Mendocino ranch, a luxury hotel, a philanthropic foundation and his very own castle.
I'm having a medium-rare burger, he's having a cheeseburger, a cup of chili and a vanilla shake.
The calories don't seem to concern him and there's no telltale roll beneath the crisp white T-shirt he's wearing with the blue jeans that almost look ironed.
There's an immaculately trimmed moustache on his upper lip and not a hair is out of place on his carefully groomed head. He's medium height with the taut body of a guy who either works with his hands, or works out, or both. He looks more like a cowboy than a businessman, and that's an image he probably prefers.His eyes are blue, intense, penetrating. He's not exactly imposing but when he walks into a room you notice. It's called presence.
Outside on the curb is the big diesel, a Ford F350 pickup protected by his patient guard dog, a Pomeranian named Missy who might weigh five pounds.
In the back of the truck is a large tank of diesel fuel and a four-wheel Honda ATV.
Halfway through the burgers his iPhone rings and the screen flashes what looks like a SportsCenter graphic. It's Orlando Cepeda. The Orlando Cepeda, Hall of Famer and former baseball Giant.
"Orlando," he says, "how are you buddy?"
Welcome to the world of Steve Ledson, King of the Castle.
That iPhone is the conduit to a universe of activity that stretches conventional boundaries, and because he has his fingers, almost literally, in so many pies, Steve Ledson's world is both very visible and increasingly hard to ignore.
It includes one of Santa Rosa's historic landmarks just down the street from Superburger, the art deco Rosenberg department store building, housing a Barnes & Noble and Ledson's executive offices. The building and half the block are his, and so is the parking lot in back where a single orange cone guards his personal parking space. (You can actually see it-the cone-on Google Earth.)
Go back down Highway 12 toward Glen Ellen and you'll pass part of his heritage, 1,600 acres that were once a family ranch and now are parts of Oakmont and Annadel State Park. Before you reach Kenwood you'll be accosted by the Castle, a gabled, turreted, multichimneyed, 16,000-square-foot Gothic/Normandy-style edifice that, however it strikes you, cannot be ignored.
Some people see a thing of beauty, others see the Adams family peering through the windows. But upward of 100,000 people visit it every year and almost everyone sees something fascinating, provocative, compelling and, of course, big. Even before it was finished people lined the drive to look at it. It was going to be the Ledson Dream House but then reality registered, the Castle became too public a place to be a family home and so, following a few use permit U-turns, it morphed into the Ledson Winery with what are arguably the most distinctive tasting rooms in the Valley. Steve designed the whole thing, partly in his sleep.
Drive into Sonoma, cruise around the Plaza, head for the historic Sebastiani Theatre, and you'll find nearby the historic-looking Ledson Hotel, a six-year-old boutique hostelry that could have been built in the 1800s. Conde Nast Traveler called it one of the world's top 100 hotels within weeks of its opening.
Five blocks away is Armstrong Estates, one of Sonoma's newest and most exclusive neighborhoods, big houses with real porches on wide streets, organized around a stunning, three-acre Victorian estate Ledson restored after a decade of effort to acquire the property.
But that's only part of the Ledson empire. There's another winery and a 5,500-acre ranch in Mendocino County, a houseboat on Trinity Lake, a planned 26-home subdivision on West MacArthur and, lest we forget, the latest HGTV "Dream House," an elegant Victorian he sketched at his kitchen table in a couple of hours that more than 4,000 people had toured by the time the TV drawing closed, raising $85,000 for charity.
It's a lot of stuff, an impressive portfolio, and inevitably it triggers talk. Some people who don't know him speculate on the source of Ledson's wealth, complain about the scale of his ambition, wonder how he manages to do so consistently well. There are stories, rumors, fragments of fantasy that float about the Valley bearing his name. Try to corner them, pin them down, unwrap the rumors, and they drift away like smoke.
But talk to some of the people who do know him, who have worked for him-and therefore beside him-and they describe an intense, focused, driven, demanding, obsessed-with-detail, usually right, painstakingly fair, frequently generous, enormously hard-working guy who, save for all those previous qualities and a lot more money, is pretty much just like them. He gets his boots muddy and his hands dirty, he drives the trucks and the tractors, and if somebody has to grade the pad for a new house, as often as not it's Steve who climbs up and runs the Cat.
Spend a day with him, in and out of the cab of that big Ford pickup, and you struggle to understand how he keeps track of it all-the construction jobs, the right harvest time for each vineyard, when to crush which block, where to move which truck or tractor to which property for which job. The pieces of his life pile up around you like the lumber and the bricks and the shingles at a Ledson construction site. And after a day at his side it's pretty clear how he got rich. He did it the old-fashioned way-he worked his butt off.
How he manages the details without an entourage of underlings is baffling, but not to Steve. "It seems like I can see 360 degrees," he says. "I see thousands of things at one time. It's like I put it in a little chip in my brain."
Another part of the success equation is a three-letter word-fun. Jerry Padilla was a Napa Valley cellar rat when Steve hired him over the phone. Now he's an assistant to the winemaker, works on the blends and markets the wine to a list of preferred customers from Ledson's 15,000-member wine club. "It's been a fun ride, really fun," says Padilla. "The quality of the winemaking, the team- building. There's a lot of high energy. And then there's Steve. He's a visionary."
For further understanding, here's a little history.
Steve Ledson was born in 1952, grew up on a Sonoma Valley ranch and built his first house at the age of five. Really. It was a multilevel, prune-crate castle. Unfortunately, he built it in front of the barn door, his father had to tear it down and young Steve learned-as that old saw says-the first three lessons in real estate: location, location, location.
He was driving a tractor and a hay baler the same year, standing on the clutch with both feet to disengage the gear shift, and in the ninth grade he owned 52 head of cattle that he grazed on leased land around Sugarloaf Mountain.
That in itself tells you more than a Myers-Briggs personality test. A ninth grade cattle rancher bespeaks a certain intensity of purpose. Ask yourself what you were doing in the ninth grade and the odds are it wasn't raising steers. Young Steve also learned how to rebuild the engines of that tractor and a pickup truck almost before he was old enough to legally drive, and although he says that during his entire childhood his father never gave him more than $12, his dad did give him the hay baler, a mower and a rake, which helped him earn enough money so that by the time he was a student at Santa Rosa High he was the only kid in school with his own Chevy Corvette. (Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him how to fish....)
When he was 20 he owned his own drywall business, with more than 100 employees, and built his first (real) house. He was a partner in his own construction company by the time he was 21. He says he got good grades but never graduated from high school. There seems to have been some rowdiness, some, shall we say, points of contention with the administration. Besides, he was already too busy ranching and building and making a life. And, he says, his dad told him, "You don't need any more school."
Clearly his father was right, although Ledson admits a little sheepishly he pretty much can't spell worth a damn.
He is now 56 years old, divorced, with two grown children, he water-skis barefoot, continues to build exquisitely detailed homes, makes 77 varieties of outstanding wine, surrounds himself with the minutia of family history and plans to get married, for the second time, this summer. (More about that in a minute.)
He says he has more than 3,000 historic family photos, which sounds like a lot until you learn his family tree goes back five generations in Sonoma County. The walls of that immaculate, 7,400-square-foot Victorian he restored and occupies in the center of Armstrong Estates are festooned with large, historical photos in virtually every room. And in most of those rooms there is at least one large family portrait that disappears at the push of a button revealing a recessed, thoroughly modern, flat-screen TV.
In the basement there's a gym with weight racks, treadmills and another TV. Around the corner is a wine cellar the size of my living room, and when I ask how many bottles we're looking at, he turns to Amy Ackerman, his accountant, administrator, I-T consultant, biking buddy and soon-to-be wife. "Find out, will you sweetheart?"
Amy, the I-T whiz, has Steve's whole life in her laptop.
Later, back in the F350, the iPhone rings. It's Amy with the answer to my inconsequential question. "It's 420 cases," she says over the truck's built-in speaker phone. I do the math in my head. It comes to more than 5,000 bottles.
Ledson speaks of life on his childhood ranch as a kind of Eden. The concept of family included everyone who worked there or came to visit. There was a lot of hard work and hard play. His father was demanding but not harsh, firm but fair, although a story Steve tells leaves the listener a little unsettled.
While he was still five (it must have been a busy year) he and his father took a Christmas-time hike up Adobe Canyon along Bear Creek. Steve slipped, fell 30 feet into the rain-swollen flume and caromed a quarter-mile downstream, tumbling over rocks before his father could pluck him out. His father, Steve says, told him to "be a man" and walk home. But once they got there Steve collapsed into a coma and was hospitalized for a month with multiple skull fractures.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and Steve Ledson has built on his strengths.
But while Ledson is a true poster boy for the American Dream, he's not necessarily an easy guy to know. Behind those big blues and the expensive sunglasses that often shield them, there is a very busy mind that is constantly listening, evaluating, measuring, calculating, filing and remembering information. There doesn't seem to be a rest mode. Lance Armstrong comes to mind, and it makes you wonder if a mind like that ever sleeps. On the surface, at least, he doesn't feel like the kind of guy who's going to share the deepest secrets of his soul unless, maybe, your name is Amy.
Steve hired her when he bought the Rosenberg building, and she had worked there about a year when he pulled up one day on his Harley and she asked him, "Aren't you ever going to take me for a ride?"
So he did, and they've been riding together more or less ever since. The wedding is set for July 25.
We're having another lunch, this time in Kenwood, and I ask Amy about Steve's work schedule. "Oh, it's about 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week," she says matter-of-factly. "It's constant."
Amy is 30-something, Steve has more than 20 years on her, but they're clearly a comfortable fit. "Amy," he asks, "why do we get along?"
She thinks about it. "It's probably the way I was brought up. Like you. I was brought up to work. My family didn't have a lot of money."
That prompts an Amy story. "How about the time you wrecked your truck?" he says. "Spun it out in the school parking lot and hit a curb. The frame was bent. You did the repair work herself."
"I couldn't afford not to," she says.
Imbedded in that anecdote is a big chunk of Ledson truth. There's nothing you can't do with enough effort, enough imagination and a good strong foundation.
Steve's big on foundations, which leads him to the Harmony Foundation, a non-profit he founded and funds to benefit children in need. He has somehow enlisted a slate of impressive notables, including 49er Dwight Clark, musician Michael McDonald and actor Jeff Bridges. All have contributed special commemorative wines, blended with Steve's help, to be auctioned and sold to benefit kids.
He's closing on a commemorative bottle with Orlando Cepeda, and another with Gene Cernan, the Apollo astronaut who was the last man to walk on the moon.
It's a nice life, building meticulously crafted homes and meticulously crafted wine, hanging out with Cepeda and Bridges and Cernan. And Steve Ledson knows it.
"I worked hard for everything I've got. I have to work for it. And now, I'm emotionally sound, physically sound, financially sound. I don't need anything."
Except, of course, Amy.
From the spring 2009 issue of SONOMA