Remembering Kenwood Vintner George MacLeod: ‘He made everyone feel special and loved’
Sitting on a veranda and gazing out over MacLeod Family Vineyards in Kenwood, aspiring vintner Danny Fay developed a very close, spirited relationship with local legend George MacLeod during their monthly meetings over lunch and conversation.
“He was the grandfather I never had or knew,” said Fay, who then was a grape sampler and lab tech for Kenwood Winery. “We would talk about business, life, successes and failures. One day, he told me, ‘Danny, you’re looking at the problem all wrong. You see, problems are just opportunities with overalls on.’ He was a serial optimist. Always looking at the glass half full, always refusing to go down with a gut punch, he was a fighter and a survivor, and did everything with love and affection.”
Fay, who now manages Sonoma Valley vineyards for Hill of Tara Wines and is general manager of Kanzler Vineyards in Sebastopol, joined more than 60 of MacLeod’s other friends and family members in Kenwood Park Plaza on Friday morning to dedicate a tree and a plaque embedded in a boulder to honor the trailblazing winegrower and vintner who passed away in 2018 at the age of 96.
MacLeod’s son, John MacLeod, along with his wife, Marjorie MacLeod, and their two children flew in from their home in Gig Harbor, Washington, especially for the tribute. Many of MacLeod’s longtime peers and other significant figures in the Sonoma Valley wine industry also were present, including Joe and Jamie Benziger, Mark and Pat Stornetta, and Chuy and Eppie Ordaz.
A dedication was set to take place shortly after MacLeod’s death, but it was delayed due to COVID-19 complications.
“We worked to determine the best way to pay tribute to George and loved the idea of dedicating a tree and plaque at the Kenwood plaza,” said Maureen Cottingham, former executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance (SVVGA) and current assistant manager of CamLam Farms, Inc., in Camarillo, California. “I departed from SVVGA in May 2021, but was bound and determined to finalize the project so that we could bring together our grower and vintner community to celebrate George with a beautiful dedication.”
Landscape architect Don MacNair helped dedication organizers pick out a beautiful oak tree and boulder, as well as the place to put the tribute.
“Mike Lee, co-founder of Kenwood Vineyards, also has a dedication in Kenwood Park Plaza and this is what inspired us to do the same for George,” Cottingham said. “Two pillars of the Sonoma Valley winemaking community, just across from each other at the park, will be remembered forever.”
After MacLeod purchased Indian Springs Ranch at 740 Lawndale Road in Kenwood in 1974, he began planting a vineyard, even though the terrain was full of rocks, requiring extensive work. MacLeod Family Vineyards emerged from the transformation and four generations of his family subsequently served the business. They tended to 30 acres of vineyards used to produce zinfandel, merlot and sauvignon blancs redolent of pineapple, apricot and citrus.
The family offered two-hour tours of the small winery by appointment only, with food and wine pairings included. The MacLeods created an intimate experience for guests by spinning family stories and sharing ripe figs off the trees.
MacLeod also was a founding member of SVVGA and helped to write its constitution. It became an official trade organization in 1992.
“George was a pioneer and an incredible storyteller,” Cottingham said. “In fact, he wrote his own book, ‘Journey to Harvest: How to Grow Great Grapes, Make Distinctive Wines & Live Forever,’ in which he overlays his own personal story with a year in the life of a grape vineyard. In the process, he teaches the reader some important insights into winegrowing, local history and family.”
She continued, “This quote from ‘Journey to Harvest’ is one of my favorites: ‘I’ve put so much of myself into this land that I’m now part of the terroir — and for that reason I will live forever. Life is a Journey in itself and Life itself is the Harvest.’”
Fay has plenty of stories to tell that capture McLeod’s gregarious personality and inimitable style. He met MacLeod in 2005 and six years later, started buying fruit from him to make wine.
“I didn’t have a tasting room, so George let me collaborate with him for vineyard tastings on weekends,” Fay said. “We would co-host four to eight people and share our wines. This was George’s wheelhouse. A natural storyteller, he made the vineyard tour his sanctuary and when he raised his talking stick to educate or humiliate, everyone listened. He captivated his audience. Stories of success and failure would flow with each glass of wine.