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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.

“At 90 years young, George had a wit and character that everyone looked up to. He would swoon the skirt off a 25-year-old and make your grandmother blush in the same sentence. He was a true gentleman farmer, connected to the land and the people.”

Fay recalled a time when MacLeod held a large gathering to celebrate the harvest of his sauvignon blanc grapes.

“He brought about 80 hamburgers and hot dogs, fired up his barbecue under an oak tree and cooked burgers for everyone, and I mean everyone—the lab staff, cellar staff, tasting room staff, bottling line staff and hospitality and executive teams,” Fay said. ”Hell, I think even the UPS driver and some tasting room guests that showed up randomly got a hamburger. That was George. He made everyone feel special and loved to share his food, wine and conversation with anyone who would listen.”

MacLeod’s generosity extended well beyond his acres of vineyards. Fay recalls a time when MacLeod accepted an invitation to visit the family of one of his workers, Juan Mendoza, in a small village south of Guadalajara, Mexico. MacLeod and friend Bob McDonald, then in their mid-70s, hopped on a plane to Michoacan and then took a bus to the village.

“Juan had six children, and the youngest was in junior high at the time,” Fay said. “George and Bob brought down a collection of presents, mostly school supplies and fabrics for dresses and clothing. After meeting Juan’s family and children, both George and Bob extended a life-changing proposition: They decided to pay for the children’s high school tuition and said that if they did well in school, they would then pay for their college tuition.

“Fast forward to two decades later, and George, Juan and Bob are responsible for two CPAs, one preschool teacher with an advanced degree in education and a Ph.D. in rare earth metals. Considering Juan had no formal education and his wife, Angelica, attended only two years of elementary school, this is a rare and beautiful example of what is possible with the help of selfless people like George MacLeod.”

In 2015, the SVVGA featured MacLeod and other prominent vintners in an ambitious project aimed at capturing the oral history of Sonoma Valley wine’s modern era. Dubbed Sonoma Valley Legends, it is a video series featuring six local wine icons in three one-on-one conversational pairings. Filmed entirely at the historic Hanzell Winery, the three conversational videos were released as a series, with the first video featuring George MacLeod in conversation with Glen Ellen vintner Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery. The video series can be viewed at sonomavalleywine.com.

Shortly after MacLeod passed away, his family sold its 48 acres of vineyards, barn, ranch and equipment to Graeme and Katie Currie of Kentwood, California, for $5.3 million in 2020.

“The Currys plan to continue growing grapes, but also want to build their own structures to live in and are working on those permits as we speak,” John MacLeod said. “Graeme used to work with George at Monsanto some 60 years ago!

“At this time, I don’t think they are planning to make their own wine, but they may have dreams.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com

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