Kenwood's Mike Lee Dies at 66

Longtime Sonoma winemaker helped build one of California’s most popular wineries
May 4, 2011

Mike Lee, who helped found Sonoma’s Kenwood Vineyards and turned it into one of California’s most respected wineries, died May 2. Lee suffered a heart attack while playing golf in Santa Rosa. He was 66.

Born in 1944 in San Francisco, Lee was the youngest of five children. He attended the University of San Francisco and received a BA in business. In 1970, Lee, his father Martin Sr., brother Marty, and brother-in law John Sheela, bought the old Pagani Winery in Kenwood. They revitalized the dilapidated winery, modernizing the facility and winemaking technique at a time when jug wine was the norm in California and prunes were Sonoma’s biggest crop. The family renamed the winery Kenwood Vineyards and Mike became the winemaker, learning on the go while taking courses at the University of California Davis.

“I never met someone who loved what they did as much as Mike,” said his wife, Kaarin Lee. “He lived life to the fullest and never passed up an opportunity to celebrate.”

As the wine quality improved, the winery added to their assortment of wines, from Chardonnay to Zinfandel. But Kenwood first became known for its Sauvignon Blanc, Lee's favorite grape, and later for its Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine combined Marty’s love for art and Mike’s selections of the winery’s best Cabernet grapes each vintage. They commissioned leading artists to design the labels, à la Mouton-Rothschild, and also featured works by the likes of Van Gogh and Alexander Calder.

“We were all the young turks on the scene,” said Richard Arrowood, who met Lee in 1973 while working as head winemaker at Chateau St. Jean. Arrowood and Lee were early members of the Sonoma Valley Vintners association and helped establish the Sonoma Valley AVA. “When I say he was a great human being it’s really an understatement.”

The family grew the Kenwood brand into one of Sonoma's top 15 wineries, selling roughly 225,000 cases in 1993. And Lee hired many young assistants who are now leading winemakers in the region. In 1996, Gary Heck, owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars, purchased a 50 percent share in the winery and a few years later became the sole owner. Lee stayed on as winemaker until 2003. After leaving, he became winemaker at Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County.

Lee is survived by his wife, Kaarin, and his two daughters, Britt and Katherine.

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