For the last six years, Mike Lee had been making wine for Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County.
For Lee, the job was a case of going back to his roots. He had started out as a “small winemaker,” but his skills in the cellar seemed to dictate growth.
That was the story of his tenure at Kenwood Vineyards, which he founded in 1970 with family members, in-laws and a silent partner. The group took over the old Pagani Brothers Winery in the Sonoma County town of Kenwood, and transformed it from a manufacturer of bulk wine into a quality-focused purveyor of varietal bottlings.
That decision–to emphasize quality over quantity–was shared by a small group of other vintners, and helped put Sonoma County on the world wine map.
I met Lee at a winery event in the late 1980s, and was immediately struck by his engaging personality. This was a man who believed in what he was doing, and believed in his wines.
“Anybody can make average wine,” he told me that day. “But average is boring. We may never be thought of like a First Growth Bordeaux, but I want people to think ‘quality’ when they think of Kenwood Vineyards.”
Kenwood’s so-called “table wines” were a notch above other such bottlings, but it was a special bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon that really cemented the winery’s reputation as an estate that took wine seriously. The “Artist Series” Cabernet has become collectible not only because of its wonderful labels from iconic and cutting-edge painters, but also because of the wonderful wine inside the bottle.
Lee and his partners sold Kenwood just before the turn of the millennium, by which time it was consistently making well over 200,000 cases of wines annually. Lee stuck around as the head winemaker for another five years, took some time off, then decided to re-visit his roots with the gig at Patianna.
Sadly, Lee passed away recently at age 66. He was playing golf when he suffered a heart attack.
I’ll remember him for his contribution to Sonoma County winemaking, including the introduction of the Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon. But, mainly, I’ll remember him for his big smile and engaging personality.
Mike Lee was a man who truly loved to make wine.