Saralee McClelland Kunde, a dairy ranchers' daughter who became a grower of prized wine grapes and an irresistible force for the celebration of Sonoma County agriculture, died Sunday.
Revered as a superstar by others who work to promote the county's grapes, wines, milk and other bounty, and to preserve its ranch- and farmlands, Kunde had been grappling with cancer since the fall of 2012. She was 66.
She championed the Sonoma County Harvest Fair since its inception and was key to the Select Sonoma County marketing campaign and the Russian River Valley Winegrowers.
"She has been such a force. For me, Saralee is an icon," Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire said. "When you think of agriculture in Sonoma County, you think of Saralee. It was in her blood."
Kunde was also a devoted fancier of floppy brimmed garden-party hats. She chose a bright orange one for the 1,100-guest Sonoma County Farm Bureau "Love of the Land" cookout last July that inducted her into the organization's Hall of Fame.
That was merely the latest of a multitude of prestigious honors bestowed on Kunde by a grateful community.
She was a generous philanthropist who rallied others to contribute to myriad Sonoma County causes, among them the 4-H Center in Rohnert Park. And she was the county's Daffodil Queen, purchasing hundreds of thousands of bulbs and doling them to anyone who pledged to plant them alongside local highways and roads.
She and her husband, Richard Kunde, made a splendid private park of a scrubby parcel on Slusser Road near the county airport and for years invited local organizations to host benefit events beneath its oaks.
Tireless and innovative, Kunde constantly enacted strategies to promote the Harvest Fair and the Sonoma County Fair, to challenge and inspire youth involved in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, fortify cooperation among grape growers and other producers, and introduce the general public to the farm experience.
Dan Benedetti, a longtime friend and the chairman of Clover Stornetta Farms, said the power of Kunde's commitment to agriculture in Sonoma County fueled many efforts to unite ranchers and farmers and to propel their products into national markets.
"That was her strength," said Benedetti, "to bring the force of Sonoma County agricultural products to bear to the rest of the United States."
"That was her undying legacy," he said. "There is not any facet of agriculture in this county that she didn't and wouldn't support."
He said he has long believed that as deeply as his friend the former dairy girl became involved in wine grapes, "her first love was still the cows."
Another old friend and colleague, Nick Frey, former president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said, "No one fully comprehends what she's done."
"Where Saralee was involved," Frey said, "things happened."
Ben Stone, who heads the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, described her as a formidable force in uniting the diverse and often conflicting members of the agricultural community.
"She just wanted everyone to be included and successful," he said.
He chuckled at the thought of how often he has applied to Kunde the slogan from the old TV commercials for the frozen and packaged bakery items that shared her name.
"It was true," he said. "Nobody didn't like Saralee."
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here