Richard Kunde, the generous and sociable scion of pioneering Valley of the Moon ranchers who became the nation’s largest seller of grapevine rootstock and who was a passionate promoter of Sonoma County grapes and wine, propelling both onto the world stage, died Thursday in Santa Rosa at age 75.
He and his wife, the late Saralee McClelland Kunde, were ubiquitous champions of local agriculture, their advocacy spanning decades as the county transitioned from predominantly milk to wine.
Kunde was renowned for helping introduce to the United States the European concept of appellations or geographic viticulture regions — and for his parties, many hosted on the beautifully landscaped vineyard estate that he and his wife created off River Road north of Santa Rosa.
“He had a zest for life. He didn’t want to let go,” said close friend and fellow grapevine nurseryman Jim Pratt of Santa Rosa.
He’d been in declining health since before he lost his wife to cancer four years ago and died early Thursday at Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center.
Pratt worked for Kunde more than 30 years ago at Sonoma Grapevines, a struggling little Santa Rosa enterprise when Kunde purchased it in 1982.
Working with enologists at his alma mater, UC Davis, Kunde applied science and passion to developing and cloning rootstock that produced superior grapes sought by growers throughout the state and beyond.
“He was a going concern, there’s no question about it,” said niece Marcia Mickelson, an executive with Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. “He’s one of the people who put Sonoma County on the map when it comes to viticulture.”
Kunde, who was not involved in the historic Kenwood winery, created, with his wife, one of the county’s most alluring vineyards and outdoors event spaces. Located on Slusser Road not far from the county airport, they called the 265-acre estate Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard. The Kundes sold the property in 2012 to Jackson Family Wines and it now serves as the wine-tasting home for the company’s La Crema brand, while remaining a favorite community gathering place.
Down to earth, gracious and enormously proud of Sonoma County agriculture, the Kundes were acclaimed for all they did to promote and protect farm life and to inspire, encourage and support children active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America.
“Rich and Saralee’s legacy is unmatched,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, a longtime friend of the couple who witnessed many of their gifts to the community.
McGuire said that through Rich Kunde’s groundbreaking work on American Viticulture Areas, or grape-growing regions, he protected “Sonoma County’s most precious fruit, the wine grape.”
AVAs — Sonoma County now has 18 encompassing a wide range of geographies and microclimates — allow growers and wineries to highlight the unique qualities of their grapes and to protect the names of their regions.
McGuire said the legacy of the Kundes includes all they did for decades to mentor and motivate young people interested in careers in local agriculture, and to ensure that “they had all the tools they need to survive.” Sometimes at benefit auctions, Rich Kunde would place the highest bid, then bid against himself.
“He and Saralee were true greats,” McGuire. “Sonoma County won’t be the same.”