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The legacy of Geyserville vintner Kathleen Kelley Young

Kathleen Kelley Young had been on her way to a career in medicine when she took a detour that led her, eventually, to Wine Country, where she left an indelible impression.

Young died last month after battling colon cancer for several years. Family and those who knew her in the wine industry remember her as an entrepreneur with curiosity and a zest for life who was deeply involved with the winemaking community.

“Our mother was a fighter,” daughter Madeline Stewart said. “She loved life, every moment of it, and she was determined to get as much out of life every day as she could.”

Fellow vintners and family members laud the 63-year-old of Geyserville for her indomitable spirit, her grace and her role in helping Wine Country evolve.

“Kathleen’s legacy in the Alexander Valley Wine Growers association shows how she had a mission to follow the improvements not only in the Alexander Valley, but in the wine industry,” said Vicky Robinson, the former executive director of the Alexander Valley Wine Growers.

Young was active with the association between 2004 and 2007, helping the board track finances.

“She was very detailed when it came to the expenditures and guidelines for the Taste of the Valley, numerous lunches and dinners such as the Harvest Barrel Tasting and the grower seminars and barbecues,” Robinson said.

Young’s foray into the wine world began in 1996 when she joined the esteemed Robert Young Vineyards in Alexander Valley as an accountant. She fell in love with Vineyard Manager and CEO Jim Young and married him in 2000. Jim said the entrepreneurial Kathleen was the brains behind the Kelley & Young brand they launched in 2005.

The boutique winery offers a dozen varietals and produces roughly 1,500 cases a year. It sources its grapes from the Robert Young Vineyards, farmed by the Youngs since 1851. The grapes are grown on the 450-acre ranch nestled in the Mayacamas Mountain range, and 95% are sold to large wineries on the North Coast like Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood, Simi Winery in Healdsburg and Duckhorn in St. Helena.

“Kathleen knew I had gone to UC Davis and had made wine at home after college, but had not made wine in a number of years,” Jim said. “She encouraged me to make a small amount in 2000 and that sparked her interest.”

The co-vintners split the duties, with Jim focusing on production while Kathleen tackled marketing, accounting and sales.

“At various stages of the wines’ development, we tasted together and would eventually agree on any necessary adjustments,” he said.

What made Kathleen a great partner, Jim said, “was her general exuberance for life and everything in it.”

The grower/vintner said Kathleen would have been a brilliant contestant on the “Jeopardy!” quiz show.

“She had a keen interest in everything,” he said. “She was a crossword puzzle and game aficionado, and she could even say the alphabet backward. We would watch ‘Jeopardy!’ almost every night and she could remember just about everything.”

Growing up in the small town of Madison, Maine, Kathleen migrated west to attend San Francisco State as a premed student. But she never went to medical school, opting instead for a more colorful career. Before she became a vintner she held various jobs, including mortician’s assistant, motorcycle saleswoman, egg farmer and dog breeder.

Kathleen added innkeeper to that list in 2015 when she and Jim opened their Wine Garden Inn in Cloverdale. Today Stewart serves as chef and co-hostess.

“I was so lucky to work alongside my mom for over five years,” Stewart, 28, said. “I watched her through many difficult moments, but nothing compared with her fight against cancer and the way she carried herself every day, greeting guests, engaging in getting to know customers, inn guests, etc., hosting events and being part of the community.”

The family is planning an event to celebrate Kathleen’s life, hopefully in the fall when everyone can gather safely. For now, the family has set up the Kathleen Rose Fund with the American Cancer Society, where people can make donations to advance colon cancer research at Cancer.org/KathleenYoung.

“There are so many ways my mother inspired me,” daughter Courtney Cuberly, 34, said. “She always stayed positive, no matter the situation. ... She had a passion for life.”

Stewart said because her mother grew up in New England, she saw the North Coast Wine Country with fresh eyes.

Her goal was to promote Sonoma County — the wine, the food and the arts,” Stewart said. “She wanted everyone to know how special Sonoma County was and how much it has to offer.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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