Richard Kunde, champion of Sonoma County wine, agriculture, dies at 75

A leading grapevine rootstock seller, Richard Kunde helped launch Sonoma County wines onto the world stage and, with his late wife, was a foremost benefactor of local agriculture and related youth groups.|

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.”

Rich Kunde became the largest single donor to the education and events building at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, conceived following his wife’s death in January of 2014.

Attorney Pat Emery was a major player in the community effort that raised $3 million for that structure, dubbed Saralee and Richard’s Barn. He said Rich Kunde was truly “one of a kind.”

“His generosity and love of others overflowed in everything he did,” Emery said.

Kunde, he added, was a leader of the small movement that “pushed Sonoma County to the top of the wine world, starting in the late ’70s and the ’80s.

“His propagation of innovative and high-quality vines, and his unceasing promotion of local grapes and wine, propelled Sonoma County onto the world’s stage in both production and prestige,” Emery said.

When he was inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame in 2008, Kunde said in an interview, “Luther Burbank said Sonoma County is the chosen spot of all the earth, and I couldn’t agree more.

“A place as beautiful and agriculturally diverse as Sonoma County must be preserved forever. My mission has been to keep agriculture strong and farmland in production for generations to come.”

Kunde was born Sept. 6, 1942, to Arthur “Big Boy” and Honey Kunde, who raised Hereford cattle and cabernet sauvignon grapes at the family’s ranch near Glen Ellen. The land was settled in 1904 by Kunde’s grandfather, German immigrant Louis Kunde.

“My parents always taught us to put our heart into whatever we did,” Kunde once told an interviewer. “Then when I got to UC Davis, my professors said only work at what you really love to do.”

He found that love in producing better grapes by improving vines. Sonoma Grapevines was a nursery in bankruptcy when he bought it amid a boom in the popularity of white wines in the early 1980s.

“He made it an industry leader almost immediately,” said Pratt, his friend and former Sonoma Grapevines employee. Kunde’s innovations as a wine-grape nurseryman included becoming one of the first to offer for sale cloned vines. Pratt remembers when Kunde began to court former Two Rock dairy girl Saralee McClelland. What a pair they made, Pratt and several others said.

The couple succeeded greatly as nursery proprietors, then as grape growers.

Unparalleled as boosters of the county fair, the Harvest Fair, 4-H and FFA, they made themselves the first couple of Sonoma County agriculture.

“They were the couple people looked to for advice and inspiration. They really made a lot of people’s lives better,” said Pratt.

Mickelson, whose late father, Bob Kunde, was one of Rich Kunde’s four siblings, said her uncle was happy to let Saralee command the spotlight and to do whatever was necessary to help her achieve her aspirations for Sonoma County and local agriculture.

“She was the shining star and he was the one behind her who made it happen,” Mickelson said.

“It’s sad to see the last of that generation,” Mickelson said. With her uncle’s death, the entire third generation of the Kunde family in Sonoma County is now gone.

“I think of him and I smile, because he was a good man,” she said.

Rich Kunde received many honors over the years for his leadership and philanthropy. He seemed proudest that, in 2008, he received the Award of Distinction from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, where he’d earned degrees in viticulture and horticulture.

Said Tim Tesconi, his friend for 50-plus years and the former Press Democrat farm writer and executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, “Like food and wine, Richard and Saralee defined Sonoma County agriculture. Over the past half century, they did more than anyone else to elevate Sonoma County agriculture and enhance its future by cultivating the next generation of farmers and community leaders.”

Kunde is survived by his son, Matthew Kunde, and his daughter, Catherine “Catie” Kunde, both of Windsor, and by a granddaughter and many nieces, nephews and cousins.

A celebration of Kunde’s life will be held at 1 p.m. on Feb. 24 at Saralee and Richard’s Barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Memorial contributions are suggested to the Sonoma County Fair Foundation/Saralee and Richard’s Barn, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa 95404, or the Youth Ag & Leadership Foundation of Sonoma County, P.O. Box 1283, Rohnert Park 94927.

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