Saralee McClelland Kunde dies at 66

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."

Kunde often attributed her love of agriculture and her can-do spirit to her late Irish-American parents, Robert and Lillian "Sweet Lil" McClelland.

In 1938, the couple bought a milk route in Marin County and subsequently entered the dairy business, hand-milking 18 brown Swiss cows. In 1964, Bob and Lil McClelland purchased a ranch in the Two Rock area west of Petaluma and created the dairy that today is operated by son George McClelland and his family.

Born in Marin, Saralee hurled herself into the dairy operation and into 4-H, raising Holsteins and showing them at local fairs.

As a young woman, she went to work in the Sonoma County Fair's premium office, and in 1980 was promoted to overseeing the prize-paying competitions and junior livestock auction. She would remain a creative force at the fair for the rest of her life.

There she met her husband, Richard Kunde, a member of the Kunde family of grape growers and winemakers that set roots in Kenwood more than 100 years ago. They married in 1982.

For a time, Saralee Kunde grew organic produce and sold a variety of Sonoma County products at The Farmery, located on River Road near Fulton.

The Kundes became wine-grape growers on the 265-acre vineyard estate they created on Slusser Road, between River Road and the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. The centerpiece of the estate, known as "Richard's Grove and Saralee's Vineyard," became the private park they created and shared generously with the community. Thousands of people raised millions of dollars in the grove they created.

Saralee Kunde displayed in her vineyard office a sign labeled, "Motto to Live By." It proclaimed:

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, 'WHOO HOO, what a ride!'."

The Kundes flourished as wine grape growers. Their grapes sold to 60 wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties and to others as far flung as North Carolina's Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

As she delivered her last load of grapes for the 2012 harvest, Saralee Kunde was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The Kundes sold the Slusser Road estate to Jackson Family Wines but Kunde wouldn't think of leaving the Russian River Valley, which she helped establish as a premier wine region.

Prior to accepting induction into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau's Hall of Fame last July, she said in an interview, "I have been lucky because I loved everything I have ever done.

"It never seemed like a job because I was having so much fun doing it."

Friend Gaye LeBaron, the Press Democrat columnist, said it's astonishing what Kunde did in her 66 years.

"She started young. She became important young," LeBaron said. "Looking at Saralee's life, she should be 90 years old.

"She was just indefatigable. The rest of us would say, 'Wouldn't it be nice if.' Saralee would say, 'It would be great, so let's do it'."

One of Kunde's oldest friends was Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Farm Bureau. As kids, they showed cattle together at the county fair.

"It will be hard to imagine Sonoma County without Saralee," Tesconi said. "She was like the Pied Piper, always leading us to do what was right, from building the 4-H Center to planting a zillion daffodils along Wine Country back roads.

"Over the last 50 years, she did more to promote Sonoma County agriculture than anyone I know. Oh, how we are going to miss her."

In addition to her husband in Windsor, Kunde is survived by her children, Matt Kunde and Catherine "Catie" Kunde, also of Windsor; sister Rebecca Wade of Santa Rosa and brother George McClelland of Petaluma.

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