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The North Coast wine community lost a visionary winemaker this week with the death of Mike Lee, co-founder of Kenwood Vineyards.

Lee was among a handful of Sonoma County vintners who nearly 40 years ago began reshaping the American wine industry by focusing on producing finely-crafted premium wines — an endeavor that ultimately led to an explosion of prestige and wealth for North Coast farmers and winemakers.

Lee, who has been a gregarious presence in the wine industry since he and three family members bought an old Kenwood jug winery in 1970, died Monday after suffering a heart attack while playing golf at Fountaingrove Golf and Athletic Club in Santa Rosa. He was 66.

He leaves a legacy as a master vintner who hired and trained dozens of North Coast winemakers, and as a visionary who helped establish Sonoma County's reputation as a premier grape-growing region.

"He was one of the members of the renaissance who brought branded wine to Sonoma County," said Jan Mettler, a friend and spokeswoman for Lee's wife, Kaarin, and their two daughters, Britt, 27, and Katherine, 24.

In the mid 1970s, a time when the county was better known for its bulk wine, Lee worked with about a dozen other winemakers to establish Sonoma Valley as one of the nation's first American Viticultural Areas, recognizing its unique and now highly-regarded climate for grape growing.

"He was part of the original group," said Richard Arrowood, who met Lee in 1973 while working as head winemaker for Chateau St. Jean. "Mike was an extremely talented winemaker."

Lee, a San Francisco native, partnered with his father, brother, brother-in-law, and a silent investor in 1970 to purchase the old Pagani Brothers Winery on a hillside east of Highway 12 in Kenwood. He was the winemaker, his brother Marty Lee handled the sales and his brother-in-law John Sheela was president.

At the time, the largest cash crop in Sonoma County was prunes — not its now-famous wine grapes — and Kenwood's new owners found it difficult to be taken seriously.

"We had a hell of a time convincing people to sell us grapes, because they would look at us and say, &‘Who are these city slickers?' But that changed," Lee said in a 1993 interview with The Press Democrat.

"We really landed on our feet," he said.

They began focusing on making high-quality wine, starting with 1,000 cases they sold from the trunk of a car on Santa Rosa street corners. The trio grew the Kenwood brand into one of Sonoma County's top 15 largest wineries, selling an estimated 225,000 cases in 1993.

"The first thing they did was buy the first oak barrels that winery had ever seen," said Mark Stupich, who Lee hired in 1975 to work as a "cellar rat."

Stupich, who is now a winemaker at Kenwood, said their strategy paid off when the American appetite for California premium wines boomed after the famed Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when North Coast wines beat out French vintages in a blind taste test.

"They were at the right place at the right time, and then made all the right moves," Stupich said.

They sold the winery to Gary Heck, owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars, for $50 million in two stages, in 1996 and 1998.

Lee remained as Kenwood winemaker until 2003.

"He was amazing, kind and thoughtful," said Heidi von der Mehden, winemaker at Arrowood Winery who considers Lee her mentor. "He gave me my first job in the wine industry in 2000, and taught me an amazing amount."

Charlie Tolbert, who met Lee in 1972 and now is the associate winemaker at Amapola Creek winery in Glen Ellen, said Lee helped many people get into the business.

"If you make a family tree of who he hired, you'd see his branches go out nearly everywhere," he said. "He was just one of those people who loved other people."

Lee spent his final six years as winemaker for Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County.

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