By Tim Tesconi
Like Cher and Madonna, she is known by a singular name. Say Saralee in Sonoma County and everyone knows it’s Saralee Marin McClelland Kunde.
The 65-year-old agricultural activist also is known as the Unsinkable Saralee and the Godmother of Good Causes, especially if they relate to agriculture, farm youth and the Sonoma County Fair. She has been making a difference in Sonoma County since the days she wore her green and white 4-H uniform and showed Holstein dairy cows at local fairs, inspiring others to preserve and perpetuate the farms and ranches that define Sonoma County and its rich agricultural heritage
Then, she moved from dairy cows to wine grapes, working overtime to elevate Sonoma County to the world stage of food and wine. In between, she advocated for fairs, 4-H and FFA while raising millions of dollars for causes dear to her big heart. She serves as a director of the Sonoma County Fair, Harvest Fair, 4-H Foundation, Russian River Valley Winegrowers and others. She was a founding director of Select Sonoma County and for years orchestrated the Chef’s Tasting, which focused world attention on the incredible food and wines being produced in Sonoma County.
In 2000, a cover story in the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Saralee as Sonoma County’s counterpart to Robert Mondavi, America’s best known winemaker and “Mr. Napa Valley.”
“Saralee Kunde personifies the rural, warm spirit of Sonoma County,” Janice Furhan wrote in the Chronicle cover story about Napa and Sonoma counties with the headline “Vintage Stereotypes.”
Saralee’s remarkable legacy and lifetime of achievement have earned her a prominent place in Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame. The annual award recognizes agricultural leaders and pioneer ranchers who have been the guiding force in preserving, protecting and propelling Sonoma County’s $3 billion farming industry.
Saralee joins other legendary leaders like Henry Trione, Angelo Sangiacomo, Gene Benedetti and Larry Bertolini in the Hall of Fame. Saralee’s husband Richard Kunde, a pivotal figure in shaping the Sonoma County wine industry, was inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of Fame in 2008. Together Rich and Saralee have been a dynamic force in Sonoma County, channeling their money, influence and leadership to make Sonoma County the special place it is today.
“I am honored to join so many of the
men and women I so admire who are in the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of
Fame,” said Saralee. “It took a lot of people and dedicated leadership to get
all of us – and Sonoma County – where we are today.”
Saralee will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 18. The event will be held at Richard’s Grove, formerly owned by Rich and Saralee Kunde and now part of the holdings of Jackson Family Wines, based in Santa Rosa.
Also being honored at Love of the Land are Tish Ward, manager of the Atwood Ranch in Glen Ellen, who is receiving the Luther Burbank Conservation Award, and the Lee & Carolyn Martinelli Family of Martinelli Winery in Windsor who are Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year.
Love of the Land is open to anyone who wants to join in honoring Saralee, Tish Ward and the Martinelli Family while enjoying fine Sonoma County wine and food and the good company of those who work the land.
The Farm Bureau Hall of Fame is the latest award for Saralee who has been honored and recognized by more than a dozen organizations ranging from the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce to the 4-H Foundation of Sonoma County.
Throughout Sonoma County, Saralee is known for her unwavering optimism, can-do spirit and zest for life. She attributes her positive attitude to her dairy farming parents the late Robert and Lillian McClelland, who were hard working descendants of Irish immigrants. Saralee was particularly inspired by the abiding spirit of her mother Lillian Wilson McClelland, known as “Sweet Lil” to all who knew her. Lil believed all was possible, holding strong to the old adage that “if there is a will there is a way.” Saralee lives by that adage.
Saralee is on everybody’s A list when there is something that needs to be done. She has been involved in most everything that has happened in agriculture over the last 30 years from founding the Russian River Valley Winegrowers to building the 4-H Center in Rohnert Park.
“Saralee is an icon in Sonoma County agriculture, not because she aspired to that, but because she inspired so many others,” said Nick Frey, who met Saralee 14 years ago when he was interviewed for executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association. Frey has been working with her ever since.
“Saralee was always there doing more than her fair share. It does not matter if it was youth pruning contest, Sonoma County Fair and Harvest Fair or Russian River Valley Winegrowers. She also was there for Sonoma County Grape Growers Association and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. She always gives and inspires others to give because she gets behind good causes,” said Frey.
Sonoma County Fair manager Tawny Tesconi considers Saralee her mentor, respecting her wisdom and institutional knowledge of fairs.
“Before the term ‘Agritourism’ became synonymous with Sonoma County, Saralee had the vision to build support for agriculture by providing the opportunity for an urbanite to milk a cow, touch wool or see how melons grow,” said Tesconi. “She is Sonoma County’s biggest supporter of agriculture and has unmatched passion for our youth and the local fairs.”
For her part, Saralee said her family’s deep agricultural roots and the generations of dedicated ranchers she grew up with inspire her to keep pushing to bolster the financial viability of agriculture so it can survive for the generations to come. She said agriculture not only drives Sonoma County’s economy but defines its landscape and way-of-life.
“Sonoma County is a delicious combination of natural beauty and agricultural abundance, a special wine and food region defined by the land and the people who farm it,” she says. “Farming is not only Sonoma County’s rich heritage but its identity.”
Saralee’s philosophy is best described in the “Motto to Live By’ sign that hangs in her office at Saralee’s Vineyard and Richard’s Grove, the 265 acre vineyard estate that for the last 25 years has been a venue for agricultural fund-raisers and many memorable parties. The sign reads:
“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!’.”
Saralee has dutifully lived up to that motto, squeezing more into a day than most people accomplish in a week. Fortunately, for Sonoma County she enjoys making things happen, spending her time creating, advocating and inspiring to make things better. She does not do well at lounging around pools or endlessly shopping, unless it’s shopping for one of her signature floppy hats.
“You have to enjoy every day, because you never know what tomorrow will bring,” says Saralee. She was saying that – and living it – long before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just as she was finishing up the grape harvest last October. Her seven month battle with cancer has made her even more determined to live and appreciate every day, particularly, as she moves into the next phase of her life with husband Richard, 70, and children Matt, 22, and Catie, 20.
Last year Rich and Saralee sold their famed Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard on Slusser Road in Windsor to Jackson Family Wines. It was part of the Kundes effort to downsize their farming operations so they could slow down just a little bit, having more time for their agricultural causes.
The Kundes will live on the property until December but the management of the vineyards and Richard’s Grove is now under Jackson Family Wines.
The Kundes are building a home on
another of their properties, a 40 acre vineyard called Catie’s Corner –named
for daughter Catie – located a couple of miles north of Saralee’s Vineyard.
Catie’s Corner is in rural Windsor and, of course, in the Russian River Valley.
“We wouldn’t leave the Russian River Valley,” said Saralee. Wine grapes from Saralee’s Vineyard were sold to 60 different wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties and even to places like the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.
The Kundes still own 80 acres of vineyards, which include Catie’s Corner and two other 20 acre vineyards. They have eight different varietals including mainstays like chardonnay and pinor noir and more obscure varitals such as tannat and malvasia bianca.
“We are downsizing, going from more
than 300 acres down to 80 acres. Instead of selling our grapes to 60 wineries
we will be selling to 23 wineries,” said Saralee.
Saralee also is working with her brother dairy rancher George McClelland and niece Jana McClelland of the McClelland Dairy in Two Rock to build a small, dairy processing facility to produce artisanal butter and cheese. The creamery will be home to a dairy museum showcasing the thousands of cow figurines, milk bottles and dairy industry paraphernalia that Saralee has collected for the last half century.
Saralee said she has been fortunate because her work was never like a job. She spent years as an employee of the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma and then the Sonoma County Fair and Harvest Fair. The last 25 years have been developing vineyards and growing and marketing grapes while forging relationships with the winemakers who buy her grapes.
“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,” said Saralee.