by Dan Clarke
Only one award was made to the Grower of the Year, but several people received it.
In January the California Association of Winegrape Growers, otherwise known as CAWG, initiated this award for an individual, family or company representing “an outstanding example of excellence in viticulture and management, and is recognized by others for innovation and leadership within the industry.” The John Kautz Family of Lodi were the collective honorees.
John and Gail Kautz are Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards. All four of their children are active in the family business. Son Stephen is President of Ironstone Vineyards. His brother, Kurt, holds the title of Chief Financial Officer of John Kautz Farms. Jack, another brother, works in property management for the company. The boys' sister, Joan Kautz, is Vice President for International Operations of Kautz Family Vineyards. Theirs is a family of substantial achievement, but one that fits the “down to earth” expression--their titles seem more for defining roles than for impressing people.
John Kautz moved to Lodi in 1941 when his parents purchased a 38-acre farm out of bankruptcy for $13,000. “It was all run down,” John recalled when interviewed in the spring of 2012. “We built a milk barn and started selling.” Leadership traits showed early. Like most farm kids, John was closely involved with his family's work. There were chores, but he found time to serve as president of the Future Farmers chapter at Lodi High School. He was also active in scouting and before he graduated in 1948, he had attained the rank of Eagle Scout. “After leaving school I went right into California Young Farmers and eventually became their president in 1956,” John said. In 1952 John's father had died, leaving him the responsibility of taking over the original farm and an additional 40-acres the family had acquired.
Gail Kramer grew up in Oakland, but her family owned cattle land in Calaveras County. She became an elementary school teacher after graduating from Stockton's College of Pacific (now University of the Pacific). Gail and John married in 1958. While rearing four children she was involved in Parents Club and 4-H and later took ever more active roles in civic and political life.
The pair kept their focus on farming. Gail mentioned in passing that other young couples they knew enjoyed taking short trips to San Francisco or maybe Carmel. She and John didn't—unless it was related to business. “We were having fun, though,” she explained. “As we got involved in more organizations, we did a lot, traveled a lot.” Time on the road in the early days may not have taken John to resort areas, but the savvy businessman realized that buying equipment in Lodi and in nearby Rio Vista was expensive. When large farming operations in the southern San Joaquin Valley made new purchases that meant their old equipment could be had at bargain prices when John visited Bakersfield.
Their hard work and increasing civic involvement didn't escape notice. In 1965 John was named National Outstanding Young Farmer by the United States Junior Chamber (the Jaycees), an award of which he is very proud. Four years later he was named Top Farm Manager U.S.A. by the Ford Foundation. As success--and recognition of that success--grew, so did John and Gail. “We started taking a trip to another part of the world every year or two,” John said. “And we traveled with other couples from other parts of the country. (We were) opening up our vision to the world and to agriculture in the world.”
Having had success farming tomatoes, peppers, beans and other row crops, Kautz Farms expanded into wine grapes in 1968. John's leadership was soon evidenced in that world, too, as he wrote the first check to start the California Association of Winegrape Growers in 1974.
Eldest son Stephen Kautz, now President of Ironstone Vineyards, explained that Steve Millier, the winemaker for Stevenot Winery in the 1980s, had been purchasing grapes from the family and suggested they make a small quantity of wine carrying the John Kautz Farms label. The family agreed as there was the possibility of some future sales to Japan. Opportunity loomed.
Steve Kautz had purchased his grandfather's herd of cattle in 1976 while he was still in high school. He attended Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo as an Animal Science major and had thoughts of becoming a veterinarian. Returning home from school, he heard his Dad announce, “You're going to run the bell pepper operation.” Though he had no real farming experience, Steve acquiesced and must have done an acceptable job of managing some 2500-acres of row crops he had been assigned. Soon the decision was made to build a winery on the ranch at Murphys in Calaveras County. As Steve tells the story, his father said to him, “You've gone to college and you've learned to cook and you can speak a little. You're the president of the new winery. Congratulations!”
“About the only thing I knew about wine at the time was Eye of the Swan (a blush wine made by Sebastiani),” Steve commented. Nevertheless, Ironstone has prospered. Apparently, as with row crop farming, lack of prior expertise isn't necessarily a barrier to developing a winery.
Ironstone is much more than a winery, though. It's a major tourist attraction. There's a commercial kitchen, a deli and facilities for banquets and weddings. A resident chef gives demonstrations and cooking lessons. Visitors might enjoy an indoor concert featuring a restored theater pipe organ from the 1920's or a summer concert set outdoors amidst the 14.5 acres of landscaped gardens. Since 1982 Steve Kautz has lived in the little town of Murphys, where the winery and its surrounding Calaveras County vineyards are situated, and he remembers when it was different. He acknowledged that his winery is rather spectacular and that he's in the entertainment business, as well as the wine business. “But the Kautz Family are truly growers,” he reminded a reporter. “Everything else is just an extension of that. We started as grape growers and I absolutely love growing grapes.”
But which grapes to grow can be an issue. In 25 years Steve has seen trends come and go. “We're constantly changing and evolving,” he observed. “It (used to be) Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, then Merlot. Then it was Pinot, Pinot, Pinot. Then Shiraz. Now Cab and Chard are kings again.” He feels his winery president side helps the part of him that is a grower in that he's out in the market place and may be sensitive to what wine drinkers could want in the future. Five years ago he planted Muscat Canelli. Skeptics said, “What're you going to plant next—Barbera? Carignane?” Steve reflected briefly before responding, “Well, yes . . . maybe.”
The ardent outdoorsman has an unusual approach to wine education and the promotion of his brand. He disdains what he calls the mystique of his industry, preferring “no walls, no barriers when talking about how a grape gets into a bottle of wine.” Sometimes visitors to Ironstone are seated out in the vineyard for tastings. Stephen has even poured his wines on river trips for white water rafters “I like to take 'em out of their environment and put 'em in mine,” he said.
Though brother Kurt Kautz has a degree in Agricultural Economics from UC Davis and carries the title of Chief Financial Officer, he seems to prefer talking about farming than discussing number crunching. Years ago he grew quite a variety of specialty crops for the family produce business. Currently, though, he's busy overseeing about 5500 acres of winegrapes, most of which are planted around Lodi and in southeastern Sacramento County. In addition, he manages the Bear Creek Winery, which receives grapes for family winemaking efforts and for the custom crush market. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot make up about 75% of the 20 varieties grown. Ironstone produces both regular and reserve bottlings of Cabernet Franc and they may be California's largest single grower of that variety. Kurt supervises 30 to 40 employees year-round, though the total approaches 100 on a seasonal basis. “We have a 60-day window to harvest and (just) 50 harvest days,” he said. “You could not do it all with people, so we machine harvest.”
The quality of grapes in Lodi and the wines made from them have improved markedly, according to Kurt. “The wineries in Lodi are putting out some fantastic wines,” he said in assessing the current situation. “And I know some guys (growers) with small yields who're getting fantastic prices.” Both the grapegrowing and winemaking businesses are changing. “Other countries are competition—they have cheap labor and they're all increasing their quality,” he said. “But the key is getting your yield per acre up and being able to control your quality when you do that.”
Though she had studied Agricultural Business with a focus on international policy at Cal Poly, Joan Kautz stepped into heady responsibility with the family's winery. “My particular role now is international marketing and distribution, a job I began right out of college.” Was that a difficult situation for a young woman? Perhaps so, but she seemed unfazed by the challenge she accepted 19 years ago, saying her mother and father helped. “They've always been particularly supportive . . . and a lot of the people I was to deal with already knew my parents. Also, I had people like Dennis Collins and Jeff Techel as mentors. You can always sit and listen and learn.”
Sales of Kautz Family Vineyards brands had grown to 500,000 cases per year, but lately that has been pared back by about a third. Canada and Denmark are their most significant export markets at the moment, but emphasis changes and evolves over time. The United Kingdom was once a strong market, for instance, but supporting distribution in larger stores became more trouble than it was worth. “We pulled back from (big chain) markets to concentrate on independents and the wholesale trade,” Joan explained. “Now longevity and profitability are more important. Ironstone is the priority brand and (we're) building on our reserve wines.” She's excited about an Ironstone Reserve old vine Zinfandel, dubbed “Centennial,” which will be released this year. Fruit source for this 2009 vintage is the Rous Vineyard in Lodi, which was planted in 1909.
Marketing wine has taken Joan Kautz to some exciting and sophisticated parts of the world, including an eight-month stint in Paris. Though she's still in charge of international marketing, she's happily living back home in Lodi these days where she and her husband are bringing up their two daughters.
She wants to help the business continue to grow and “to develop even stronger brands and brand image—to show the world our dedication and what we have to offer,” she declared. Buyers may have a limited understanding and perhaps a perception that Napa and Sonoma are the only growing regions in the state. “It's a continual battle,” she observed. “(There is) a challenge to get attention and respect from people. We need to show that California is very broad and that there are other areas out there.”
Asked how farming had changed in the last 60 years or so, John Kautz responded, “Where we used to be a California industry, it's now global. If you're going to be a major producer of any commodity you just about have to be in all segments of it because you have to understand the industry in all parts. And now it's harder. We used to program our game plan with just California in mind. We always had cycles, but now you have to take in the world.”
Mechanization has led to more efficient operations, which certainly is a positive, he believes. The increased presence of government is another matter, however. “The laws and regulations that we have to cope with are just beyond belief,” he said. “Some of it is good. Some is necessary, but the majority is just overkill.” When the subject of efforts by special interest groups that make life harder for a farmer came up, Gail charitably characterized supporters of such causes as having “gotten too far away from their agricultural roots.”
Asked what advice on leadership he could offer to the generation just beginning their careers, John Kautz said “There is leadership both within your industry and leadership within your political arena.” Those likely to help the farming industry are “people who want to get out of their own background and want to learn and develop,” he said. “Awards and recognition will lead to more opportunities. Every industry is looking for young people to come to their boards. They look for a busy person. A major factor is whether you're able to communicate, to work with people and be likeable.”
John and Gail may have earned the right to a full retirement, but that's not in their nature. At a Friday afternoon interview, Gail confirmed that she's still active in several projects, one of which is steering the Ironstone Concours d'Elegance held at the winery each September, an event which supports agricultural youth education. John said he started that day, as usual, with an hour in the pool and spa at home. Later he was visiting a nursery. He showed a visitor flats of orchid plants that he was going to take to Murphys the next morning for the weekend tasting room visitors.
“The kids handle the day-to-day,” he said. “We're still busy, but now we get to do the fun stuff. Our whole focus from day one has been to have the family involved. That's the reward—seeing it continue to grow,” John said. “It's been a good run.”
Editor's note: Links to the websites of Gold Country wineries, as well as lodging and dining options, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.