The California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) has selected the Ledbetter family, owners, and operators of Vino Farms, as its 2014 Grower of the Year. The award will be presented at the association’s Annual Meeting and Awards of Excellence Program on July 23 in Carmel Valley.
Vino Farms, a vineyard management business that farms 15,000 acres of winegrapes throughout California, is the third recipient of CAWG’s Grower of the Year award, which is the highest honor given by the association and is bestowed to an individual, family or company “who represents an outstanding example of excellence in viticulture and management, and is recognized by others for innovation and leadership within the industry.”
“The Ledbetter family and Vino Farms truly represent grower leadership within the California winegrape community,” said Dennis Wittchow, vice chair of the CAWG Board of Directors and president of Lent-Burden farming in Oakdale. “They demonstrate grower leadership in their commitment to the well-being of their workers, in their protection of the environment through sustainable farming practices, and in their support of the communities where they farm.”
Also to be honored July 23 is Richard Keehn, founding chairman of CAWG and Mendocino County winegrape grower and winemaker, as the 2014 CAWG Leader of the Year. CAWG presents the annual award to the grower whose “record of exceptional leadership has benefited California’s wine industry.” Keehn is the third recipient of the award created by CAWG to acknowledge exemplary industry members and to inspire future leadership.
“Richard recognized four decades ago that winegrape growers would be better-served in California by uniting around their strengths and common goals,” said Heidi Scheid, CAWG chair. “There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to recognize and honor Richard’s lifetime of leadership and his role as CAWG’s first chairman as our association celebrates its 40th anniversary.”
Headquartered in Lodi, Vino Farms manages and owns vineyards throughout the state including San Joaquin, Sacramento, Yolo, Napa, Sonoma, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara Counties. Vino Farms grows more than a dozen different winegrape varieties and sells to nearly 150 wineries throughout California. They employ approximately 150 full-time employees and 450 seasonal employees. The multi-generational family business is led by John Ledbetter, Jim Ledbetter, Kim Ledbetter-Bronson, Craig Ledbetter, Marissa Ledbetter, and Megan Ledbetter.
“While the Ledbetter family oversees large growing operations around the state through Vino Farms, the family operation has never lost sight of their commitment to the winegrape industry and to the communities where they grow and manage their vineyards,” said Aaron Lange, vice chair of the CAWG Board of Directors and vineyard manager for LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards in Lodi.
Helping to advance and promote the winegrape industry, the Ledbetters have provided their leadership skills to a range of agricultural organizations, including Ag in the Classroom, Agricultural Worker Health and Housing Commission, American Society of Enology and Viticulture, American Vineyard Foundation, California Association of Winegrape Growers, California Farm Bureau, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, California Wine Education Foundation, Future Farmers of America, Lodi District Grape Growers Association, Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, Lodi Winegrape Commission Pierce’s Disease Control Board, Winegrape Growers of America, Wine Market Council, Women for Winesense, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, and the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.
“Vino Farms leads by example,” said Rodney Schatz, past chairman of the CAWG Board of Directors and Lodi winegrape grower. “They are always engaged in the issues and challenges that growers face, not only in Lodi but also throughout California.”
Vino Farms also promotes a safe and healthful work environment and provides a no-cost PPO Health Benefit Plan for employees and their family. The Ledbetters have been instrumental in the coordination of Lodi Farm Safety Day, a Lodi Chamber of Commerce event that provides training for 600 Lodi-area farmworkers each year.
“Our employees are our greatest asset, and many of them have been with us since the very beginning,” said John Ledbetter, secretary/treasurer and chief financial officer of Vino Farms. “Being able to support our workers and their families, to make their lives better, has been one of our greatest achievements,” Ledbetter added.
Another Vino Farms achievement is the family’s leadership role in vineyard sustainability efforts. Their dedication to the environment is shown not only throughout their own operations, but also by their involvement in the development of industry-wide sustainability certification programs, such as Lodi Rules and the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
Other sustainable farming practices include conversion of their fleet of vineyard tractors to biodiesel and use of solar energy to drive irrigation equipment. Vino Farms has also restored 23 acres in the Mokelumne River watershed and conducted dozens of projects to reduce soil erosion through the planting of thousands of acres of cover crops, hedgerows, and bringing farm edges back to life with acres of native plantings.
Keehn spent his early years not on the ground as a farmer, but in the air as a military man and distinguished helicopter pilot, serving in Korea, Germany and Vietnam. He was awarded two purple hearts, the Silver Star and decorations for valor and service including the Army Aviator of the Year award.
In 1971, while stationed at 6th Army Headquarters, San Francisco, Keehn married Karen Crawford, a widow and owner of historic McDowell Valley Vineyards located in the coastal range of the Mayacamas Mountains in Mendocino County. Over time, Keehn, who knew nothing of vineyards and winemaking, resigned his commission and traded the skies for a career closer to the ground. Keehn not only embraced his new career in agriculture, he became one of its most devoted leaders.
“Richard was truly a Renaissance man and excelled in everything he did,” said John Kautz, a founding member of CAWG and chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards in Lodi. “He embraced the art and science of winegrape growing and learning the intricacies of the industry. This new expertise would prove invaluable in helping to create and launch a new association of growers that would become CAWG.”
In 1974, winegrape growers were challenged by an array of issues, from low prices and unfair business practices to pest and disease management to advocacy with state and federal lawmakers. Keehn, along with a handful of winegrape growers, believed they would be better served by forming a base of combined strength. They met with Bank of America and each grower signed a personal guarantee of $10,000 to launch the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Keehn would later joke that after one of the organizational meetings, he left the room to go to the bathroom and returned to find that he had been elected founding chairman. He served as CAWG Chairman for four years and then as a director on the CAWG Board for seven years.
“Richard made many sacrifices to ensure the survival of CAWG in its infancy,” said Jeryl Fry, president and CEO of Mohr-Fry Ranches in Lodi and another founding member of the association. “But once CAWG was on solid ground, Richard kept finding more ways to get involved and improve the winegrape industry which helped build his legacy of leadership.”
From 1978-1982, Keehn and wife Karen built a unique 50,000 square foot solar-integrated winery in their vineyards. By 1982, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recognized McDowell Valley as a distinct viticultural area, the fourth such appellation in California. Their estate-bottled brand McDowell Valley Vineyards was launched nationally in 1980. Over the ensuing years, McDowell’s vineyard and wine production grew to a peak of 118,000 cases and evolved from its original focus on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon to embrace Rhone varieties of Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. By 1993 there were 137 acres of Rhone varietals planted at McDowell.
Keehn, whose leadership and expertise continued to serve a number of agricultural endeavors, was appointed in 1984 to the first California World Trade Commission Advisory Council. He resigned in 1986 to become a director on the California Board of Food and Agriculture, a position he held for eight years. During this time he also served as a director of the American Vineyard Foundation and a director of the California Wine Institute.
Although Richard wore many industry hats, he credits a number of different mentors in the industry who contributed to his winegrape education, including Frank Lagomarsino, Ralph Bunje, Karl Wente, Bob Mondavi, Rodney Strong and Julio Gallo.
In 1998 Richard retired from the wine industry, leaving Karen and her son, Bill Crawford, as partners of McDowell Valley Vineyards. Now able to spend more time with his children and 20 grandchildren, Keehn indulged his love for writing poetry and playing the banjo. His passion for cooking was channeled into creating sumptuous meals for friends and family and cooking for three years at Plowshares, Ukiah’s non-profit organization that serves the homeless and delivers Meals on Wheels.
Source: California Association of Winegrape Growers