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An American Success Story: Kautz Farms

Each year the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) presents a Grower of the Year award to one of its members. It is the highest honor given by CAWG, bestowed on 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.” In 2012 the honor went to Kautz Farms of Lodi, California, a family-owned and operated farming entity with deep roots in grape growing, winemaking and community service. Here is Kautz Farms’ story.

To meet John Kautz and his extended family is to become acquainted with one of America’s classic success stories. The grandson of Russian émigrés of German descent who lived in Nebraska before moving west and settling in Lodi in the 1920’s, John took over the 38-acre family farmwhich included 14 acres of Tokay grapesin 1952 following the death of his father. Though he didn’t have a formal college education, John persevered and learned all aspects of farming from his family and friends. During the next 20 years, John and his family farmed “just about every crop that could be farmed in this area,” according to John’s son, Kurt, including tomatoes, bell peppers, apples, beans, corn, cucumbers, sugar beets, and hay. So accomplished at farming were John and his wife, Gail, that in 1965 the couple received the nation’s Outstanding Young Farmer awardthe first of many awards and recognitions to come.

But like many successful entrepreneurs, John was a visionary with his eyes firmly on the future. “My dad was the first generation to branch out and start farming for more than just the family needs,” says Kurt. Though he’d been successful with row crops, in the late 1960s and early 1970s John shifted his focus to vineyards, planting Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and eventually Chardonnay – the first to be planted in the Lodi region.

“John Kautz and his willingness to take risks have shaped the Lodi area winegrape industry into a major wine region,” says Edward Van Diemen, president of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, Inc. (LDGGA) “He was the first to plant Chardonnay winegrapes in Lodi; today (Lodi) leads the state in Chardonnay production.”

Over the next 30 years, as the Kautz farming operation grew, row crops were replaced with winegrapes, and to a lesser extent, fruit orchards. Eventually John and his family became one of the top ten winegrape growers in California, supplying premium winegrapes to wineries throughout California and even around the world. In 1988 John, Gail and their children took another risk, launching their own wine brandIronstone Vineyardsin California’s Sierra Foothills. Established on Gail’s family ranch in Murphys, California and featuring wine aging caverns painstakingly carved from limestone, the Ironstone Winery grew to become one of California’s most popular and successful wineries. Today Ironstone entertains thousands of visitors a year, offering wine tastings as well as cultural events such as concerts, films, culinary classes, and garden shows at its acclaimed winery entertainment complex. Meanwhile, Kautz Farms oversees 7,500 acres of wine grapes and stone fruits in Lodi and the Sierra Foothills wine regions.

But the story of John Kautz and his family is one of much more than entrepreneurship and business acumen. For John, whose list of board and commission affiliations fills a page, public and community service has always been at least as important as business success, especially when it comes to promoting agriculture. Early adopters and leaders in sustainable farming and advocacy, Kautz Farms was one of the first major growers to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and sustainable practices in its vineyards, including the use of cover crops and compost, owl boxes and raptor perches and riparian habitat restoration. Additionally, Kautz Farms received a California waterfowl award for hatching more than 1,000 wood ducks in a single year.

“John, Gail and their children are true advocates for agriculture,” says Van Diemen. “Their membership and leadership in numerous commissions, boards, and organizations such as LDGGA, CAWG, California Farm Bureau, the California 4-H Foundation, California State Fair, and California State Board of Food and Agriculture show how committed they are to fellow agriculturalists and the future of the ag industry.”

“Giving back to the community is just a way of life,” says John, whose family also donates time and money to Future Farmers of America, the Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program and the Boy Scouts and has donated vineyard plots to the UC Cooperative Extension Services for the purpose of research. “It’s something that I feel is very important.”

While Kautz Farms has steadily grown to become one of the largest and most successful winegrowers in California, family devotion and participation remain at the heart of this very down-to-earth operation. All four of John and Gail’s four children are involved in the family business, with son Stephen serving as President of Ironstone Winery and marketing the family’s wines throughout the U.S., son Kurt as Kautz Farms’ Chief Financial Officer and manager of the family’s Bear Creek Winery and California Hotwood business entities, son Jack serving as Director of Ironstone Winery, and daughter Joan serving as Vice President of International Operations for the family’s wine portfolio.

“The family dynamic of their operation even extends to their employees, many of whom have been employed by Kautz Farms for as long as 50 years,” says Van Diemen, who notes there are current employees who are the sons and daughters of former employees.

Known for their warmth and hospitality, the Kautz family loves nothing better than sharing their love of wine and grape growing with the people they meet. Speaking of the many people who visit the Ironstone Winery, former CAWG Director Joe Petersen of Petersen and Co. said “…you can be assured if any of those guests met John Kautz, they went home with a new understanding and love of wine.”

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Family devotion is at the heart of Kautz Farms and its success in California’s wine industry.


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