This is the story of three generations spanning two centuries, with one common family trait - dogged determination and a tireless work ethic in pursuit of their dreams. It is the story of sauterne for breakfast and castles built of prune boxes. It is a larger than life story ... and much of it is true.
From Riches to Rags to Ranching
The story begins in 1896 England, where Barker Ledson - a scion of means for whom means meant nothing - yearned for the New World and all the adventure that it promised. At age 16, he and his two similarly spirited brothers Tom and Stanley, left behind royal bloodlines, country estates and a sure future - not to mention the family fortune - to set sail for America. Their first stop was Iowa where their aunt owned a ranch. The boys worked the ranch for essentially room and board until Barker was lured away by a much greater adventure. Surveyors were needed by the railroad to map the vast and unforgiving Mojave Desert. It was thankless work, but not without benefits. Part and parcel of working in "no mans land" was the lack of spending opportunities. Barker was able to pocket almost all the money he made during his grueling 5 year stint.
Barker's railroad earnings were enough for him to purchase a 600 acre ranch in Yosemite, near the town of Cathay. At age 22, Barker Ledson was an American landowner. Brothers Tom and Stanley came out from Iowa to run the ranch with Barker. And, while Barker enjoyed nothing more than working the land and working with family, he longed for new opportunity and San Francisco seemed just the place for someone with Barker's ambition.
The Ice Man Commeth
Jobs were not plentiful, a fact that might have dissuaded a lesser man. But Barker Ledson was not to be denied. His employer of choice was the City Ice Company and the fact that they were not hiring seemed of little significance. Barker pointed to the potholes in the driveway and the dirt on the floors and said that he would clean and repair the facilities at no charge. City Ice was happy to have a volunteer employee and it wasn't long before all the ice truck drivers were so fond of the hard-working Barker that they convinced management to bring him on as a full-time employee -- a move that proved to be a defining point in young Barker's life.
He rapidly worked his way up the ranks at City Ice, eventually becoming General Manager. City Ice merged with National Ice and San Francisco Ice to form San Francisco National Ice Company. Barker needed to fill key positions and called upon his brother Tom to run the new Oakland office - making him the first of over a dozen family members employed by Barker. Stanley continued to run the Yosemite ranch, and by this time Barker's two other brothers had moved to America from England; George to Tennessee where he became editor of the Shelbyville Times and Joseph, the only brother to claim some of the family fortune, to Canada where he became known as an innovator in farming and breeding race horses.
A Match Made in the Wine Country
With his business life a success, it was time for bachelor Barker to find a wife to share in his great accomplishments. Barker Ledson met Edna Cunningham in 1910, when he invited his regular and growing group of prominent San Francisco cronies (a couple of those people were the Chief Police Officer and the Mayor of San Francisco) to go dove hunting at the Cunningham Ranch in Windsor. Edna was helping to serve lunch to the men when she caught Barker's eye. Within three years they were married.
Edna's father, William, was immediately taken with Barker as they were cut from the same over - achiever cloth. William's father Zyde, a gold miner who also emigrated from England, had previously owned and operated a blacksmith shop on the site that is today the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. In 1862 he moved his family to the 160-acre ranch in Windsor. As William came of age, he took over management of the Cunningham ranch. He planted 35 acres of Zinfandel and Alicante vineyards, built elaborate ranch and winery facilities and was known throughout the county for his flamboyance. He was very active in the community and held a seat as Sonoma County Supervisor from 1917-1925 and board member for Exchange Bank. William was a prominent and influential early member of the Wine Syndicate grower co-op and produced and bottled 8,000 gallons of commercially available wine. After Zyde's death in 1901 William and his wife Hannah continued to operate Cunningham ranch.
The union of the Ledson and Cunningham families marked the beginning of a farming legacy that continues today. William sold the Cunningham Ranch in 1919 to buy an 105-acre ranch in Kenwood. Shortly thereafter, Barker and Edna, who had been living in San Francisco moved with their three young sons, Noble, Whitby and Winslow to a 1600 acre ranch adjacent to William's property on what is today part of Oakmont and Annandale State Park. The two families worked the ranches cooperatively. While William and Hannah grew prunes, grapes and hay on their property, Barker spent the weekdays in San Francisco running the San Francisco Ice Company and Edna - an extremely sturdy, hard working woman, with a penchant for detail that included daily sweeping of dirt pathways and color coordinating gardening tools - raised cattle and harvested Eucalyptus on their ranch. Edna and her sons loaded their Eucalyptus on trains bound for the City Ice Company, where Barker used his ice trucks to deliver the Eucalyptus for firewood in the afternoons, essentially creating an entirely new business using existing delivery routes.
The End of an Era
For years the two ranches prospered, until in 1937 Barker Ledson at age 57 died of a heart attack while weekending at the family ranch. This was a terrible blow to a family who had come to depend upon him as the patriarch. Many of the family members who had relied on Barker for jobs or support over the years went their separate ways. The large extended family unit that Barker cherished could not be sustained in his absence. Fortunately, his 1/3rd ownership of the San Francisco Ice Company provided Edna and the boys with the means to carry on. Barker's brother Tom had preceded Barker in death and so Edna was left to manage the ranch, relying on her boys and the support of her sister Viola and her husband Penn Rich who had years earlier taken over William and Hannah's ranch after their deaths.
Sonoma Valley's "Ledson Boys"
The "Ledson boys" as everyone in the valley knew them - Noble, Whitby and Winslow - had inherited their parent's love of farming and ranching. Throughout high school each was active in FFA, with Noble and Winslow winning coveted national livestock competitions. And like their father before them the entrepreneurial bug bit early on when they observed the need of many of their rural neighbors for home delivery of basic essentials. They pooled their resources to purchase a run-down, old truck which they re-built and used to deliver packages after school and on weekends. Their little company, General Parcel Delivery, thrived until it was time to go off to college - a promise they had made to their mother. Secure in the knowledge that farming was their future, all three went on to study agriculture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It was 1942, all three of the boys had graduated college and were anxious to begin the next chapter of their lives when World War II was declared and they, like others their age, were called into service. Winslow entered officer training school, while Noble and Whitby both became airplane mechanics in the Army Air Corps. Fortunately the end of the war found all three safe and sound and ready to get back home and get on with things.
By the time Noble returned home to Kenwood, Edna had sold the family ranch to a steamship builder named Joe Coney who re-named the ranch Annandale and eventually donated it to the California Parks Department. To this day, markers in the Annandale Park -- Ledson Marsh, Steve's Trail -- reflect the Ledson's legacy. Edna moved to Spring Street in Santa Rosa and kept busy as a nurse at Memorial Hospital until her death at age 81 in 1973.
Noble's wish was to continue the Ledson family tradition of farming. He founded his own dairy farm, Meadowlark Farms Dairy, on Warm Springs Road in 1944. It was a complete operation; he owned and milked the cows, he bottled the milk and he delivered all over Sonoma Valley. So successful was his dairy and so valuable his route that in 1954, shortly after his brother Winslow became General Manager, Clover Dairy purchased Meadowlark Farms Dairy and contracted Noble to distribute Clover milk in Sonoma Valley. Freed of the time-consuming milking and bottling operations, Noble built his distribution territory to include both Sonoma and Napa Valleys - and still had time left for other ventures given his penchant for 16 hour workdays. The farmer in him was not to be denied. He purchased or leased property all over Sonoma County where he raised cattle and grew prunes, hay, walnuts and of course wine grapes. Like his brothers, Noble was naturally gregarious and engaging, and because of their many ventures the Ledson boys knew and were known by just about everybody in the Valley- amassing endless friendships and contacts that would serve them and their children well in years to come. They were, like the Kundes, Rossis and Stornettas one of the most prominent farming families in Sonoma County.
The Son Also Rises
While his various businesses were growing, so was Noble's family. In 1948, he married Virginia Martinson, an Iowa transplant who had met and captured Noble's heart when he was home on leave during the war. Together they had two children: Nancy Ledson born in 1955 and Steven Noble Ledson, born in 1952. From the start it was clear that Steve had the drive, the farming instincts - and the bullheadedness of the Ledson and Cunningham clans combined.
Early on Noble instilled in Steve the importance of hard work and a good breakfast. Believing that Sauterne increased appetite and convinced that a full day's work required a full stomach, Noble and Steve started each day with a small glass of Sauterne, drawn from the two-gallon jug they re-filled monthly at Pagani (now Kenwood) Winery. Whether it was the Sauterne or the expectations of a no-nonsense father, by age six, Steve was a full-time farmer in training; he could drive a tractor - albeit with the help of a grown up who could reach the pedals - tell the difference between a prune tree and grapevine, tinker with farm equipment and bid on beef cattle.
School of Hard Knocks
Keeping pace with Noble was no small task, especially for a small boy, but Steve was remarkably hard-headed for his age - a fact that served him well on one ill-fated father and son outing. While hiking along Bear Creek in Adobe Canyon, Steve took a fall 30 feet into the creek, where he preceded to float downstream a quarter of a mile before being yanked to safety by Noble. Bleeding and pretty woozy, Steve was coaxed by his dad to "be a man" and walk home, which he did before passing out and being rushed to the hospital, where he remained for thirty days! Fortunately near-death experiences are lost to children of seven and after a short period of recuperation, life returned to normal for Steve.
Always tinkering, always keeping busy, Steve's first foray into architectural design took place when he was helping Noble pack prunes for one of their bigger clients, Del Monte. Steve gathered empty prune boxes and over the course of the entire day, created a nine-foot tall, multi level "castle", complete with doors, windows and balconies. It was his pride and joy, but it was lacking a critical real-estate component, which in later years would become a cornerstone of Steve's success - Location, Location, Location. Unfortunately the prune palace was erected right in front of the loading bay, and by the next morning, Steve's dream house had been leveled to make way for the delivery trucks.
Making Hay While the Sun Shines
Steve continued to work at his father's side throughout his school years, and although Noble didn't believe in paying his son, he did give Steve the tools to earn his own money. Noble taught Steve how to bid on cattle, which started a decades long business of purchasing spring calves, fattening them up and re-selling them for profit. Noble also provided Steve with his first baling equipment, which Steve, together with cousins Mike and Marz used to create their own after-school, hay baling business. By the time he was in high school Steve had earned enough money from his various before and after school farming ventures to buy a 1965 Corvette Stingray. As he neared graduation, it was clear that he was different than most kids his age; he already knew what it was to have his own business and make his own money, he knew he didn't want to go to college and most importantly he knew he wanted to make a future with his high school sweetheart Michele Slinger.
Concerned that farming was being phased out in Sonoma County in favor of rapid development, Noble encouraged his newly married son to pursue a career in construction. Steve respected his father's advice, and while he was not prepared to give up his various farming endeavors, he did agree to pursue a "day job" in the building industry. After two years apprenticing with Frontier Electric he took a job taping drywall for Associated Specialties. Like his grandfather Barker, Steve's big break came when he seized an opportunity to impress his employers with his initiative. The year was 1973; Steve was assisting a drywall journeyman named Denny Roper, who had convinced their boss that the relatively inexperienced Steve could cover his work load while he went on vacation. On the first day of Denny's vacation, Steve was presented with a job list double Denny's usual output. Never one to back away from a challenge, Steve worked day and night and, of course, finished all the houses - flawlessly. Needless to say, he'd made an impression. Unfortunately the result of his zeal was an offer to take over Denny's position. Only 21 years old and already the father of two-year-old Mike and one-year-old Tonja, Steve was tempted by the promotion and raise - but not at the expense of his friend Denny.
No Guts, No Glory
Steve and Denny left Associated Specialties to start their own business, Northwestern Drywall, using Denny's state license. Within two years Steve had 100 employees and had opened a second non-union branch to handle public works and government contracts. Steve hired his sister Nancy's husband John Salerno to run the new operation, which was named Northeastern Drywall, in recognition of John's east coast roots. In addition, Steve maintained his daily involvement in the ranches he worked with Noble, rising at 4 am each day to log a couple of hours before heading off to the job site.
In 1975 a local contractor named Wayne Elzey came to Steve with an offer that would catapult Ledson from contractor to developer. Elzey had pre-sold a number of homes, but did not have the capital to build them. Between his ongoing cattle, hay, and contracting businesses, Steve had the money to invest and together they became Elzey and Ledson Construction. Those initial houses led to subdivisions and before long the two had projects scattered from the Bay Area to the Oregon border.
All in the Family
By the late 1980's Steve Ledson was financially secure, professionally respected and surrounded by family, including newest member, daughter Kristina, born in 1987. Only in his thirties he had achieved more than most, but not as much as he wanted. Although he had never given up his various agrarian pursuits, over the years, working the land had taken a back seat to building houses. It was time to change focus, to follow his passion and re-invigorate the family's farming business. In particular Steve wanted to grow grapes, something his great grandfather, his father and his uncle before him had done since 1862. And as usual the opportunity presented itself at just the right time.
A Wine Family Returns to its Roots
In late 1989 Ledson Construction was about to break ground on a spec house and vineyard property in the heart of the Sonoma Valley wine country, when a partner in the project pulled out. Michele convinced Steve that the 21-acre property - with views of the corner of Annandale Park that was once Steve's grandparent's home - was the perfect spot for their dream house and vineyard. Steve agreed and immediately set about planting 17 acres to Merlot and designing the ultimate architectural showpiece. Son Mike worked side-by-side with his father just as Steve had with Noble. By the time of their first harvest in 1993, the 15,000 square foot Gothic, French-Normandy structure replete with a custom-colored brick edifice, slate tile, turrets, balconies and fountains had begun to take shape and stop traffic. Michele and Steve realized that the "castle", as locals had come to call it, was long on looky-loos and short on privacy. Based upon the public interest and the quality of their first harvest, Steve decided to transform the house into a winery and tasting room and to build their home elsewhere. A quick change of plans was followed by four painfully long years acquiring commercial permits and two more years of re- construction before the winery's eventual completion.
Years of farming had endowed Steve with an instinct for making things grow and grow well- and before long his grapes were very much in demand. Ledson had been selling grapes to neighboring wineries including Benziger, St. Francis and Sebastiani for years. In fact it was St. Francis winemaker Tom Mackey who, knowing that Steve wanted to make ultra premium wine, urged him to produce his own estate wine. In 1997, Ledson Winery released its inaugural vintage, the 1994 Ledson Estate Merlot. Since then, Ledson wines have garnered excellent reviews from the elite wine press including a 93 point rating from Wine Spectator Magazine for their 1997 Reserve Carneros Chardonnay. Ledson Winery offers a broad spectrum of varietal wines including: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Primitivo, Barbera, Malbec, Grenache, Meritage, Rosé, Johannisberg Riesling and Madera Port - all available at the Winery, at the Ledson Harmony Club restaurant and at selected fine restaurants throughout the country.
In addition to the 17-acre estate vineyard, Ledson Winery owns 21 acres on Denmark Road in Sonoma, which is currently planted to 100+-year Old Vine Zinfandel and 5,500 acres in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, that may lend itself to a future Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot planting. Ledson's dreams are to replant thirty-five acres of the 105 acre Kenwood Ranch originally cultivated by his great grandfather, William Cunningham in 1919.
On August 27th, 2003 Steve Ledson opened his luxury two-story Hotel & Harmony Club restaurant, situated on the historic Sonoma Plaza. The hotel features six individually decorated rooms on the upper floor, while the Harmony Club wine bar and restaurant covers the entire ground floor. Meticulously designed and built by Steve, the hotel represents a step back in time to a grander era.
A Family Affair
Michele Ledson drew on years of interior design experience to create the look and feel of the winery's visitor centers. In addition to designing and outfitting the winery's exquisite wine accessories and gift emporium, Michele has acted as the winery's chief emissary, overseeing the very busy hospitality team and welcoming everyone from the casual tourist to the VIP trade visitor with signature Ledson charm.
Son Mike - a life-long farmer like his dad and grandfather and also a journeyman carpenter with his own contractor's license - oversaw most of the interior finishing during construction, doing much of the intricate wood work himself. As it turned out, his tireless energy ultimately made him invaluable to the sales side of the business, and so he splits his time between sales and construction business.
Steve's father Noble Ledson deserves a story all to himself. Until his death, on February 8th, 2004 at age 88, Noble was a force of nature. A gregarious raconteur with an endless repertoire of old Sonoma Valley stories, he routinely consulted on the grape growing and wine making at Ledson Winery, drawing on his life long valley friendships to unearth prime, new vineyard sites. When not holding court at the winery, Noble was either farming his beloved walnut orchard or hitting the road in his tricked-out RV with bride and fellow adventurer Meg. No matter where Noble was, at home or on the road, not a day went by that he didn't start each morning with a phone call to his son, Steve. Sometimes it was to check in, sometimes to offer up encouragement or advice and every so often to give a swift, telephonic kick in the butt. His voice at the end of the phone line is gone. His spirit, though, remains forever.
The winery suffered another loss when Steve's cousin Leonard passed away in 2001. A life-long Sonman who for years managed the vineyards of Kunde Ranch, Leonard oversaw all of the winery's vineyard holdings. The void left by Leonard's passing is large, both for the family and for the winery.
Ledson Winery, however, continues to be a hub for the Ledson clan, with many taking an active role. Over the years, cousins, nephews, nieces and more have taken part in the winery's apprentice program and Steve's own daughters Tonja and Kristina, as well as his sister Nancy regularly pitch in during busy weekends and special events.Beyond his immediate family, Steve has come to rely upon his "extended family" of valued employees who have worked tirelessly for the winery's success with zeal equal to any family member.
Most important to Steve is the potential his new winery presents for bringing even more family members together. As homage to his grandfather, Barker, Steve has devoted the past several years to tracing the Ledson family tree, contacting and re-uniting long lost relatives from all over the globe. Will there soon be Ledson wines in Canada, Australia and England? Absolutely, if Steve has his way, wherever there's Ledson family there'll be Ledson wines.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
Over 130 years since great-grandfather William Cunningham farmed his family vineyard and made his own wine, the Ledson Winery stands today as a dream realized for the Ledson family. It is a family business; built on a heritage of Sonoma Valley farming that provides a work and social center to over 20 family members.
Every detail of the wines and the winery belies generations of experience and commitment to quality. The winery itself is an architectural showpiece. It emerges like a gothic blast from the past out of acres of rolling vineyard and pastoral calm. The "Gone with the Wind" staircase, sculpted rose gardens, sprawling outdoor patios and impeccable grounds make the "castle" the perfect backdrop for an afternoon picnic, corporate getaway or fairytale wedding. Boasting three beautifully appointed tasting bars, a fully stocked gourmet marketplace and elegant clothing and gift boutique, the Ledson Winery is as much a landmark destination as it is a premium winery.
As proud as Barker would be of the Ledson Winery & Vineyards, the family agrees that his greatest pleasure would have been the site of son Noble, grandson Steve and great grandson Mike side-by-side in the vineyard at the crack of dawn, tending the vines, tasting the grapes- striving for quality together as a family. It's what Barker wished for and what the Ledson Winery stands for. You can feel it at the family winery and taste it in every bottle of Ledson Wine.
Epilogue - The Ledson Hotel
You didn't think the story ended there, did you? Not one to rest on his laurels, Steve Ledson started to look at the way in which tourists visited the Sonoma Valley. In particular, the relationship between the very popular Sonoma town plaza and the wineries, like Ledson, that were located up valley. He found, after two years of interviewing plaza visitors, that many were unaware of the full complement of wineries in northern Sonoma Valley, opting instead to tour the more familiar destinations in Napa Valley.
Steve had two goals in mind. He wanted to promote travel from the Sonoma Plaza up valley to his and other wineries, and he wanted to do something to re-create the hospitality and conviviality that he grew up with at the huge feasts prepared by his mother for the many workers, friends and family during harvest.
The idea that had first taken hold in 1997 became a reality in August of 2003 with the grand opening of the Ledson Hotel, Wine Bar and Restaurant. Fronting Sonoma's historic town plaza, the boutique hotel and small plate eaterie was painstakingly designed to evoke Sonoma's rich history while providing all the luxury of the world's tiniest hotels. Old-world charm and modern amenities merge lavishly in each of the six, family-named rooms which grace the second floor. The ground floor wine bar and restaurant spill out onto the sidewalk with bistro style seating and a small plate menu by chefs Mark Sandovol and Darren Robey designed to showcase Sonoma's bounty of local artisan foods and wine. Music lovers are also in for a real treat. Three nights a week the hotel showcases the best of the Bay Area's jazz and blues scene. Within months of opening, the hotel and restaurant had made Condè Nast Traveler's 2004 Hot List as one of the top two hotels in California and one of the top 18 hotels in the US. And yes, with Michele now managing the hotel and restaurant and Steve often on hand to greet, meet and seat, this too is a family affair.