With a career that spans nuclear power, solar energy research, software development, journalism, a dot.com start up, farming, winemaking and winery ownership, it’s no wonder that Stephen’s role at Kanzler Family Vineyards has been so varied. With endless energy and a sixth sense about vineyards, Stephen maintains a key role in the ultimate vision of the company as he begins to pass the torch to the next generation.
Stephen’s career began on the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, where he was a nuclear reactor operator and technician, completing three Yankee Station deployments during the Vietnam War. Upon completing his service in 1975 his technical expertise landed him a job in solar energy research at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory where he met his future wife, Lynda.
In the mid-1980s Stephen, Lynda and their young family moved to Seattle, WA where Stephen worked for Microsoft in technical management jobs in the Windows and Operating Systems Group. But after five years of long hours and gloomy weather, he and Lynda were ready to return to Northern California to raise their children where the sun shined. After Microsoft, a lower pressure country lifestyle appealed to them, and in 1992 they moved to the small town of Sebastopol in western Sonoma County. In 1994 they purchased 20 acres of old apple orchard and built their family home.
Though semi-retired, by the mid-1990s the siren song of the startup lured Stephen back into high tech, and in 1996 he founded his own software company, LikeMinds. “All my Microsoft buddies were doing startups,” said Steve. “I felt like I needed to do one to complete my high tech resume.” After four years of long days and even longer commutes to San Francisco’s SOMA high tech ghetto, the company was acquired by Macromedia, capping Stephen’s career in technology and allowing him to focus on the family’s Sebastopol Hills property.
“I’d been advised by one of my farming neighbors that the best use of our land would be to plant grapes,” he recounts. “But I was a city kid from back East whose only knowledge of farming was visiting my uncle’s chicken ranch and cauliflower farm on Long Island when I was nine.”
But somewhere in Stephen’s DNA a long-dormant farming gene was activated and he began a crash course in viticulture, visiting vineyards and wineries all over Sonoma County and enrolling in classes at UC Davis and Santa Rosa Junior College. He researched which rootstocks and clones would be compatible with the soils and microclimates of the site, and in 1996, he planted 15 acres to wine grapes.
Since he planted those first vines 20 years ago, Stephen has fully devoted himself to grape growing and running the small family-owned winery he and Lynda founded in 2004. “As with most small wineries, we’re involved in every aspect,” he says. Sometimes that even means spending an entire day dipping bottles of Kanzler Estate Reserve Pinot Noir in sealing wax or standing for hours picking MOG (Material Other than Grapes) from newly harvested grapes as they whiz by on the sorting table. But that’s okay with him. “I like to get my hands dirty.”