Rae Lee Lester, President and co-owner of Wyncroft Winery with her husband, Jim, died on February 6 at age 56, after battling cancer for more than four years.
That's how any obituary might begin. But those who had the opportunity to share a glass with Rae Lee know that a genuine force of nature has departed Michigan's wine world.
Rae Lee was a whirlwind of words and motion, possessor of a fabulous tasting palate, never at a loss for an opinion or bon mot and always at home with the bawdy quip. Jim tells the story of a Pinot Noir tasting at which she was the only female in the room. After several less-than-inspiring wines, a better sample caused another taster to enthuse, "Now there's a wine that's got balls" -- to which Rae Lee immediately silenced the room with the zinger, "No, this is Pinot Noir. It's got tits."
She and Jim met when she was 16, married at 20, and remained full partners for more than 35 years -- both in their winery and their life. Their shared passion led them to create Wyncroft, with the goal of becoming the first winery to make world-class wine from Michigan grapes, and they proudly proclaimed it as Michigan's smallest winery.
Between the two, Rae Lee was the visionary who kept her eye on the overview, the long-term philosophy. She came up with the Wyncroft name, along with the concept that the winery should operate without a tasting room, selling its wines only by the case to a mailing list.
Yet she wasn't above getting her hands dirty -- far from it. During Wyncroft's first couple of years, before they had wines to sell, Jim held an outside wine sales job to keep them afloat financially, while Rae Lee farmed the vineyard on a daily basis -- pruning, tying and weeding the vines.
The mere fact that they were partners didn't mean they always concurred. As Rae Lee repeatedly said, "If the two of you always agree about everything, one of you is unnecessary."
Jim and Rae Lee Lester, 2007
For example, whenver I tasted their wines with Rae Lee and Jim, she'd try to goad me into commenting on the Chardonnay -- never a particularly difficult task -- knowing full well that she and I shared a stylistic preference for far less oaky, buttery versions than Jim preferred to make.
Once she'd elicited my opinion she'd turn to Jim with an "I told you so!" glint in her eye. And this was one battle she seemed to be slowly winning; Wyncroft's last
couple of Chardonnay vintages are decidedly throttled-down from those
that preceded them.
But it never bothered Jim when she was right. In fact, one of the precepts behind their relationship was the strength of their mutual respect: they would only act when they came to agreement on a course to follow. While that could make their decision-making lengthy, it kept their partnership strong.
Above all, Rae Lee believed in the healing, soothing power of good food and wine. During the Michigan Wine Industry Annual Meeting a couple of years back, I remember coming back to their place at Crystal Mountain after one long session. While other owners and winemakers wandered in and out and Jim popped some corks, Rae Lee -- already well into her illness but still in constant motion -- turned out a stream of mouth-watering dishes from the chalet's tiny kitchen, despite our protestations of "Enough!"
She somehow sensed that, with sufficient good food and wine in front of us, both she and we could forget the troubles of the day and take our pleasures from the moment and the company.
Rae Lee, I take a great deal of pleasure remembering the moments spent in your company.
Jim Lester advises that there will be a memorial and celebration of Rae Lee's life at 3 PM on Saturday, February 28, at the First Unitarian Church of South Bend,
101 East North Shore Drive, South Bend, IN 46617. All who would like to attend are welcome.