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Francesca Stonum: Continuing the Dream

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A kind heart, a free spirit, a hard worker and a risk taker are some of the ways Michael Stonum was described to me. He was a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend and a farmer. The legacy he leaves behind rests on the shoulders of three dedicated and talented women: his sister, Kathy, his wife, Maridel, and his daughter, Francesca. A winemaker, a tasting room manager and a farmer, these three women work tirelessly to continue a tradition of warmth and hand-crafted wines. This is Stonum Winery. 

“17 acres of cherries, Tokay grapes and an old rundown farmhouse,” Fran described the property when her father, Michael, known to his family and the community as Mike, convinced her grandmother and her Aunt Kathy in 1979 to take the gamble and purchase the farm. “The orchard was in disarray; nothing had been taken care of for years,” she continued. Mike’s background in viticulture started when he was only 18 years of age. He worked as a vineyard foreman in Mendocino. The Stonums made the purchase and planted zinfandel grapes, and Mike worked in the vineyard replacing the furrow irrigation to surface drip. Cover crops were planted in an effort to improve soil health, and Mike engineered a trellis system to allow grape clusters to hang freely and maximize air flow through the vines. 

Achieving Their Goals
As Mike focused on the vineyard and growing grapes, his sister, Kathy, became a self-taught winemaker. “My Auntie K is a strong woman. She came up in a time when there were not a lot of women in the industry. She doesn’t take no for an answer and I couldn’t ask for a better role model,” Fran shared. Kathy was a teacher and she liked to follow directions. Mike was a free spirit and liked to push the boundaries. It was apparent to me when I was visiting the winery that the relationship between the brother and sister was special and unique, each of them bringing a different view and approach to the table but ultimately having the same goal. “My brother tested my patience for sure. We had disagreements but always found a way to work together. There was laughter and love at the end of any argument. We balanced each other out and had a way of bringing out the best in one another,” Kathy said lovingly. Mike passed away in August 2019 after battling pancreatic cancer. His legacy continues through the love and determination of the Stonum women as his daughter, Fran, stepped into the role as vineyard manager. “Watching her grow into this role and seeing pieces of my brother shine through her are a gift and a blessing,” Kathy revealed as we all shared tears at her sentiment. 

Fran grew up in the vineyard. She tagged along with her father as he inspected the vineyard; she rode along with him on the tractor and she learned the value of hard work and persistence. “My dad was the hardest-working person I have ever known. He was meticulous and a perfectionist. His respect for the land and the fruit is what guides me as I take on this role,” she commented. Kathy and Fran continue the tradition of a minimalistic approach to their wines. They let the fruit speak for itself without much intervention, if any. ‘“Trust the process’ is what my dad used to say,” Fran remembers. Kathy approaches winemaking with a finesse and trust, allowing the characteristics of the fruit and terroir of the land to shine through the final product. 

There Are No Strangers at Stonum
I was lucky enough to go through the lineup in the tasting room with Kathy, Fran and Maridel. I wasn’t familiar with the winery or the story behind it. In all of my years living in Lodi and wine tasting, my experience at Stonum Winery was remarkable and one I will never forget. The warmth and kindness extended from these women can be felt immediately upon entering the tasting room. I was welcomed with smiles and enjoyed several hours of wine, conversation and a tour of the facility. I got to see firsthand how Mike’s engineering left his stamp on the farm, from the design of the basement cellar room, which was a lovely escape from the heat, to the multi-tiered trellis in the vineyard. As we walked to the farmhouse, Maridel shared stories about Mike inviting anyone who stopped by to join them for dinner. She laughed as she remembered feeding strangers whatever she had cooked that evening for dinner. “Mike never met a stranger. Everyone was always welcome and we spent our evenings in the yard, opening bottles, talking about wine and sharing food,” smiled Maridel. 

My tour ended in the newly planted garden that Fran, her cousin, Chris, and his girlfriend, Eilee, started this spring after California faced our shelter-in-place orders. “The garden is an expression for hope and the future,” Fran explained. She planted the organic garden to help reflect the regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices she is striving for in the vineyard. “I want the garden to be an educational space while adding to the tasting room experience,” she continued. Fresh-cut bouquets of flowers are available for purchase and she plans to contribute fruit and vegetables into the production of the homemade jams and preserves they sell. “I’d like to extend the garden as an educational opportunity for children, to help them connect with the earth and know where food comes from,” she finished. 

The Love Is Present
I left the winery after a joyful, one-of-a-kind tasting experience. Fran and I connected later and we spoke in detail about the loss of her father, the pressure of working with family and living up to his legacy. I asked her about living in the farmhouse and working in his vineyard. For some, the daily reminders would be too painful. Fran answered my question simply. “I find solace here. Walking down a row where he walked, touching a vine he planted and nourished for the last 40 years. I even drive his tractor!” She admitted that some days are so difficult and the pain is palpable, “Then, something magical happens and I know his presence is with me.” 

We continued our conversation and discussed the challenges of working with family. “There are less boundaries when you work with your family, but we also know how to play on everyone’s strengths,” she revealed. “My mom’s welcoming spirit shines through the tasting room and the overall community atmosphere here. Auntie K’s strength and work ethic motivate me daily,” Fran explained. The Stonum women continue a legacy that started with Mike’s dream. Memories and stories are shared by visitors of his kindness and open heart. The wines truly reflect an old-world style, with distinct flavors and fragrance followed by balanced and smooth finishes. Mike’s spirit shines on as Kathy, Maridel and Fran invite you to experience Stonum Winery.