John Kautz calls himself a “lucky farmer,” while his wife, Gail, thinks of herself as “a country girl born by chance in the city.” Their humble descriptions are tough to win today’s status as the titans of California agriculture.
John Kautz, 92, and Gail, “in their mid-80s,” are the unstoppable forces behind the Kautz Family farms in Lodi and Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys. With the help of the literary firm of the late Kevin Starr, the two have captured the story of a farming family and the immense change in California agriculture in a brilliant new book, “Kautz: The Story of a Family and a Farm in California.”
“We wanted others to know that with hard work and dedication they can achieve what they never believed possible,” said John Kautz, sitting at a table for two, where he undertook much of the work of historical-discernment and detail-collection. to put up for several years.
Starr, a former librarian and longtime Kautz family member, takes readers on a fascinating journey starting with the grueling experience of John Kautz’s German immigrant parents, who worked on sugar beet farms in Nebraska before leaving for new opportunities in California’s Central Valley. Here, they worked on a rented farm through the depression until 1942, when they were finally able to buy their own land in Lodi.
The story describes John’s rural training as he worked with his parents on the family’s 40-acre rowing farm. Daniel Lei, and brother Fred Kautz, both in World War II, notes the most painful losses of Uncle John. And explores John’s growth as he masters the art and science of farming and establishes himself as a risk-taking, innovative agricultural politician.
John Yero tells the story of agriculture, beginning as a leader of Future Farmers of America and California Young Farmers, then president of Tri-Valley Growers and later president of the state Food and Agriculture Board.
“History to be noted,” Gail Kautz said. “Our generation is not going to be here much longer. I hope the young people will behave with the effort.
A chance encounter in a Stockton pizza parlor in the flood of 1958 brought together a dirty country man and a city girl, a union that lasted for 63 years. The couple has four children, all of whom work in one form or another in the current family business.
Over the decades, the Kautzes have built powerful partnerships, flourishing in business, international trade, civic and community service.
Gail, for her part, was a delegate to two Republican conventions and was a member of the board of regents at the University of the Pacific. She still has the Concours d’Elegance classic car show at Ironstone — a fundraiser for the California Future Farmers of America and 4-H.
Now the Kautz estates in Lodi encompass more than 7,000 acres of wine grapes; Its Ironstone Vineyards is one of the state’s top 10 wineries, with sales to more than 50 countries.
The Kautz family’s investment in Ironstone and the town of Murphys helped catalyze the area’s burgeoning tourism industry. The 200,000-square-foot steel amphitheater opened in 1997, and has since hosted some of the biggest names in entertainment including Bonnie Raitt, BB King and Willie Nelson.
One of the hottest attractions in Murphys is the Troy couple’s 44 pound gold. As Kautz describes in the book, the match was determined to keep the most polished piece in the Mother Lode, after learning that the French government and other investors would buy it from the Sonora Mining Co. planned for display at the Louvre.
An interesting war followed, with Kautzes claiming victory. The largest crystalline specimen of gold leaf in the world is now the centerpiece of the Ironstone Vineyards Heritage Museum.
Kautz’s book is lovingly loaded with historical and contemporary photos, including one of Gail on her horse hunting elk in Colorado, and tributes to luminaries and other admirers of the Kautz family. On the back cover, family member and former Gov. Pete Wilson suggests that readers “raise a glass to the Kautz family in gratitude for teaching us why we’re blessed to be free … and we’d better work damn hard to keep us free.”
“Kautz: A History of Family and Farming in California” is available for $30 at the Ironstone Vineyards gift shop, Micke Grove Park and Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The book can also be ordered online www.ironstonevineyyards.com/kautz-book.