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George MacLeod’s hi-tech history

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 | Posted by

By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Most Sonoma Valley residents know 90-year-old George MacLeod as the owner of Kenwood’s MacLeod Family Vineyard or as the witty “Journey to Harvest” columnist in the Kenwood Press. Others know that he has been married to his “princess” Greta for 63 years and is the father of four, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of three.

But here’s something about MacLeod that may surprise you: his name is intertwined with the history of light-emitting diodes or, as they have come to be known, LEDs.

These days LED technology is everywhere, producing light when electrons move through a silicon-like material called gaAs. It’s found in products like digital clocks and flashlights and alerts us that our computers are turned on or that batteries are charging.

It’s surprising to learn that LED technology existed for more than 50 years without creating much of a stir. But for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, MacLeod did everything he could to change that.

At that time, MacLeod headed a Cupertino-based division of Monsanto that manufactured LED products. Known as the Electronic Special Products division, it was in the enviable position of having no competitors anywhere in the world.

There was just one problem: The technology was so far ahead of its time that nobody really “got” what it could do, and the products had few buyers.

“Here’s an example,” MacLeod said last week. “Our guys put together a fake automobile dashboard with LEDs, and I flew back with it to Detroit. Everybody there had a ho-hum attitude about it. They said things like, ‘That’s got some nice engineering,’ or ‘Very cute technology.’ But they simply couldn’t visualize what we had done.”

More than 4,500 people who worked for MacLeod at Monsanto’s Electronic Special Products division knew that “lighting in the world would never be the same after this. We knew it was destined to change everything, we knew we were doing something spectacular, and we wanted to get it out there.”

Of course, it wasn’t just the technology that made employees enthusiastic; it was MacLeod himself.

“George always looked on the positive side,” said John Torok, who was a year out of school when MacLeod hired him as an engineer in 1971.

“He always let people know when they did a great job. If they made a mistake, he was low-key about it. He gave us the freedom to not be afraid about making mistakes, and that left us room to be innovative. He was an outstanding people guy, and I’ve used what I learned from him throughout my career.”

Fueled by a convivial working environment and a shared vision, the core group under MacLeod became “the technology equivalent of a band of brothers,” he said.

“Every Friday, I’d have a group meeting in the cafeteria. I’d have beer there. Everybody would talk about what happened that week, how they screwed up or how what they did worked. Everybody was so intensely involved, I’d have to scoot them home.”

That’s why this Saturday (5/5) nearly 100 former Monsanto employees will fly from around the country for a reunion at MacLeod’s Indian Springs Ranch in Kenwood. They will celebrate Cinco de Mayo with roast pork carnitas and guacamole, toured the vineyards and catch up big-time on the last few decades.

“I’m totally astonished that so many wanted to make the trip,” said MacLeod. “We all have jobs in our lives, and then we go on to other jobs. But this thing we experienced was so important for all of us that they wanted to get together again and talk about those times.”

In 1974, MacLeod and his wife, Greta, began to realize his lifelong dream of tilling the land when they bought 50 acres of rocky and hilly ground in Kenwood, a former ranch fallen into disrepair. He worked for Monsanto another five years, finally retiring in 1979 and turning full-time attention to clearing the land and planting a vineyard.

“The soil we have here is ideal for sauvignon blanc,” he said, “lean, shallow, rocky. The Pacific Ocean fog comes right down the valley, and every summer afternoon about 2 the cool breezes come in.”

MacLeod said he “planted vines from scratch, ripping about a million rocks out of this place. I planted 15,000 vines from ’79 through ’81. The rootstock everybody recommended, AxR1, turned out to be a big mistake.

“I ended up with phylloxera, like a lot of others, so I had to replant all over again nine years later. That’s why I call my life an out-of-control retirement project.”

MacLeod sells about two-thirds of his grapes to premier wineries including Kendall Jackson, Cline Cellars, Wellington and Duckhorn “off and on.”

The rest is used to make 1,300 cases of award-winning MacLeod Family Vineyard wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot and Pink Lady Rosé. MacLeod’s eldest son Richard is winemaker, and the wines are made at Mauritson Winery.

Ninety percent of sales come from wine club members. The wine is also carried by some Sonoma Valley restaurants, including the Swiss Hotel, Santé and the Kenwood Restaurant.

These days MacLeod’s son John and his wife Marjorie have taken over the day-to-day operation of the ranch, allowing room for family in his out-of-control retirement. Most weekends are filled with visits from children and grandchildren.

“We’ve always called our family ‘The Association,’” said MacLeod. “When the kids were growing up we had regular meetings to make decisions or talk about things. If the kids came to me and said they had a problem, I would always say: ‘There’s no such word as problem. Everything that happens to you is an opportunity.’”

MacLeod laughed. “Even when there’s a bad year with the grapes or wine, it’s an opportunity. Wine gives you a different hand to play each year. If you screw it up one year, you’ll get another chance the next.”

MacLeod Family Vineyard is at 740 Lawndale Road in Kenwood, 833-2089, macleodfamilyvineyard.com.


  • KM

    Another stellar profile by Rodriguez, the lit guru of Sonoma Valley. What a fascinating guy–what a well-written article.

  • Suzie Rodriguez

    Thank you for being such a dear and supportive friend, Karen.

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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