Classic cars, family, good food and great wine.
In no particular order, these were the things that made Mark Ketcham happy — the things around which the jovial Palo Alto native built his life. Over the course of 20 years as a resident of northern Sonoma County, Ketcham founded Ketcham Estate Winery and established himself as a fixture in the local philanthropy scene. He died earlier this month of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis at age 65.
Friends and family members remembered Ketcham best for his larger-than-life personality, unconstrained generosity, indefatigable humor, and sharp intellect.
“He had this real magnetism, a way of bringing people together and lighting up a room,” said Allie Fuleky Ketcham, his widow. “He always seemed to bring out the best in them, even if was meeting them for the first time.”
Ketcham certainly had a varied career.
Born January 26, 1955 in Palo Alto, he graduated from Serra High School in San Mateo and went on to receive a Bachelor of Science from the University of San Francisco and Master of Science in computer science from Princeton University. Shortly after beginning his career, Ketcham founded Ketcom Systems, a San Francisco-based supplier of business software.
In the late 1980s, Ketcham cashed out of high-tech and turned his passion for vintage Ferraris and other cars into a full-on side business for buying, racing and brokering collector cars. This business, Ketcham Imports, still exists today, though Ketcham sold his beloved blue 1972 Lancia Stratos a few years ago.
A mutual love of Ferraris brought Ketcham together with Ted Johnson, owner of Milestone Motor Cars in Boynton Beach, Florida. The two met in 1988 and worked on dozens of car deals over the years. Johnson said Ketcham was a “true connoisseur,” and was known around the world for his attention to detail with record-keeping.
“He was a historian in a way,” Johnson said of his late friend. “He owned (Ferraris). He played with them. He loved them.”
Ketcham made the move to Wine Country in 2000, purchasing a 17-acre parcel at the base of the Russian River Valley off Eastside Road near Rodney Strong Vineyards. A hard-core fan of pinot noir, He planted 13 acres to five different clones of pinot and enlisted Michael Browne as the founding winemaker for the new property: Ketcham Estate Winery. The first few vintages of the wine — 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 — were renowned far and wide. They were made in Burgundian style and featured the estate vineyard’s Pommard 4 clone, which is roughly 45 years old.
These early wines also helped Ketcham win over Allie, whom he met on a blind date in 2007.
“The night of our first date he had me to the house and had me taste the wines and I was like, ‘This is the best wine I’ve ever tasted,’” said Allie, 44. “We wound up closing down (Michael Mina’s Aqua) that night.”
The two married in 2008 and honeymooned in Bahrain, where Ketcham organized the Ferrari Classic event with the Crown Prince of Bahrain and the Bahrain International F1 Circuit. (The event took place during the Formula 1 Grand Prix that year.)
Upon returning to wine country, they started a family immediately, welcoming Savannah (now 11) and Nicholas (now 9) in the first few years of marriage. As a family they traveled extensively, most often to Italy and Southern France. Fatherhood inspired Ketcham to back away from work and spend most of his free time with his children. He especially loved coaching his son’s little league team and taking the kids for rides in collector cars.
According to Allie, family life is what Ketcham always wanted.
“He accomplished so much in his younger years, not having kids was his one regret,” she said. “When we moved into this house and had the kids it fulfilled him so much. Family was his ultimate passion.”
Another of Ketcham’s passions: Good food. In his later years he was a key member of a group of friends known as the “Carnivore Club.” This group met regularly and dined at different steakhouses around the Bay Area. Everyone brought a nice bottle of wine to drink with their steaks. Ketcham always brought pinot.
Jeff Collins, a club member and senior operations manager at Asti Winery for E&J Gallo, was a regular in this group and became good pals with Ketcham over time. He remembers outings to Osso Steakhouse and other eateries in and around San Francisco that lasted well into the early morning.
“The nights were always full of cheer,” Collins said. “Of course, (Ketcham) would laugh at the rest of us if we brought anything but pinot.”
Fittingly, Collins and Ketcham met at a fundraiser — Ketcham became a fixture at philanthropic events around the county. In the last decade alone, he served on the board of the Adventist Health Frank Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits and supported other organizations such as the Augusta Heart Association and the Bobby Nichols Foundation. Ketcham also was a member of the St. Francis Yacht Club, and he donated generously to their charitable programs.
Renee Graves, general manager of the winery and Ketcham Imports, has worked closely with Ketcham since 2010 and said she’ll miss his positive vibe.
“Technically my title here is ‘Director of Happiness,’” she quipped. “Mark came back from a trip a few years ago and told me that’s what he was going to call me. That pretty much sums up everything about him right there.”
Looking forward, Allie Ketcham and Graves say they will continue Mark Ketcham’s car business and his legacy of philanthropy. They also intend to run Ketcham Estate in his memory, pivoting to position the wine as woman-owned, women-run, and women-made (Tami Collins, Jeff Collins’ wife, has been winemaker since 2012).
Ketcham is survived by his wife and children, as well as his sister Cathy Howard, nephew Aloysius Cummings IV, niece PK Cummings and brother Mike Ketcham. In lieu of flowers the family would be grateful for donations to Savannah and Nick Ketcham’s college fund through First Republic Bank.