Q & A with Fran Leach, Director of Hospitality, Sojourn Cellars

Fran Leach is a fifth-generation California girl, who loved cooking with her dad and gardening with her mom.  Family meals were always “Farm to Table” style, with home-grown fruits and vegetables and wine on the table for the grownups. She began her career in real estate, but with a growing interest in wine and hospitality, and a connection to the wine industry through Baldacci Family Vineyards, she was able to make the right connections to launch her wine career.  She met her husband, Ken, while he was playing in a band at a bar and he asked her out.  They made music together and have four children who have since grown up and started their own families.  Fran is currently the Director of Hospitality for Sojourn Cellars.  Here’s her story.

Tell us about your family.  While growing up, was wine a part of your parents’ daily life or just for special celebrations (or did they prefer other beverages)?

I grew up in Northern California and am a fifth-generation Californian. My parents were always entertaining. My father, who was born in San Francisco, had a love for fishing and the great outdoors. He did most of the cooking in our home, and as I grew up, I was always in the kitchen with him. There was always amazing food and wine on the table. My mother loved to garden, and I grew up eating “farm to table” before it was even a trend. My parents moved to Vacaville to purchase enough land for animals and large gardens. Every weekend, they would have friends and family over, and everyone participated in the garden and kitchen activities. It was simply a way of life for me.

You and your husband, Ken, live in Vallejo, near San Pablo Bay.  Tell us how the two of you met.

I arrived in Benicia in the mid-1980s, and that’s where I met Ken. He’s a musician who loves to entertain, so having a house full of people every weekend didn’t bother him at all. He fit right in. I used to manage a bar and restaurant in Benicia, and Ken’s band played there. One night, he walked me to my car, and we started talking. It was right before Halloween, and he nervously asked if I’d like to do something before Christmas. I gave him a puzzled look and said I could fit him in before December if he wanted to do something sooner! We both started laughing. I went to see him play, and he invited me on stage to sing backup. I don’t think he expected me to accept, but I grew up in a musical family and play a few instruments myself. So I did it. We sang together, and we’ve been together ever since, although I much prefer being in the audience or on the dance floor. This year will be our 26th wedding anniversary. We got married on the 4th of July, and he promised me fireworks every year!

When did you first begin enjoying wine?  Was it the taste or the story behind the winemaking (or both) that attracted you?

A very good friend and I started taking wine classes together when we were young, and we began really enjoying wine (yes, this was quite a while ago!). Wine is incredibly social and brings a lot of fun in its opening ceremony and sharing. I love how it promotes conversation and exploration, becoming an integral part of my daily life. Entering the wine business felt like a natural step for me. I enjoy making wine more approachable for people, as it is an affordable luxury and is central to hospitality.

How did you get started in the wine business?

My journey into the wine business began when I decided to leave real estate and pursue my passion for hospitality and wine. I was fortunate to have worked in construction, where I met Tom Baldacci, the owner of Baldacci Family Vineyards. Through him, I was introduced to my good friend and mentor, Debi Leal. Working for her was an incredible experience. We were such a small team that I had the opportunity to learn many different aspects of running a hospitality department. With my background in sales and marketing, it turned out to be a fantastic fit.

What is your favorite leisure activity?

I don’t have just one favorite activity. I love exploring new restaurants with friends, though it’s getting hard to find one we haven’t tried. Cooking for my friends and family is always high on my list of favorite things to do. I also garden, growing over 20 different colors and sizes of dahlias in my front yard. My husband says we have the perfect relationship: I like to garden, and he likes to watch me. Being and working in my front yard is my Zen time. I practice yoga with a group of friends I’ve been with for over 10 years. And, of course, there’s wine tasting! I love experiencing what other wineries are doing, visiting new places, and meeting new people in the industry.

Do you have any children?

Ken and I have four children—three daughters and a son—and now seven grandchildren. After our children grew up and moved out, we decided to relocate to Vallejo for the weather and its proximity to Napa and Sonoma. With family in both the Bay Area and Vacaville, we are right in the middle. It’s the perfect location for everyone to get together.

You have pictures of two very charming dogs on your social media sites; tell us about them.  Do they go to work with you?

We have an extremely small tasting room, so no winery dogs here, but we do have visiting dogs. At home, I have two dogs. I had a pug named Bella, whom I lost to cancer during COVID. When I worked at Baldacci Family Vineyard, a colleague also had a pug, and we used to have Pug Sundays, bringing our pugs in for some fun. Bella was my first small dog, and I still mourn her; I really miss her. Mollie, my current dog, is a sweetheart, but I don’t think I can ever replace Bella.

About two years ago you began working at Sojourn Cellars. How did you land that position?

After COVID, I reached out to a friend just to check in on her. We had previously worked together at Rutherford Ranch in Napa, and she was now at Sojourn. She mentioned that Sojourn was looking for a Hospitality Director and thought I would be a good fit. I went for a tasting at the Sojourn Tasting Salon and decided right then and there to apply. The wines were beautiful, featuring 13 Pinot Noirs and 5 Chardonnays from all over the Sonoma Coast, plus some Cabernet from Napa. I was in heaven. The staff is small and operates like a family. As it turned out I am a good fit.

We understand that you enjoy cooking and are a real “foodie.”  What is your favorite thing to make for friends and family?  What wine would you pair it with?

I make Sunday dinner at our house, and we always pair wine with the meal.  We are a family of “foodies” and love wine too! Our family favorite is Coq au Vin, which I pair with our Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir from the Petaluma Gap. This is a winter staple at our house!

Since you’ve worked in the wine industry in both Napa and Sonoma, what would you say to a tourist who is planning a visit to California Wine Country?  What advantages do you see that Sonoma has over Napa?  

I love that Sonoma still has the small-town vibe and that there are countless wineries here yet to be discovered. The diversity is remarkable; you can take a break from wine tasting and explore the Sonoma Coast, the mountains, redwoods, and beaches. With music, wine, and food, what more could you ask for?

Sojourn is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  You recently revamped your branding and unveiled a beautiful new label.  Are there other changes on the horizon?   

That’s a great question. When we started contemplating our 20th vintage, we began discussing what changes we might consider. It started with visual aspects, leading into a philosophical conversation about our brand name, Sojourn. The original concept of Sojourn 20 years ago was about embarking on a journey with celebrations along the way. With our new aesthetic, we believe it better reflects who we are and our future direction. It’s the same exceptional winemaking team crafting wines from iconic vineyards we’re fortunate to partner with, now complemented by a visual identity that we feel more accurately embodies our handcrafted wines and the true essence of Sojourn.

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