Q&A with Kenneth Noren, Wonderful Nurseries

Ken Noren grew up in the Salinas Vallley, surrounded by agriculture. As a young boy, he was heavily involved in 4-H and FFA, When the time came to choose a college, Cal Poly was a natural fit. Although he was interested in wine and grape growing, viticulture wasn’t offered as a major at the time, so he instead chose AgBusiness. After graduation, he began his career in viticulture, and soon transitioned into sales, despite being deathly afraid of having to sell something! Today he is a Sales Manager at Wonderful Nurseries. Here’s his story.

Your family name, Noren, is Swedish, and translates to “a narrow stream between two waters.”  Did you celebrate your Scandinavian heritage while growing up?  Do you know where in Sweden your ancestors were from?  Were they farmers as many were before coming to this country?

Unfortunately, we do not know much, if anything. about my Scandinavian heritage. It’s an unanswered question I’ve had for much of my life. So much so, that my wife and I have a tentative trip planned for the summer of 2025 to go and explore Sweden and the surrounding countries.

You grew up in Salinas, CA which is known for agriculture and was once one of the wealthiest cities in the US.  As they say, “green gold grows in its fields.”  Was that what drew your family to the area?  Did it influence your decision to study Agri-Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo? Did you consider other majors or was it something you knew you wanted to do from the start?

 I don’t know if agriculture necessarily drew my family to the area, but the Salinas Valley at the time was a growing area and somewhere both sides of my family felt was a good place to settle. Back in the ’60s, my grandfather (dad’s side) was instrumental in introducing wax-coated boxes into the produce/lettuce industry and that was what ultimately kept my immediate family in the area. Both my grandfather and dad had lengthy careers in packaging for the local produce industry.

Growing up in the Salinas Valley, we were surrounded by agriculture, and the gravitational pull down to Cal Poly was measurable. Growing up, I was heavily involved in 4-H and FFA, so exposure to Cal Poly by way of older students happened at a young age. And, if that wasn’t enough, my best friend’s sister attended Cal Poly, and I was fortunate enough to tag along on many trips down to San Luis Obispo. I was able to experience Cal Poly first-hand at a very influential time in my life, and ultimately decided early on that was where I needed to be.

As a major, Ag Business was the obvious choice as it was a little more general of a focus at the time. Although I was interested in Wine and Viticulture at the time, it was not offered as a major, so Ag Business it was! But in all honesty, I would’ve majored in poultry science if it meant I could go and live in SLO and attend Cal Poly.

After graduating from Cal Poly you went to work as a vineyard technician.  Were you working in the vineyards day-to-day or was it more of a consulting role?  Which vineyards did you work with and where were they located?

My experience as a vineyard tech started while I was at Cal Poly. Much of that position was moving equipment around, scheduling irrigation, and sugar sampling when fruit was getting ready to pick. I applied for the Vit Tech position with Lent-Burden Farming Company, which at the time was managing all of Gallo’s coastal vineyard properties. I was fortunate enough to get the job, but it turned out I was the only one that applied. Based primarily out of Paso Robles at Gallo’s Sunnybrook Vineyard, I was able to see a lot of different vineyards that stretched from San Luis Obispo up to Southern Monterey County. This position ultimately led me to an Assistant Vineyard Management role for two different companies before making the move to Vintage Nurseries.

Eventually, you decided to transition to the sales side of agriculture and went to work for Vintage Nurseries, once recognized throughout the grapevine nursery industry as the high-quality, low-cost producer of dormant and greenhouse-grown bench grafts and other vineyard-related products.  What was your transition to sales like? Did you get sales training before taking on this role?

Transitioning to Sales from Vineyard Management, although daunting at the time, was a very natural transition for me. I was energetic and I thrived on working directly with people which was lacking on the vineyard side.  I was eager for the challenge of doing something new and learning a different side of the wine industry, so the opportunity to meet and work with new people was a welcome one at the time.

The sales training was minimal, but I had a good amount of support from other sales reps and internal staff at the nursery. There was a definite phase of adjustment, but ultimately I just needed to be willing to help and pick up the phone when someone called.

I remember being deathly afraid of having to actually ‘sell’ something to someone, but I quickly realized that if someone has a need, it was my job to do my best to fill that need, and to also realize when I couldn’t, which was ok. Fast forward 15 years, and I find that I live by those very words when it comes to handling customers. I simply may not have what they need at times, and that’s ok, but to help them find what they need, is ultimately the opportunity that I have every time someone calls.

For many years you worked with Agromillora Group, an international company that specializes in fruit trees and olives, as its Director of Sales and Marketing.  Did you miss working with grapes or did they also sell grapevines?

At the time, Agromillora didn’t produce or sell grapevines in California but was one of the largest vine producers in Europe. Although my new role was not involved in the wine industry, the company was deeply rooted in it internationally.  I was uncomfortable leaving the wine industry and what I knew, but it ultimately led me to some amazing experiences, and I was able to meet a ton of people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. With the company headquartered just south of Barcelona, specifically in the Cava region known for Sparkling wines, I found myself getting to travel annually to Spain and Portugal and indirectly getting to explore wine regions that I had only read about.  Moral of the story: when the opportunity feels uncomfortable and you don’t want to leave what you know, take the leap and great things will happen.

Four years ago you took a position in Sales at Wonderful Nurseries.  Vintage Nurseries is now part of Wonderful; were you able to reconnect through former colleagues from your time in sales at Vintage?

I had stayed in contact with most of my co-workers at Vintage. I was aware of the acquisition by Wonderful, and some of the follow-on renovations that took place at the nursery in 2014-2015. By early 2019, it had come across my radar that Wonderful Nurseries was looking to expand into almond and pistachio tree sales, which had been my primary focus for Agromillora over the last 5+ years. Agromillora was going into a period of contraction and although I was probably safe, a part of me wanted to be focused closer to home and not on the road as much as I had been over the last 5-6 years.

As I began to understand what that might look like, it became clear that the real need was for someone to take over grapevine sales on the North Coast, and that was something I was very familiar with. So, given my recent experience in the almond and pistachio industry and my experience in vineyards and vine sales, the stars seem to align for me to make the move. It has ended up being a perfect blend of exposure to both industries and has allowed me to be closer to home on a daily basis.

In 2009 you and your wife, Lindsey Apkarian, got married.  Where did you meet?  What brought the two of you together?

Lindsey and I met through a mutual friend in 2006 in San Luis Obispo. I was living in Paso Robles at the time; she was living in SLO. I happened to be down there for a work event; we connected for drinks afterward and hit it off.  We ended up hanging out together in the months to come.

In July of 2006, shortly after we met, I ended up taking a job in Sebastopol and relocating to Sonoma County. Lindsey was also looking for a job and ended up applying for a social studies teaching position at Analy High School in Sebastopol.  Two weeks later she was interviewed and was hired on the spot. She came up in August to start the school year, and about two weeks after that, we moved into a small rental in Santa Rosa and we’ve been here ever since.

Does wine play a role in your family life?  Do you enjoy wine with dinner and if so, what is your favorite variety? 

We love wine, especially wine from Sonoma County. When we moved here, we didn’t realize how diverse this region is for great wines.  We were able to explore and find wines that we love. We do enjoy wine with dinner and it’s rare we don’t have a bottle of wine open in the house. If I had to pick one variety, I would say Pinot Noir is our favorite. When I moved here, Pinot Noir was booming; at the time I was completely oblivious to how popular it was. Although the Central Coast has some cool climate Pinots, I had not experienced anything like the Pinots coming out of the Petaluma Gap, Russian River, or the Sonoma Coast. Lindsey and I loved them all and we both gravitate to those wines to this day.

You and Lindsey now have an adorable son.  What is his name?  Do you have any other children?  Are you hoping that he will follow in your footsteps and take up agriculture as his chosen field?  Does he like to plant things in your garden?

Our son’s name is Carson and he is 7 years old. He is our only child; he’s a handful and we don’t know what we’d do without him. Carson loves sports, playing with friends, and hanging with us (for now). Since he was a baby, we’ve literally taken him everywhere we go, so our bond is strong. So much so, that Lindsey and I began discussing our 15th wedding anniversary trip a couple of weeks ago, and Carson insisted that he be included. We explained to him that Mom and Dad were going to take a trip with just the two of us and that he would get to stay with his grandparents for a week….it would be like a vacation with Mimi and Papa! His response was simple, yet direct: “ So, when do WE leave?”

I would love it if Carson’s path led him into agriculture, but ultimately, I hope that we instill enough confidence in him that he can go and do whatever he sets his mind to. We’ve noticed that he loves to build with Legos, he loves reading and math, but he also has a green thumb. He’s definitely not afraid of getting his hands dirty whether it’s yard work or tending to the garden, so, we’ll see where that takes us. For now, I’m just trying to get him to pick up his Legos and make his bed!

Rumor has it that you are an avid cyclist and skier.  With work and family obligations are you still active in these sports? Do you spend time up in Tahoe?

Ha! I do love all things outdoors, but especially water sports. Growing up in Salinas, we had two lakes that were about an hour + south of us. We spent a lot of weekends on the boat water skiing, wakeboarding, and fishing. In the Winter, we spent vacations and what weekends we could skiing. Some of my fondest memories with my family growing up were of all of us snow-skiing.

I was very fortunate growing up that my parents loved to ski so we spent a lot of time in Tahoe and at a smaller mountain resort called Dodge Ridge, which is Northeast of Oakdale. After meeting Lindsey in 2006, we quickly realized that we both loved skiing, so we incorporated that sport into our Winter plans as much as possible, which has helped us carry on the tradition.

I’m doing my best to install that same love of skiing and watersports in Carson at a young age. We’ve been lucky enough to spend the last four years teaching and coaching Carson up at Dodge Ridge and it has allowed us to create some amazing memories together. We’ve been able to see him progress at a young age and find the same love of skiing that we have. Aside from seeing him ski with us, our biggest accomplishment as a skiing family was in the winter of 2021/2022, when we managed to get 26 days in together. I’m not sure we’ll ever accomplish that again, but you never know!

You live in Santa Rosa and Wonderful Nurseries is located down south in Wasco, not too far from Bakersfield.  Do you travel frequently to the company headquarters?  Your sales territory is Coastal CA, Oregon and Washington.  That’s a large area to cover; do you get to use the company plane?

I do travel down to the nursery on an as-needed basis. Obviously, with the expansion of video calls, I do most meetings over Teams or Zoom, which has made things way more convenient. However, in the Winter and Spring, when the nursery is in full swing of vine production, I tend to make my way down there more frequently. Sometimes that is with customers who are touring the nursery or viewing vine orders. Fortunately, I do have access to the company plane when needed which has made travel much easier. The plane has also allowed me to get some of our larger customers, as well as potential customers, down to the nursery without the 6-hour drive down and back.  Of our entire sales and upper management team, I am the farthest from the nursery, so being able to travel more efficiently has been a major blessing and made my job a bit easier.

You’ve sold grapevines to several growers in the Petaluma Gap who are now the source of some great wines.  When you drive through the AVA and see the vineyards that have been planted with Wonderful vines, how does that make you feel? 

Seeing our vines planted in the Petaluma Gap is special and I’m genuinely proud that we can be a part of the industry. Producing vines is not easy, nor is it glamorous, and getting it right sometimes seems impossible considering all the factors that go into it. Like most vineyard and winery owners, we’re in a constant state of improvement, and the minute we take our eyes off improvement, we stumble. So, I tend to take my wins quietly, celebrate them quickly, and set my sights on the next challenge.

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