Over the years, 83-year-old farmer Nick Leras of Windsor has been described as “salt-of-the-earth,” the “real deal” and a “genuine character and true original.”
Leras is all of that and a lot more, becoming something of an agrarian folk legend in Sonoma County’s Wine Country, where he’s true grit among the more manicured gentlemen farmers. He calls himself one of the “old-timers,” and to many he’s a valued link to the past, farming land on Woolsey Road where his immigrant Greek parents settled in 1918.
Leras has dedicated his life to preserving this land and legacy for the future.
“I love farming and I love where I farm. I thank my father and mother every day for buying a farm in what we now call the Russian River Valley. This is family dirt and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt it,” said Leras, one of six children of Peter and Virginia Leras.
A wooden sign at the gate post of the farm’s long driveway says it all “God’s Little Acres.”
“I grew up slopping hogs, milking cows and cleaning chicken houses,” Leras said of the diversified farm that also had prunes, apples and grapes. It was the era when Sonoma County was rural and everyone was a farmer or one of the bankers or merchants serving the farming community. Many of his family’s old farming implements and tools, like egg incubators and horse harnesses from bygone days, are still in the historic redwood barn, which Leras has preserved as a family farm museum.
A longtime member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Leras knows the vagaries and hardships of farming but the rewards of land, nature and the rhythm of the seasons are what keep him going every day. The farm property is also a gathering place for Nick and his wife Vina’s large family. Between them, they have nine children, 32 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren. Although family members are spread throughout the country, the generations look forward to coming to the historic homestead for weddings and other get-togethers.
Leras is old school, more comfortable with Caterpillar tractors than computers, still keeping his hand-written accounts in an old-style ledger. He jots down a log of his activities in a daily planner, able to dig in his desk drawer to pinpoint the start of harvest in 1994 or the duration of the frost season in 2002. It’s a system that works for him.
Like many of the old families surviving in farming, Leras wisely transitioned to premium wine grapes as markets for other crops declined to the point that he couldn’t earn a profit to sustain his land. For many years, Leras ran a successful water trucking and transport business, eventually focusing on hauling potable drinking all over the region with his fleet of 8 to 10 trucks. It was a way to provide income while establishing the vineyards and growing a market for his wine grapes. He sold the potable water trucking business in 2005, but the trucks still bear his name.
Today Nick and Vina Leras focus on their vineyards, farming 60 acres of wine grapes – 20 acres at the old family ranch on Woolsey Road and 40 acres at their residence on Laughlin and River roads.
They grow pinot noir, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc, selling their grapes to top-tier wineries like Papapietro Perry Winery, La Crema, and a dozen others.
Leras takes pride in seeing Leras Family Vineyard on many of the wines made from his grapes, knowing his hard-working ancestors would be proud of what’s coming from their soil. They struggled to keep the farm through the Great Depression and other downturns so it could be passed to the next generation. It’s also what Leras plans to do.
“My father always said if you want to be an American, then own a piece of America. I still consider this place his land. I am only the caretaker until it passes to the next generation,” said Leras, whose rough and calloused hands attest to the hard work he does every day to produce his grapes.
Leras is philosophical about his time on the land and the passing of time as one generation succeeds the next.
“Today, I am watching the top of the vines grow,” he said, surveying his vineyards. “Tomorrow I will be watching the roots.”.
Leras’s dedication to his land and his caring ways in producing grapes that ensure the soil will be healthy and productive for future generations has earned him the Sonoma County Harvest Fair’s award for Sustainable Grower of the Year. Starting in 2017, the Sonoma County Winegrowers partnered with the Harvest Fair to honor a wine grape producer who has demonstrated leadership in sustainable farming. Leras was singled out from among the county’s nearly 2,000 grape growers for the recognition. He will be honored at the Harvest Fair’s Awards Night on Oct. 27 at Richard and Saralee’s Barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
“Nick has been a champion of the Russian River Valley and Sonoma County winegrowing region for years, but as a small, multigenerational family farmer, Nick’s embracement of the sustainability mission and practices made him a role model amongst this important part of our winegrowing community,” said Marissa Ledbetter Foster, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
“Nick’s voice and support was a game changer in creating momentum for sustainability certification, and this recognition of Nick and his contributions to wine and agriculture is well deserved and long overdue,” she added.
Many in the farming community applaud Leras’s selection for the award, saying he exemplifies what it means to be a conscientious farmer dedicated to land, family, and community. They say he is part of the fabric of the agricultural community and a familiar figure around Fulton and Windsor, the farming turf he considers home.
“I have known Nick Leras for more than 50 years, and he’s always done the right thing when it comes to farming and being a partner in preserving and protecting our agricultural community. He’s one of those farmers who figures it all out and can fix anything,” said grape grower Mel Sanchietti whose family has been farming for more than 100 years on Irwin Lane in west Santa Rosa.
The award recognizes a farmer who embraces the philosophy of treading lightly on the land to preserve agriculture and multi-generational family farms. Sonoma County is largely comprised of family farmers, like Leras, who produce grapes and wine recognized throughout the world.
For his part, Leras is truly honored to be recognized for farming in a way that is central to his family’s values.
“I believe in Sonoma County, and I believe in sustainability 99 percent. It’s the right thing to do to keep this land in agriculture for the generations to come,” he said.
Leras admits he was a bit leary in 2014 when the Sonoma County Winegrowers made the bold commitment to become the most sustainable winegrowing region in the world. To earn sustainability certification, growers would have to document what they do and be audited to make it genuine and transparent to the public.
“We have always farmed sustainably. It’s just what we do because we don’t want to do anything to harm this dirt. But I don’t have a computer and was worried about how I could provide the information that would allow us to comply with the sustainable standards,” said Leras. He also worried about the burden of taking on another task as a small-scale grower.
Then, he said, Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, came to his ranch and walked the vineyards with him as he explained his reservations. Kruse looked at his handwritten records and said they could be examined by third-party evaluators to verify his sustainable farming practices.
“I already had to wear 12 hats – farmer, salesman, bookkeeper, payroll clerk, etc. – and I didn’t want to wear another hat,” said Leras about his trepidations. “But it all worked out fine. I am totally on board.”
Kruse said the hard work and collaboration of growers like Nick Leras have had a profound impact on Sonoma County as a grape-growing region and the way the world views it. Today 99% of the vineyard acreage in Sonoma County has been certified sustainable by a third-party program, making it the most sustainable winegrowing region in the world.
“I am proud of what Sonoma County is doing to be the world leader in sustainable grape growing. I also am proud of the younger farmers like the Dutton brothers, Mark Sanchietti, and others who are leading the way for all the different generations of farmers growing grapes,” said Leras.