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Master vineyardist Jim Kissler dies at 79

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Posted: Friday, October 28, 2005 10:00 pm

Jim Kissler, the master vineyardist who convinced Lodi's Tokay Flame growers that premium winegrapes could be grown in the area's fertile soils, passed away peacefully early Friday morning at a local convalescent hospital. He was 79.

Kissler is credited with educating local farmers how to grow better grapes and the economics of growing.

Jim Kissler

David Lucas, owner of The Lucas Winery, said Kissler gave him the knowledge to shift the style of wine he made to better reflect the vineyard from which the grapes came.

"It is there where I started to grasp and appreciate the nugget that what you do in the vineyard has such a dramatic influence on the style of wine," Lucas said. "What I remember and cherish about Jim is his patience, guidance and perseverance to the lesson that fine wines begin in the vineyard."

Kissler also helped local growers uncover Utipa, a disease that had been causing vines to wither in the late 1970s, said Stanton Lange, owner of Stanton Lange Vineyard Management.

"He was a very good farm adviser because he was always available," said Lange, who worked with Kissler for 16 years. "You'd call him and he'd be out there to do what he could to help you."

Born April 8, 1927, to John and Mildred Kissler in Sutton, Nebraska, Kissler moved with his parents to Ceres at age 10. After graduating from Ceres High School, Kissler attended Modesto Junior College, where a friend, Clare Berryhill, whose family owned a vineyard, and a course in viticulture piqued his interest in growing grapes

Kissler served in the U.S. Navy for two years during World War II, and married Audrey Scott Kissler in December 1950. He then attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of California, Berkeley, before receiving a bachelor's degree in agriculture economics and master's degree in horticulture with a specialization in viticulture from University of California, Davis, in 1957.

Kissler then applied to the UC Davis Cooperative Extension, which had an opening in San Joaquin County, and began work as a grape farm adviser in 1957.

Tokay Flame vines were ubiquitous in Lodi at the time, and Kissler slowly began convincing major growers - John Kautz, Jerry Fry and John Ledbetter among them - of the promising future of winegrapes. Additionally, after a six-month sabbatical to the vineyards of New York, Kissler studied mechanical harvesting and made arrangements to have two mechanical harvesters - the first in the state - shipped to the Lodi area in 1967.

Kissler received international recognition for his work, and traveled to various states and Australia to give talks on viticulture.

The Kisslers lived in Morada while Jim Kissler worked at the cooperative extension, and moved to a home the couple built in Pioneer when he retired before the harvest of 1986, the same year he presided as grand marshal of the Lodi Grape Festival. The Kisslers returned to Lodi in 1997.

A member of the San Joaquin County Agricultural Hall of Fame, Kissler was honored with the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission's Award of Merit in 1999.

In his free time, Kissler enjoyed golf, fishing and wood working. He also served a a Scout leader and Little League Baseball coach.

Kissler is survived by his wife Audrey Scott Kissler, of Lodi; his children and their spouses Linda Diane and Scott Rhodes, of Michigan; and Brad and Melinda Kissler, of Lodi; sister Genevieve Taylor, of Ceres; grandchildren Lewis Callaghan, Stefanie Callaghan and Troy Kissler. Jim was preceded in death by his parents, sister Mildred Kissler, brother Harold Kleinschmidt and sister Viola Kimbrough.

A funeral service will be held at First United Methodist Church, at 200 W. Oak St., Lodi, on Wednesday at 10 a.m. Committal will follow at Cherokee Memorial Park in Lodi. Visitation is at Cherokee Memorial Funeral Home on Tuesday from 1 to 8 p.m. at 831 Industrial Way, Lodi.

Remembrances in Kissler's memory can be sent to the American Diabetes Foundation, at 2720 Gateway Oaks Drive, No. 10, Sacramento, CA 95832, or Hospice of San Joaquin County, at 3888 Pacific Ave., Stockton, CA 95204.

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at jakea@lodinews.com.

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