We think of Annapolis as a state capital, a maritime city, a source for blue crabs and Navy officers. Here’s one to add to its resume: crucible of winemakers.
St. John’s College, founded in Annapolis in 1696 on a quaint Colonial-style campus, is tiny by any measure. Only about 450 students are enrolled there, with the same number at a sister campus established in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1964. It offers a classical liberal arts curriculum. Yet the number of influential winemakers who graduated as “Johnnies” is long enough to deserve a separate chapter in any Who’s Who of American wine.
Larry Turley of California’s Turley Wine Cellars is a graduate, as are his sister Helen Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, of Marcassin Vineyards in Sonoma County, Calif. So is Rory Williams, winemaker of Calder Wine in Saint Helena, Calif. The Speck brothers — Daniel, Matthew and Paul — of Henry of Pelham winery in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula; August Deimel of Keuka Spring Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes; Zach Rasmuson of Goldeneye in California’s Mendocino County; Abe Schoener of California’s Scholium Project — all are graduates, as are the father-and-son team of John and Alex Kongsgaard at Kongsgaard winery in Napa Valley and Grayson Hartley of David Girard Vineyards in Placerville, Calif. So is Sue McDonough of the French company Bistro Frères.
Why do so many noted winemakers come from such a small college, whose curriculum seems to offer the antithesis of a technical, science-oriented oenological program such as the one at the University of California at Davis? Shouldn’t they study geology, chemistry and microbiology rather than Euclidian geometry and Hegelian dialectic? And with their lofty, intellectual education, what drives them out of the library stacks and into a vineyard?
“I think it has something to do with what I call a disaffiliation with the modern world,” says Warren Winiarski, St. John’s Class of 1952. Winiarski abandoned an academic career in the 1960s and founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. He — and California wine — catapulted to fame when his first release of cabernet sauvignon topped the best wines of Bordeaux to win the famous Paris Tasting in 1976.
“Grape growing is one of the oldest activities in the world, dating back to Noah. . . . It represents a reintroduction to the Divine,” Winiarski told me recently in a phone interview. He said the covenant that God made with Noah — not to destroy the world with more floods — allowed humans to settle in one place and develop agriculture. “It represented longevity, and a connection between man and the divine,” he said.
“I think the mild disaffiliation from modernity that may come from a St. John’s philosophically based education — the exercise of reason, the exercise of questioning and rational effort — implies a new dedication and a new kind of effort which is related to the soil and to the Earth fundamentally,” Winiarski said. “So it’s not only disaffiliation there, but the dedication is there as well. It’s a reaffirmation at another level.”
Rory Williams of Calder grew up in a winemaking family: His father, John Williams, is the owner of Frog’s Leap Winery, which he founded three decades ago in Napa Valley with Larry Turley. He says St. John’s prepared him for the vineyard in ways a specialized enology program could not.
“I learned at St. John’s to view the world as a land of many languages,” Williams, of the Class of 2007, told me during an April wine tasting on the Annapolis campus. “So when it came time to master the language of chemistry and fermentation, I could do that. And then I learned the language of the vineyard, how these vines grew last year, and what are they saying this year. St. John’s teaches how to recognize what the world is trying to tell you.”
Daniel Speck says his St. John’s education “focuses one’s thoughts, makes one identify the question that needs an answer.” That’s helpful not just for winemakers but for any entrepreneur, he adds. His Henry of Pelham produces more than 100,000 cases of wine each year.
For these vintners, growing wine is more than balancing acidity and sugar. It’s a way of connecting with the Earth and continuing a conversation that began back in college.