July 12, 2017

Bucknellians in Pennsylvania, California and abroad are the toast of the wine business

By Robert Strauss

Leave it to Bucknell grads to make the wine business into a liberal arts experience. A number have found their way into viniculture in various ways, but almost all of them started in completely different careers. If the vital nature of a liberal arts education is to be able to pivot at any propitious moment, those alumni who are now in the business of red, white and rosé represent well the ability to nimbly adapt and succeed.

They come from early careers in finance and architecture; medicine and cancer research; engineering and accounting, not quite the resume you expect from your sommelier or wine maker. They all, though, say their previous training actually makes their forays into the wine culture and business all the more valuable. Wine, they all say, is not only a manufactured product but also a way to get involved with agriculture, retail business, creativity and, to be sure, the pleasure of one of the more celebratory liquids around.

Those who have stayed in or returned to Pennsylvania are excited about the future of wine here. The number of wineries has tripled since the beginning of the 21st century, and the state agriculture hierarchy is encouraging more to come online. The state reminds potential wine makers that it was not that long ago when the idea of California becoming a wine center was looked upon with derision. Pennsylvania has landscape and weather that is not all that different from parts of Europe that have long produced classic wines. Bucknellians in the business in Pennsylvania say that it has already developed specialties — an example being the Sauvignon Franc, a dry red wine from hearty grapes that grow well in central Pennsylvania's climate.

Like the vines that wrap around the soil making those special grapes, the Bucknell Wine Trail runs through the alumni stories, inspiring others, if not to join the business, then to at least raise a glass with them.

Norm Kiken '64 was 30 years into a financial career in Manhattan when he bought 40 acres in the Napa Valley and went with his dreams. "Two years in, we were written up by Wine Spectator," says Kiken, whose winery he appropriately named Reverie, awakening him to a new career. Kiken sold Reverie last year after two decades, but is still enamored of his wines, particularly Reverie's Cabernet Franc. "Fortunately, I have so much wine put away, I will be drinking forever," says Kiken, whose story of CFO-to-winemaker was once featured in The New York Times. "My joke was that as a CFO, I would have only been on the front page of the business section if I were indicted. This was far better."

Chuck Zaleski '83 spent his junior year in Vienna, doing a lot of his studying in a winery. "I looked outside at the vines and decided I would love to do a winery in Pennsylvania," he says. He took a slight detour — becoming a urologist — but 20 years later he started growing grapes on his wife's family's farm outside Lewisburg. Today Fero Vineyards and Winery, named after his in-laws, produces a variety of dry wines, and Zaleski is now a part-time urologist and full-time vintner. His favorite Fero wine is a Saperavi, based on a deep, dark-red grape native to the Georgian Republic, which grows well in central Pennsylvania. "It's not all that much of a stretch to say I love the science of winemaking, just as I did becoming a doctor," says Zaleski.

The Penn State extension agent who came to the family apple orchards of Melinda Hauser Davis '59 was excited about the family's idea. For decades, the Hauser family had sent its apples to the processing plant of the Musselman Co., where her father was president. But the processing market was shrinking due to foreign competition. In addition to converting the land to wine grapes, as the extension agent had originally suggested, Davis and her family decided to make hard cider as part of Hauser Estate Winery. In the decade since, Jack's Hard Cider, named after her father, has become a big seller with a dozen varieties in 10 states. Different areas like different ciders, she says. Philadelphians go for the pear version; Washingtonians are into the original Jack's; locals around Gettysburg, Pa., prefer the new bourbon cider, aged in old Virginia bourbon barrels.

Missy Blair Wilson '01 was an accountant in Washington, D.C., when the city got the best of her. "I knew I wanted my kids to grow up rural like I did," says Wilson. So she took up her father's offer to go into the wine business he had started — Blair Vineyards — when she was in high school near Kutztown, Pa. "I work just as hard, but there is a lot of flexibility. I can go to the soccer games and bring the kids to the winery in the summer," she says. "I have an appreciation, too, of the agriculture that is saved with it. And it is a community, too. Wine people are just friendly, and it is, to be sure, a fun product."

"I always refer to the wine world as the Kevin Bacon of industries," says Aline Baly '02. "It connects in less than six degrees of separation individuals with diverse interests from all over the world." Baly left bioscience marketing in Boston to go to France to work with her uncle at the family vineyard in Bordeaux, Chateau Coutet, a first growth of the 1855 Classification. She also does marketing for several Baron Phillipe de Rothschild French wineries. "I have met some amazing people who have inspired my life," she says about those she meets daily in the wine business. "One thing is for sure — with a good bottle of wine, you never have to dine alone, even if you are on the other side of the world from home."

Jenny Zimmerman '00 was doing what she thought would be her life's work, researching at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, when she realized her life's work was really back at home. Her father had started a winery in 1999, and a decade ago it was time to expand. She has not regretted a day since. The 70-acre Shade Mountain Winery & Vineyards in Middleburg, Pa., about 30 minutes southwest of Lewisburg, is one of the largest independent wine-grape vineyards in the state. It has the requisite Cabernets and Chardonnays, but a favorite of Zimmerman's is the Cabernet Franc. "The grapes grow in areas where the soil is not nutrient rich. It is a hearty, dry red we do well," she says. "We are excited about the future, which is how a business should be. When my dad started, there were only 60 wineries in the state, and there are 200 now. It is the place I want to be."

Cathy Huyghe '95 was on the road to becoming an architect when she moved to the San Francisco Bay area with only a dissertation to finish before earning her Harvard Ph.D. Wanting to "get out of my head" and do something with her hands, she found a job in the kitchen at the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. "I loved it, and one thing led to another. I went to France to study cooking, and ended up working at Bouchon in Las Vegas, where I got the wine bug," she says. She started writing about it, first in a blog called 365 Days of Wine and then, back in Boston, ran a business, Red White Boston, that companies engaged to do wine tastings for social media influencers. She published a book, Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World through the Lens of a Wine Glass. For the last three years, she has written about the business and politics of the wine industry for Forbes online and recently co-founded Enolytics, which tracks consumer behavior and data as market research for the wine industry. "I was never going to be a wine maker," says Huyghe, who is not about to return to architecture either. "But I love everything about the business — the people and, of course, the product."

"When you graduate in business management, they naturally steer you to Wall Street," Jeff Proch '04 says about his Bucknell education. He went to New York for five years, then felt a pull back home, where his father, Eugene '71, managed a central Pennsylvania vineyard and winery. Jeff learned from his father, then in 2011, opened University Wine Co. in State College. He buys grapes from the Lake Erie area of Pennsylvania, making a series of whites, rosés and reds, but also a special wine-in-a-pouch, U-Freeze Wine Slush. "You pop it in a freezer, and it is ready for a summer party, based on Concord grapes," he says. "In financial services, you have difficult clients, and they get angry at you. Wine is a fun product, and there is a lot of love around drinking it. I have never once looked back."

"When people ask me how to get into the wine business, I tell them to study mechanical engineering, and it is a straight shot," says Ed Farver '69 with a hearty laugh. Farver, who earned his MBA at UC Berkeley after a Bucknell engineering degree, was working for the accounting firm Touche Ross when a client asked if he wanted to be the CFO of a Napa Valley winery. He's held fast to that path for nearly 40 years, as CFO and general manager at Domaine Chandon, the California branch of Möet Hennessey, and managing the Jackson Family Wines Napa operations and brands. While his favorite wines are Burgundian varietals, he enjoys a wide range. "Asking which one you enjoy most is like asking which of your children is your favorite," he says. He points out wine's connections to engineering: "As an agricultural product it combines fermentation science, complex manufacturing systems and a touch of artistry — drinking it is a lot more appealing than designing refrigeration systems."