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Piloting Pinot (And Other Wines)

Traveling for years along the Pinot Trail, I have noticed there is predilection for pilots and in particular commercial airline pilots to take on a second career in the wine business as winery or vineyard owners and often winemakers. My research has uncovered over 30 domestic wineries in which pilots are involved as winery owners, winegrowers or winemakers, and in a number of instances focused on Pinot Noir.

The pilot and wine connection has deep roots going back to Joseph Swan fifty years ago. Swan was a pilot for Western Airlines when, at the age of 45 years, bought a rundown Zinfandel vineyard, barn and house on Laguna Road in the Russian River Valley. The area was a few miles from Westside Road and the Middle Reach sub region of the Russian River Valley, but the climate was cooler and foggier. Andre Tchelistcheff suggested to Swan that he plant Pinot Noir in the area. In 1968, he retired from his pilot job, and after harvesting the planted Zinfandel that year, began a replanting of the 10-acre vineyard to Pinot Noir (Mount Eden budwood), Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Swan’s Trenton Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir prospered and subsequent cuttings, termed Swan selections or incorrectly the Swan clone, were used by numerous vineyards in California and continue to be planted in various domestic sites today. Besides the selection, Swan left a legacy that included popularization of Old World, Burgundian winemaking methods that included manual punch downs, use of French oak barrels for aging, and experiments with whole cluster fermentation. His wines were legendary for their age ability.

I found three vintners in particular that were able to shed some light on why pilots are attracted to the wine business: Brad Alper, winegrower and owner of Square Peg Winery in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, Chris London, owner of Spring Hill Vineyard in Petaluma, Sonoma County (pictured), and Robert A. Morus, owner and winegrower of Phelps Creek Winery in the Columbia Gorge region of Oregon. My interviews with them revealed many parallels as well as contrasts between the wine business work and airline pilot.

As far as parallels, wine growing and winemaking require one to think ahead as does flying. Attention to weather and seasons is another commonality. Like flying, growing grapes requires one to stay ahead of problems. As Brad told me, “Pilots live by the adage that never let your aircraft enter airspace that you mind hasn’t already penetrated.” Both occupations require precision and a knowledge of science.

The are many occupational contrasts to consider. Many airline pilots become involved in wine while still employed, and a number of them retire early to focus on their winery or wine growing activities. The pilots who have left flying to become winegrowers or winemakers or both share several traits. They wanted a new challenge and the opportunity to become something more than just pilots. Being a pilot for many years had become easy and boring by its sameness. Also, pilots are risk adverse so the wine business offers an opportunity to escape their comfort zone. Growing wine grapes and making wine is risky but the decisions involved are not as stressful as those associated with flying.

When a pilot exits an aircraft after a flight, they have nothing to show for their work other than a paycheck. When a pilot retires, they have nothing to fall back on and have nothing to sell. As a winegrower, winery owner or winemaker, they can work until the day they die and every hour they work is for themselves. Not only can you make our own paycheck, you have something that can be sold.

Flying, and in particular international flying, is not good for one’s health. Long haul all-night flights are detrimental to one’s health. Working with the land outdoors offers a counterweight to the stress of commuting and flying in a confined cockpit. Robert pointed out, “Pilots are led to grapes as part of the balance of life. Farming vineyards and winemaking balance a technical, high stress profession. Chris agreed, “piloting involves always working in a confined environment. On days off, pilots may seek the fresh air and freedom of being outdoors, something that farming offers.”

There are some unique practical issues that allow airline pilots to participate in the wine business. Flying schedules are flexible, particularly for captains, and allow pilots to live where they most desire and commute to work. Pilots also enjoy a relatively high income and although over the past fifteen years retirement benefits have been stripped away and wages were stagnant, the current shortage of pilots and increasing profitability of airlines has resulted in strong wage growth.

Robert had an interesting perspective. He told me, “My father was a Pan Am pilot, so I got a glimpse of the ‘good old days.’ Pan Am practically apprenticed pilots into living high culture. Dining out, drinking fine wine, attending the theater, and appreciating art were things taught by example. Those days are gone, but I think that period left a lasting impression about living a good and interesting life.” International pilots often travel to cities near major wine regions and become drawn to visit those areas on trips. Because of their travel perks, commercial pilots can easily visit, say Burgundy, enjoying a free roundtrip flight to Paris.

Chris pointed out that pilots enjoy the perspective of wine regions and vineyard land from the air, an opportunity unique to their profession and an experience that piqued their interest in winegrowing. He also mentioned the enviable lifestyle of winegrowers, the camaraderie among those in the wine business, and the opportunities to meet so many interesting people as attractions of a second career in wine.

Brad summarized the feelings of many pilots who turn to wine as a second career. “My life is so different from where it might have been had I continued flying. I’ve met so many people that I never would have met and done so many different things. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to have a second dream career.”

Although this article is focused on pilots, there are a number of current and former flight attendants who work in the wine industry, Kerry McDaniel Boenisch, owner of McDaniel Vineyards, now Torii Mor Winery, wrote of former flight attendants working in the Oregon wine industry: Former flight attendants make ideal hospitality workers at wineries. Kerry profiled Silvia Kraft, a former Pan Am flight attendant (1979-1991). who has worked at Anne Amie Winery, Maysara, and St. Innocent Winery. Kraft said, “During my flying career, I learned to anticipate people’s needs, ask them questions and make them feel important so they would have a good experience. That’s very similar to the customer service experience people expect in a winery.”

In the pages that follow, I will lay out short profiles of those who have followed the dual careers of pilot and vintner with ones involved seriously with Pinot Noir receiving the most attention. I am sure there are a number of wineries or vineyards with pilot owners that I have overlooked. I have only included wineries where information was reliably available. Inquires into a number of possible pilot-related wineries received no response.

One interesting thought. Have you ever wondered where the word “flight” originated in connection with sampling several wines in a lineup is in “tasting flight?” According to The Word Detective at www.worddetective. com, “Flight” of wines wines first appeared in print in 1978 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED defines a “flight” as “a selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, especially wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison. “Flight” has been used since the 13th century to mean “a group of things or beings flying through the air together.” “Flight” in the wine tasting world was probably adopted to convey the sense of gathering of varied small samples.

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Pinot Pilot Profiles

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