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: www.oregonwinepress.com/connecting-flight.
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
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.