The Colgate Scene
September 2006

In vino veritas

[Photo courtesy of John and Amy Higgins]

Grape harvest at Serdonis [Photo courtesy of John and Amy Higgins]


Sipping tips: how to learn about wine
David Rosengarten '71 distills his wine knowledge down to understandable sips

Educating the next generation of wine enthusiasts
The Colgate-Cornell Wine Education Program is designed to help new graduates feel knowledgeable and comfortable when it's time to order wine at a business dinner or to buy the perfect bottle for a party host.

Colgate vintners
In addition to those profiled in this story, a list of other Colgate vintners

According to the Latin expression in vino veritas, the influence of wine makes one more truthful. In fact, the interdisciplinary business of winemaking has made these Colgate alumni more true to themselves.

While drawing on their roots in the liberal arts -- economics, biology, chemistry, history, geography, geology -- even a bit of psychology comes into play -- each one has enjoyed the freedom, the fresh air, and the sense of community that comes from producing something with his or her own hands.

John '92 and Amy '92 Higgins
A wine tasting class in 1996, relocation to California in 1997, and a trip to Burgundy in 1998. But blue sky finally met pie-in-the-sky in 1999, when John '92 and Amy Erickson '92 Higgins spent an afternoon sailing in the San Francisco Bay with friends who had connections in the Napa Valley wine business. That day, the idea for the Serdonis winery was born.

Rather than buying land as they imagined they would, and starting a modest Syrah program from scratch, the Higginses decided to team up with their three sailing mates -- who included Tim Lynch '92, along with a winemaker in search of greater creative freedom, and the winemaker's wife -- to create a "virtual" boutique winery. That allowed them to control every detail of farming, viticulture, fermentation, cellar work, and packaging -- without owning any land. Their winemaker partner would handle most of the day-to-day details, and John, Amy, and Tim could help create the brand and contribute input on the style of the wine.

But first they had to choose the perfect parcel on which their 10 tons a year of contracted grapes would grow.

The partners considered more than 20 different properties before choosing their premier Napa vineyard site. "We chose the highest plantable elevation in Northern Napa Valley, on Howell Mountain, where it's hot and dry with very little fog cover," said John. "The combination of 60-year-old vines, southeastern exposure, and stressed weather conditions means the plants have to struggle to protect their fruit. The result is ultra-concentrated, intense, dark grapes."

The critic Robert Parker gave their 2001 cabernet blend a 90+, describing it as "beautifully knit," with "a lively perfume of blueberries, blackberries, flowers, lead pencil shavings, and earth."

Today, Serdonis -- Latin for hand worker -- produces 600 cases a year of ageworthy cabernet. The first two vintages, 2001 and 2002, sell for about $70 a bottle. They will reach their prime in 10 to 15 years -- nearly the time the Higgins children, Ben, 4, and Jane, 7 months, become old enough to drink it. Cases have been set aside for each of them.

Meanwhile, Amy, who majored in economics, handles the accounting and back-office work, while John has learned enough to partner with the winemaker to help make critical blending decisions and market the wine.

"I spent a lot of years working in offices and traveling for business," said John, who also majored in economics and became an investment banker after graduation. "This venture gives me a chance to learn about farming and one of the greatest cultural products in the world."

Tom Mortimer '77 checks on young vines at his vineyard in Dundee, Ore. [Photo by Rob Finch]

Tom Mortimer '77
Ten years ago, Tom Mortimer '77 was a budding wine collector with "a modest bit" of wine knowledge.

"There's the knowledge one has as a consumer. Then there's real wine knowledge. And then there's scary wine knowledge. I knew the varietals and the producers I liked. I knew from the ratings that there were some wines in the world that everybody concurred were great."

In the process of buying an Oregon-based industrial recycling business, Mortimer, who majored in economics at Colgate, got hooked on the beauty of the place. He and his wife, Deb, began to think about retiring there.

"But we knew we couldn't sit all day on a hill and say `gee, how pretty,'" Mortimer said. "Whatever we did in the way of a second home needed to be real."

So he bought 28 acres of land in Oregon's burgeoning wine country.

It took three years to clear the first six acres of maples, scotch broom, brambles, and poison oak. What emerged was a mineral-rich, rocky slope that Mortimer and his team of consultants, friends, and advisers believed had the potential for growing estate-quality pinot noir grapes. Based on the quality of his first harvest, he cleared several more acres, and in 2002 -- one of Oregon's best wine-producing years ever -- he harvested 8.5 tons of fruit for 475 cases of his first vintage. Now he's planting an additional four acres, hoping to at last produce enough grapes to meet the growing national demand for his wine and turn a modest profit.

Although Mortimer still commutes back and forth to his home in Minneapolis, he has become one of those "scary" wine guys. He knows as much about land and site selection, planting and growing grapes, and producing high-quality fruit, as he does about the nuances and flavors that are so important to the art of winemaking. He has studied the chemistry and biology of wine, and has learned how to bring it to market. He has immersed himself in the camaraderie of the Oregon wine community.

Retirement is a long way off, but Mortimer has found the reality he sought in Le Cadeau ("the gift"). And very real is his pride in the 95 rating which his 2003 vintage recently received from The Wine Enthusiast.

"But most profound for me is the sense of seasons and the cadence and rhythm of time when you're in the wine business. When you're making wine, you put every year of your life on a label, and you put that label on a bottle. The memories live far beyond the vintage."

James Mariani '87 at the wine education outing for Colgate seniors, sponsored by Banfi, his family's wine enterprise. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Harry '59 and James '87 Mariani
While the creation and success of the Le Cadeau and Serdonis businesses may tease one's entrepreneurial spirit and tempt emulation, the story of the Mariani family and Banfi -- one of the world's leading wine enterprises -- may have a sobering effect on the dream.

Because ultimately, wine is a generational business and not everyone has that much time.

Founded in 1919 and once best known as the importer of Riunite, Banfi has mastered both quantity and quality -- while also heeding the family's social conscience. Banfi is the only winery in the world to earn Social Accountability 8000 certification by Det Norske Veritas, which audits and certifies the highest level of compliance with corporate responsibility and .

From its 7,100-acre estate in Montalcino, in Tuscany, Banfi bottles some 400,000 cases of wine a year, one-tenth of it a superb version of the traditional Brunello di Montalcino (two recent Banfi offerings were named a Top Ten Wine of the World by Wine Spectator), one quarter of it super premium, and the remainder premium Tuscan offerings. They've introduced wines from Chile and other up-and-coming regions around the world. And they support wine education programs at more than a dozen colleges and universities including the Banfi Vineyards Chair of economics at Colgate.

Two Colgate alumni are at the heart of Banfi: trustee emeritus Harry Mariani '59, president and chief operating officer, and his son James '87, executive vice president of sales and marketing. Forty years ago Giovanni Banfi passed the business to Harry and his brother John; today James and his cousin Cristina are beginning to lead.

"Just as there are thousands of varieties of wine, there are thousands of stories in the wine business," said James, who spent two of his high school summers helping plant chardonnay vineyards on Long Island. "Life is all about choices. Chance you can't control, but choice is all about you."

James chose to make his career at Banfi soon after graduating from Colgate with an economics major. "Living on the Banfi estate for four months after college is where I picked up the passion for fine wine and the loyalty for the family business," he said. He returned to the United States to earn his MBA from Cornell and officially joined Banfi in 1991.

Today, James keeps his eye on the Banfi brand. He's an innovative marketer with a fancy oak barrel full of ideas. Yet he's also a detail man and relationship builder. He calls personally on many of the firm's 180 distributors across the country, and he credits his wife, Bernadette, with being a "better wine taster" than he is.

As much as he loves the planting, the harvesting, the selling and the sampling, James seems most excited about the sharing.

"Water -- oceans -- separate people," he recently told the students at the annual wine education outing for Colgate seniors at Cornell (see Educating the next generation of wine enthusiasts). "Wine brings us together."

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