Story by Erin Hallissy
Photographs by Allyson Wiley '02
Civilization, some say, began when man discovered how to ferment grape juice and create wine — a complex beverage considered essential to the fine life, to the celebration of friends and families, and to religious ceremonies throughout the cultures of the west and the near east.
Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine, and Catholics believe consecrated wine is the blood of Christ. Long before Jesus lived, Plato explored the nature of love in Symposium — an ancient Greek wine-drinking party. Centuries later, Benjamin Franklin opined, "Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy."
"One of the things about being a well-rounded person is knowing about wine," says Denis Kelly '60, an Integral program tutor, Greek professor, and a wine expert who proudly notes he could tell a cabernet from a zinfandel when he was quite young. "Saint Mary's prepared people to be open to wine. We learned about the culture of wine."
The history of Saint Mary's and the Christian Brothers has been enriched not just by the study of wine, but by the production of wine. More than 120 years ago, the Brothers were encouraged by San Francisco Archbishop Joseph Alemany to make altar wine from vineyards at their Villa de La Salle in Martinez, a small money-making hobby that later grew into the well-known and successful Christian Brothers Winery in Napa, which flourished until Heublein bought it in 1989.
Around the same time Alemany talked to the Brothers about wine, he also encouraged an enterprising Irish immigrant named James Concannon to plant vineyards in Livermore to produce altar and other wine. Concannon grew close to the Brothers, and his grandson, also named Jim, graduated from Saint Mary's. He later took over the family winery, where he still works today.
Concannon '53 is just one of dozens of Saint Mary's alums who have forged successful careers in California's wine industry, which produces more than 90 percent of the wine in the United States. Some alums make the wine, others market or distribute it, others sell it, and one is even the technical adviser on wine for the U.S. government.
That's Mary Kirrane '82, who was educated by both the Brothers and the Concannons, where she was hired right after graduation and later became winemaker. She's now the federal liaison between the wine industry and government, based in San Francisco, and is also an international trade negotiator.
Kirrane says in some ways it's surprising that so many graduates — Concannon, Jim Pedroncelli of Pedroncelli Winery, Larry Maguire at Far Niente, Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers wine and food market in Sacramento, Greg O'Flynn of the California Wine Merchant in San Francisco and many, many more — have thrived in the industry, especially since SMC does not offer degree programs in viticulture or enology.
But, considering the Christian Brothers' prominent role in the nation's wine field and the College's proximity to one of the world's best wine-making regions, it makes sense that graduates have found the industry a perfect fit.
"A lot of it has to do with the Christian Brothers having the winery, because we were exposed to wine and the making of it," Kirrane said. Bob Koslowski '50, like Kirrane a chemistry major at Saint Mary's and later a winemaker and co-owner of the respected Kenwood Winery in Sonoma County, says his interest in wine began when his class toured the Brothers' winery at Mont La Salle in Napa.
"We studied the chemistry of winemaking," the now-retired San Franciscan says. "I was intrigued. I tasted a French wine and I got hooked."
A winemaking tradition
The history of California winemaking is intimately tied to the Gael tradition. The late Brother Timothy Diener '33, a pioneer in California's wine industry, was the winemaker at Christian Brothers for more than 50 years.
Then there's the late Justin Meyer '62, a former Christian Brother who was trained as a winemaker at the Brothers' winery in Napa.
Christian Brothers Winery — A Fruitful Enterprise
The Christian Brothers Winery started small in 1882 in Martinez, but by 1930 was expanding and the Brothers bought a 338-acre winery at Mont La Salle north of Napa. It remained open during Prohibition (from 1920 to 1933) by producing sacramental and medicinal wine.
After Prohibition ended, production grew steadily, from 200,000 gallons a year in 1937 to more than 40 million gallons in 1986, according to A Companion for California Wine.
The Brothers' land holdings also grew, and they became one of the major land owners in the Napa Valley, according to Jim Laube, senior editor of the Wine Spectator and an expert on California wines. In 1950, the Brothers purchased Greystone Cellars in St. Helena for aging wines and producing sparkling wines. The order also owned land in the Central Valley town of Reedley, and produced brandy.
The Brothers sold the winery in 1989 t
o Heublein, which no longer produces wine under the old label.
"It was certainly one of the most successful and high-profile brands of its era," Laube says. "It's a shame that this brand is no longer alive because it would certainly have a nice cachet in today's market."
Brother Timothy Diener, a science teacher, became winemaker at Mont La Salle in 1935 and retired in 1986. His skills were a major factor in the winery's financial success, which supported SMC and other ministries. Along with toiling in the cellar, for decades he was also the public face of Christian Brothers wines and often appeared in advertisements, at times gazing at grapes or sampling wine. He even appeared on the popular TV game show "To Tell the Truth" in the 1970s.
Fellow winemakers held Brother Timothy in high regard. He was awarded the Annual Merit Award from the American Society of Enologists, the Order of America and Chevalier from Les Amis du Vin International Wine Society, and a Living Legend honor from the California Vintners Association.
He was also beloved for his humility, kindness, and prayerfulness, Laube says, and often gave invocations at winemaker gatherings. "He was, in a very true and meaningful way, considered the spiritual leader," Laube says of the late Brother, who died last year at age 94. "He led a very long and prosperous life."
At a 2003 tribute dinner, Brother Timothy said he always enjoyed his winemaking days, but that the sale of the wine and brandy business freed the Brothers up to concentrate on their centuries-old teaching tradition. "I have always been a Brother first and a winemaker second," he said.
He later left the order and co-founded Silver Oak Cellars, and also bought the closed Franciscan Winery. Meyer died in 2002, not long after he and his wife sold Silver Oak to create their own Meyer Family Cellars.
Meyer not only was a well-respected winemaker, he also helped other alumni get started in the business, hiring Kerry Signoracchi '74, who later went to Liparita Winery, where he worked until last year. Meyer also was instrumental in Larry Maguire's career, hiring him after he graduated and later recommending him for a job at the Far Niente Winery in Oakville, where he's now president and CEO.
Perhaps because the Christian Brothers were one of the premier wine producers in the nation for decades, many of the teaching Brothers have brought an appreciation of the grape to SMC students, especially those who took the legendary wine-tasting classes on campus led by Brother Myron Campbell and, at times, Brother Raphael Patton.
Some graduates were directly inspired by the class to pursue a career in the wine industry. Greg O'Flynn '75 says he opened the California Wine Merchant, which is now a combination wine shop and bar in San Francisco's Marina district, before he even graduated.
"It wasn't like a kegger with wine. It was serious, and it was fun," O'Flynn says of the wine-tasting course. "These guys would assemble wines from a particular area and we'd do a blind tasting and rank them. They'd talk about the region."
Brother Myron '54 is fondly remembered by those who took his class. A sharp man with a distinctive white beard and a love of good food and fine wine, he started the wine-tasting class in the 1960s, and it continued for around three decades. Retired now but back at SMC after teaching at Bethlehem University from 1994-2004, he is eager to teach wine-tasting again, perhaps during Jan Term.
Brother Raphael Patton often taught the class with Brother Myron, who remembers they would typically bring out six kinds of wine and then try to get students to form their own opinions instead of just agreeing with their teachers.
"We took great delight in bad-mouthing the wines we liked, and were more enthusiastic about the ones we didn't like," Brother Myron says. He still chuckles remembering a student who dismissed an expensive Cabernet from Diamond Creek, quoting him as saying, "It's about as soft and forgiving as this tabletop."
That enthusiasm is remembered by students, who credit the class and the Brothers' insights with giving them a solid foundation for appreciating wine.
"As students, we drank really good wine," says Kelly, who later co-taught the class himself and still judges wines at the California State Fair. "The Christian Brothers had a very high consciousness of wine."
The class also had a practical side. Kirrane recalls a field trip to the Concannon winery when former winemaker Sergio Traverso worked there. He asked if anyone was interested in a job, and then hired her as a chemist. She started work a few days after graduation and eventually became the winemaker.
"It was very exciting," she says. "You felt you were accomplishing something. You could see the grapes out in the vineyards, then the juice, then the wine," she says. "It really is a living product, and it changes from day to day."
The field is also volatile. Kirrane lost her job after Concannon was sold to Wente in 1992, and she moved to the more stable regulatory side. Hired as a wine chemist in the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms lab in Walnut Creek, she was then promoted to the high-profile position she's in today.
The wine industry has been good to many graduates, like Larry Maguire '75, who fetched the Brothers' wine allocation from St. Helena while he was in college and was rewarded with discounts on fine wine, which helped him develop an appreciation for quality.
"At Saint Mary's, my friends and I were a lot more likely to be drinking really nice oak-finished wines than going to a kegger," recalls Maguire, now president and CEO of Far Niente Winery in Oakville. "You love the way it tastes, the camaraderie of sharing a bottle of wine."
Old-time wine families
James Concannon shared that camaraderie with the Brothers long before his grandson Jim decided to go to SMC. Jim's uncle Robert also graduated from the Brickpile.
"We competed because of the altar wine business, but they were close," recalls Concannon, an affable man who loves to tell stories and reminisce even as he plans for future expansions at his old family winery. "Dad would bring vesper wine to the Brothers, and he'd send them port, sherry, and other wines."
Jim Pedroncelli '54 also comes from a winemaking family. In 1927, his father, John, bought vineyards in Sonoma County, where Jim grew up.
"There wasn't a lot of romance at that time," he says. "It was strictly an agricultural business. There was much more limited production, limited consumer awareness, and it was more of a family business."
Pedroncelli, who handles administration and marketing while his brother John is the winemaker, has watched the wine industry grow up, transforming from a business whose emphasis was on two kinds of wines, Burgundy and Chablis, into an industry turning out an astounding array of varietals and blends demanded by increasingly sophisticated consumers.
Boutique wineries flourish
Koslowski participated in that growth, evolving from a hobbyist to being hired as winemaker at Kenwood after a friend bought the winery in 1970.
"I couldn't have asked for a better time," the now-retired San Franciscan says. "It was the beginning of the boutique wineries."
Koslowski eventually became the winery's co-owner, but he didn't give up his day job as a full-time research scientist at Chevron in Richmond. Working nights and weekends to develop first-rate French-style wines at Kenwood, a career highlight came when his dry Chenin Blanc was served at a White House state dinner for the Queen of England during the Reagan administration.
Maguire says his time at Saint Mary's prepared him for running a boutique winery like Far Niente, located in a historic building and featuring 13 acres of stunning landscaping along with underground caves for aging wines and a rare and classic car collection. He turned down UC Berkeley's form acceptance letter, preferring the personal acceptance letter he received from SMC.
"It was the best decision I ever made. It's hands-on. You know everybody. Your teachers know you," he says. "The Saint Mary's experience is the perfect experience for me to run a small business."
Maguire was long drawn to creating and selling fine wines, saying it's a much more creative process than the related field of distilled liquor.
"The wine industry is more cerebral and artistic," says Maguire, who participates in tasting sessions. "Nuance is so important, along with imagination and creativity. And there's the fact that you have only one shot at making a wine in the year. It's great for someone who wants to find a business you can be passionate about, a business that encourages people to sit down and eat together, to enjoy life together."
That could describe Norm Peters '89, who also has a teaching credential and master's from SMC. He left teaching several years ago and is now general manager of California Cellars in Isleton, which released its first bottling in July 2005.
"My wife and I were wine tasting, and I said to her "wouldn't this be fun?" he says. "And here I am, making wine."
Sarah Cahn Bennett '01 grew up in the wine industry — her parents own Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County and she was attracted to Saint Mary's because its pastoral setting reminded her of home. She is now getting a graduate degree from UC Davis' Department of Viticulture & Enology and plans to become a winemaker.
"It's great making a product that you can enjoy on a daily basis, and enjoy with people," Bennett said. "It's one of the few jobs where you can go to a party and talk about your job all night, and people don't get bored."
It's still farming
But it's not always easy. Vineyards are farms, with all the potential pitfalls of weather, pests, and market volatility. Add to that increased competition, huge companies swallowing up smaller ones, and consumers being more influenced at times by wine experts than what they actually enjoy drinking.
"Everybody thinks that it's the most glamorous business, and it is, but you can't live on glamour," Concannon says. "You can have great wine, but if the wholesaler won't work with you, you're done."
Darrell Corti '64 of Corti Brothers Market in Sacramento is a top wine expert in California who also gives advice to winemakers on sales, marketing and other issues. He noted that in the Napa Valley alone the number of wineries skyrocketed from 13 in 1960 to about 300 today.
"It makes for an awfully crowded playing field," he said. "Competition is a very important factor."
Pedroncelli says would-be winemakers should be prepared. "Bring your money from somewhere else," he says. "It's a long-term investment in time and capital."
But the payoff can be tremendous. Says Maguire, "It's a great industry for someone who's looking for a business to be passionate about, a business that encourages people to sit down and eat together, to enjoy life together. It's a lot of fun."