Whether they served in Vietnam or Iraq, more and more servicemen and women are taking their skills to the frontlines of the vineyard.
This Veterans Day, as our country honors those who’ve served on our behalf, Wine Enthusiast would like to splash some spotlight on these stellar veterans-turned-vintners.
Who: Cord Switzer, Vietnam War Veteran
What: Fredericksburg Winery
Where: Fredericksburg, Texas
To launch Fredericksburg Winery in 1996, Army Aviator Cord Switzer—who says he appreciates the sense of camaraderie among wine industry folks—called up Jack Cakebread to inquire about how much yeast he would need to produce 68 gallons of wine. Cakebread didn’t just answer—he overnighted it. “That is what makes [the winemaking] profession unique—the industry supports the industry,” Switzer says.
Who: Bill Stowe, Vietnam War Veteran
What: Indian Creek Winery
Where: Kuna, Idaho, Snake River Valley AVA
While stationed in Germany in the 1960s, Air Force Officer Bill Stowe took a part-time job at an inn that also made wine. That’s when he discovered his penchant for viticulture, and nearly 20 years later, the Bronze Star recipient opened Indian Creek Winery in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. “The military made me a little bit smarter,” he says.
Who: Josh Laine, Iraq War Veteran
What: Valor Winery
Where: Livermore, California, Livermore AVA
While patrolling the streets of Baghdad, Marine Sergeant Josh Laine admits he knew little-to-nothing about wine. But, after a former girlfriend who worked in wine business exposed him to the merits of the profession, he realized his dream—to open Valor Winery. Since opening in 2007, the recipient of three Purple Hearts, has employed 53 veterans, many of whom were once homeless, jobless or victims of psychological trauma. For these heroes, tending Valor’s vine rows has become a sort of refuge. “They are around [fellow veterans] who understand what they’ve gone through. It’s their safe haven,” Laine says.
Who: Rob Mercer, Iraq War Veteran
What: Mercer Estates
Where: Prosser, Washington, Yakima Valley AVA and Horse Heaven Hills AVA
Rob Mercer’s strongest family traditions are rooted in agriculture and military service. His ancestors fought under George Washington, and they ran a successful sheep company during early 1900s. The Mercers have been in the vineyard business since 1968, selling grapes to local wineries. But it was in 2007 that the family launched Mercer Estates and Mercer became president and CEO. The hefty title doesn’t keep Mercer for getting his hands dirty—he prefers to be out in the vineyards. “I’m a forth generation farmer,” he says.
Who: Michael McClean, Vietnam War Veteran
What: McClean Vineyards
Where: Templeton, California, Paso Robles AVA
Nine years after Michael McClean returned from serving as one of Vietnam’s most decorated heroes, the Distinguished Service Cross recipient enrolled in a wine class that changed his civilian life; It’s where he met his now wife and dreamed up owning his own vineyard. “The only way to control post traumatic stress disorder is to keep a peaceful center, and I achieve that by staying out on the farm and kicking dirt,” he says. McClean Vineyards donates 10% of its proceeds to the Armed Forces Foundation. Open since 1993, McClean Vineyards operates 25 acres of Syrah and gives 10 percent of its proceeds to the Armed Forces Foundation.