Second Acts: Leaving Science, Architecture and Academia for Wine

Laura Marchetti / Photo by Tim Dunk
Laura Marchetti / Photo by Tim Dunk

Wine Enthusiast‘s annual 40 Under 40 feature praises the up and coming generation of individuals who move the drinks industry forward, but youth is certainly not required to forge a successful career in the beverage world. Some wine pros who entered the business later in their lives have used diverse experiences to their advantage.

Many fields have an expected career trajectory, a staircase that usually starts in college and continues until you arrive at the proverbial top. In reality, however, there’s never just one path, especially in wine.

Tom Natan / Photo by Tim Dunk
Tom Natan / Photo by Tim Dunk

Not only is it possible to start a successful beverage career later in life, it can be ideal. Skills acquired elsewhere can be invaluable to a vinous journey.

“Having more life and career experience brings something to the table,” says Tom Natan, 60, a chemical engineer who started a wine importing company at 46. He had spent more than a decade in environmental research.

“I was more prepared, a jack-of-all-trades,” he says, something he now finds useful as the owner of Washington D.C.-based First Vine Wine Imports and Sales.

There were challenges, of course. For one, it meant learning French to better communicate with the producers. It took Natan three years to get to the level he needed.

Phil Long / Photo by Tim Dunk
Phil Long / Photo by Tim Dunk

For Phil Long, a winemaker and president of the Association of African American Vintners, the urge to catch up on lost time is a motivator.

After studying architecture at Cal Poly and working for years as a creative director, Long launched Longevity Wines in Livermore Valley with his late wife, Debra. They were both in their 40s.

“As a winemaker, you only get a shot once a year,” he says. “If I’m lucky, I’ve got 40 shots. That’s it. If you start at 20, you have one-and-a-half as many shots. You have to be on more of an accelerated learning path than if you start at 20. You have to be twice as good.”

Abe Schoener / Photo by Tim Dunk
Abe Schoener / Photo by Tim Dunk

An unexpected advantage

Following an unexpected track can also lead to opportunities potentially not available otherwise. That was the case for winemaker Abe Schoener, 59, whose wine journey started in 1998.
A philosophy professor on sabbatical in Napa, Schoener took an internship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. He had every intention to return to campus. Instead, Winemaker John Kongsgaard took him under his wing, which Schoener attributes to his being an outsider.

“I was someone with a Ph.D. working as an intern in Napa,” he says. “But it was absolutely thrilling to be a mentee instead of a mentor for the first time in [many] years.”

In 2000, Schoener made the first vintage for the Scholium Project, wines that have since developed a cult status.

“My spirit of experimentation [with these wines] definitely came from my past, as did my habits to not accept doctrine and [to] test things,” he says.

Kristie Tacey / Photo by Tim Dunk
Kristie Tacey / Photo by Tim Dunk

Experience to experiment

Having a scientific background was something that Kristie Tacey, 46, found useful. A microbiologist who worked on the Human Genome Project, she yearned for a life outside the lab. At 33, she left to find one among the vines.

After working as operations manager and assistant winemaker at several wineries in the Bay Area, Tacey started to make wines under her own label, Tessier Winery, in 2009. Eight years went by before she embraced the project full-time.

“It was good to have a foundation of science, to be very analytical and problem-solving,” she says.

Over time, she learned to relax into nature, abandon commercial yeasts, embrace native ferments and, ultimately, find her signature style.

Laura Marchetti / Photo by Tim Dunk
Laura Marchetti / Photo by Tim Dunk

A refined focus

Being surrounded by wine your whole life doesn’t guarantee early entry into the industry, either, and time spent building a dynamic skillset elsewhere can still be beneficial.
Laura Marchetti, 40, grew up around vineyards on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, but it took several years to connect her career to her roots.

She was 32 before she enrolled in her first Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) class, which only led to more trial and error in bartending, educational and distribution roles.
“Those years were formative,” she says. “I was able to collect skills while figuring out what I wanted to do.”

Finally, at age 39, she opened Riverview Wine & Spirits, a boutique bottle shop in Jersey City, New Jersey. There, she embraces her role as a facilitator of great wine experiences.
“Learning about wine is a long and slow journey, a never-ending experience,” says Marchetti. “Nobody is too old to start that journey.”

Published on August 19, 2020
Topics: Winemakers