How the Air Force Helped Start a Winery

By James Blanchard / June 12, 2014

It’s quite frequent when I host a tasting somewhere, that someone asks how we started a winery while I was still in the Air Force. I tell them, “We didn’t start a winery despite me being in the Air Force, we started a winery because I was in the Air Force.” It’s a story with both logic and luck and one that affected all aspects of our winery family.

As Mark mentioned in his last blog post, our family didn’t come from wine making roots. At times I wish we did, as it would have made this journey a lot easier, but certainly with a much shorter story. On the contrary, neither one of us knew anything about wine or wine making until our college and post-college years. As it turns out, after graduating from the Air Force Academy and pilot training, I earned the opportunity to choose my preference of locations for my first assignment. I looked for locations that provided the best flying environment for the helicopter I was assigned to, as well as places that would be fun for my wife and I to explore as a young married couple. That location turned out to be Vandenberg Air Force Base near the central coast of California. We had no idea at the time how this military assignment would lead to the start of a family business.

Vandenberg Air Force Base was a beautiful location, situated right on the California coast and amongst one of California’s upcoming wine growing regions. While the base was cool and foggy, a short drive outside the gate led to rolling hills, warm temperatures, and acres upon acres of strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, and grapes. The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys lie to the east, the Santa Barbara area to the south, and Paso Robles to the north. Within a two hour drive there were over 100 wineries just waiting to be discovered by a blossoming wine consumer. Although the area around Vandenberg AFB was beautiful, there wasn’t much for a young couple to do that wasn’t a 2-hour drive away or that didn’t cost a lot of money. Because of that, my wife Sylvia and I would spend our weekends touring and tasting. For $20-$30, we could drink dozens of wines and have a nice picnic lunch in the California sunshine. For those of you that know me, you know that wouldn’t be enough though.

The more wineries that Sylvia and I visited, the more I wanted to know. I started reading wine books, subscribing to the wine magazines, and taking wine classes. During the day job, I would fly over the vineyards and study the topography and find places that I wanted to visit on the weekend. At every opportunity when we went to a winery, I would try to meet the wine maker, and if possible, have him sign a bottle of his wine. To me, they were mini-celebrities, putting their craft into each bottle. We started taking larger trips to Napa Valley, purchased a large wine fridge, and started a wine collection that was well beyond the income of a Lieutenant in the Air Force. We had been bitten by the bug and I knew pretty early on that this was going to be a problem.

While this obsession was developing in my life, Mark was expanding his wine knowledge in Chicago. Unbeknownst to each other at the time, the two brothers were developing the same passion, for the same field, at the same time. This was actually a more dramatic development than it would initially seem. See at the time, and for the previous 5 years or so, these two brothers were essentially estranged from each other. While extremely tight as young children, through the high school and especially college years, Mark and I went our separate ways, developed separate beliefs and ideals, and really choose two different paths in life. We seemed to have very little in common and couldn’t agree on anything from politics to religion, heck we’d even argue about the weather. However, for some reason wine seemed to be this common ground that we could enjoy together with not nearly the disagreement. As we discussed our jointly expanding wine worlds, we made the decision for Mark to come out to California and spend a couple weekends in Napa Valley. This was not only the first time Mark had come to visit me in years, it was one of the first times Mark and I had spoken more than 15 minutes straight without a fight in quite some time. There had to be something to this fermented fruit juice! It was during one of these trips to Napa that Mark decided he was going to move to California and make wine his life’s career.

While Sylvia and I shortly left California and moved on with our Air Force career, those foundations were never forgotten. As we traveled to other states, we would explore whatever type of wine growing industry they had. We’d explore different wine bars and try different wines from the local wine shops, but we kept thinking back to the magical time we had in California. Now we were living vicariously through Mark as he was living the dream in Napa and I was spending my time in garden spots like Albuquerque, New Mexico and Balad, Iraq (not all that dissimilar). We would frequently travel back to California to visit Mark, hoping that someday, some way, there would be a long-term reason to make wine country part of our permanent life. While the Air Force hasn’t allowed us to move to California full-time, and we’re not sure if we ever will, it was eventually the stability of this military career that gave us the confidence to take the risk and start our own business. The story of that leap though will be saved for another day. Until then, just know that if the Air Force had sent me to any other assignment options, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Washington DC, or Tokyo, I’m positive this winery would have never been started.