Through the Grapevine

Peter Fox

What if Leland Stanford Jr. hadn’t died at age 15? Surely his parents wouldn’t have founded a university in his name. But neither would Leland and Jane have faded quietly into old age. In fact, Governor Stanford had ambitious plans to leave a legacy––but in a field perhaps less lofty than higher education.

The governor’s vision was simple if audacious: he would produce wines in Northern California to rival the best vintages of France. To fulfill his dream, he opened three vineyards, including one on land that eventually became the Stanford Shopping Center. But the enterprises never took off, and he soon became diverted by the business of building a university. Had he stuck with winemaking, Leland Stanford no doubt would have stumbled across the idyllic hills and valleys of Napa and Sonoma––and perhaps today we’d be toasting to Stanford chardonnays instead of sheepskins.

Truth is, we can do both. While Stanford never produced great wine, his university has produced scores of graduates who themselves produced great wine. Twelve years ago, this magazine did a story on winemakers that listed 60 alums in the industry. Since then, annual sales of wine in the United States have jumped from $11.4 billion to $16.1 billion––and there’s been a like increase in graduates with livelihoods tied to the vine. In this issue, we revisit the topic––but opt not to present a comprehensive list for fear of gross omissions.

Instead, we asked oenophile Ray Isle, a graduate of the Stegner writing program, to profile Robin Lail, ’62. Lail’s family saga spans more than a century of Napa Valley history; her great-granduncle began producing red table wine in 1882, and her father, John Daniel, ’33, was renowned for making some of the best California reds in the 1960s. The tradition continues when, in October, Lail releases a cabernet/merlot blend, the first vintage of Lail Vineyards. “The Vintner’s Daughter,” Ray’s sweeping account of one family’s triumphs and tragedies, begins on page 62.

For Lail and many of the others, life’s path has been as scenic and winding as a Napa country road. Bob Travers, ’59, worked eight years in the stock and bond business before taking a job as a cellarman. A few years later, he and his wife, Nomie Davenport Travers, ’60, bought Mayacamas Vineyards, which they still run. Lou Preston, ’63, MBA ’70, was working for Arthur Young when he was assigned to audit Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa. He soon traded consulting for a prune farm in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. David Bruce, ’53, MD ’56, is a dermatologist-turned-winemaker in the Santa Cruz mountains. He notes that in grapes, as in people, it is important to be skilled at diagnosing “the visual aspects of disease.”

Even those who have long been in the wine business are finding new fields to plow. Earlier this year, the Robert Mondavi Winery, whose founder and chair is a 1936 grad, announced it would build a $10 million “wine country experience” as part of a 55-acre theme park adjacent to Disneyland.

For a University that offers not a single course in viticulture, there are an awful lot of graduates in the industry. What gives? Is it simply Stanford’s proximity to ideal growing conditions? The old-boy grapevine? Upper-level chemistry classes? Paul Draper, ’58, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, says it’s those 8,000 acres of campus. “You are out there in the country with the hills around you,” says Draper, a onetime philosophy major. “There’s that feeling, whether you were conscious of it or not, of the land.”

What’s ironic about the rise of all these Stanford winemakers is that, for the University’s first few decades, the campus was dry. But that didn’t keep students from partaking. In 1894, residents of Encina Hall stole wine, whiskey and cigars belonging to former U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who was visiting campus as the University’s first professor of law. The prank was perhaps the least offensive in a string of transgressions so outrageous that Encina came to be known as “the madhouse.” But that’s another story. Literally. “The Bad Boys of Encina Hall” appears on page 80.

We’re not in the business of muckraking. But neither do we shy away from controversial stories on academic issues we judge important to our readers. Two such pieces appear in these pages. In “Surgical Strike,” we look at neurosurgery professor Fran Conley’s highly publicized accusations of sexism at the medical school. And in “Who Killed Homer?” we hear from two alums who excoriate the modern academy for ruining the study of classics. You can find those stories in our features section, behind the vintage tale of Robin Lail.

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