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Former Engineers, Rocket Scientists and Computer Scientists are the Great Minds Behind Colorado Wine

A high number of those creating Colorado wine have also previously been the creators of highly advanced technology


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Much like the wines themselves, The Colorado Wine Industry is known for its unique ability to surprise and delight – whether it be the wine connoisseur who is impressed by the Colorado Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc or the wine aficionado taken by the charm of the Grand Valley (recently named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 10 Wine Getaways in 2018). The surprising allure of the Colorado wine industry continues with the winemakers themselves – who are the heart and soul behind the wines – and represent a unique cross section of hard-working and often highly educated individuals. In fact, a recent inquiry by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board revealed that a high number of those creating Colorado wine have also previously been the creators of highly advanced technology – often having worked in the science, technology, engineering or math fields (STEM) before becoming winemakers. Whether it be a mechanical engineer, computer scientist or even a rocket scientist, the Colorado wine industry has them all.

When discussing their transition from these careers to winemaking, winemakers often report years of education and efforts toward PhDs or climbing the corporate ladder, only to decide later to switch industries to a more agrarian lifestyle. Some have even made winemaking their “retirement,” but unlike playing golf or relaxing on a beach alongside the grandkids, making wine or cider in Colorado is among the most challenging, time-consuming and rigorous of occupations. It comes with a passion, precision and patience unlike any other. Imagine losing your whole grape harvest to a late-season frost or having to find the exact right blend with the precise sugar content in a climate that is unpredictable. But a PhD and experience in a fast-paced technology career may just prove to be the perfect training to prepare winemakers for the rigors and unpredictable pressures of making wine or cider in Colorado’s extreme climate. Possessing a unique degree of intellect, patience and attention to detail is a requirement and found in spades in the following wine and cider makers:

NANCY JANES: WHITEWATER HILL VINEYARDS

After years working as a software engineer in Boulder, Nancy Janes and her husband, John Behrs, decided to try their hands at growing grapes in Colorado’s Grand Valley. The couple spent two years commuting back and forth between the Front Range and the Western Slope, but finally decided to relocate to Palisade and wholeheartedly plunge themselves into the winemaking industry. Their wines have won numerous awards and been included in the Governor’s Cup Case the last three years.

PHIL KAO: STEM CIDERS

Having grown up a few miles down the road from the oldest cider mill in Michigan, Phil moved to Denver in 2005 and earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Colorado in 2011. As the company’s founding Cidermaker in 2013, Phil’s expertise in biological and mechanical testing and engineering made for a natural transition to his current role as Head of Operations, Quality Control and Chief Nitpicker. On the daily, Phil leads the charge in cider house operations working in close collaboration with the production team to ensure the highest standards are met at every step of the cider making process. Whether he’s integrating new tanks, fine-tuning the performance of the canning line, or tweaking a recipe just slightly, it’s applying his skills for designing and refining systems and processes that he enjoys the most.

BRENT + KAREN HELLECKSON: STONE COTTAGE CELLARS

Stone Cottage Cellars is a family business and an ongoing labor of love. Their adventure started in 1994, when Brent left the corporate world as a rocket scientist to begin a new and sustainable chapter that would allow them to raise their family in a rural community, connected to the land. This mission led them to the North Fork Valley, and a passion for fine wines led to the purchasing one of the highest elevation vineyards anywhere in the world.

JOHN GARLICH + ULLA: BOOKCLIFF VINEYARDS

As two STEM professionals, John Garlich and Ulla Merz started the vineyard/farming business in 1996 and the winery in 1999 with no background in either endeavor.  At the time, Ulla was in software project management working for startup companies, speaking at conferences and publishing articles and John was a senior project engineer at a pre-cast concrete company designing for Coors Field, Colorado Convention Center and DIA projects. Bookcliff Vineyards Ensemble won the Governor’s Cup, best wine in Colorado, in 2016

“We were both disenchanted with our corporate jobs at the time,” commented Ulla. “John enjoys and is good at growing things and we both love drinking and making wine. We wanted to do something together—working with someone you can trust without corporate politics. The reality is that you need to keep your corporate job for a long time in order to pay the bills for the farm and the winery unless you are a lot wealthier than the income from engineering jobs provide.”

BLAKE + TRACY ELIAASON: SETTEMBRE CELLARS

Another pair of PhDs/ engineer turned winemakers… Blake has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, with an emphasis in solid state device physics, and his attention to detail, passion for science, and a non-stop work ethic lent itself to the new career. During his PhD and subsequent startup work Blake developed research and measurement skills that support his passion for winemaking. He completed the UC Davis Certificate of Enology and Viticulture which is a deep dive into the science of winemaking. Tracy was also an engineer and remarks…

“The skills that I bring from engineering are problem solving skills, an ability to prioritize tasks, and a willingness to do the dirty work,” said Tracy. “Running a small winery is so much more than making wine. We need to communicate with customers, find affordable ways to tell our story, interface with government agencies, set budgets, manage staff, and take of care of any and all tasks that pop-up day to day.”


About the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board

The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board is an agency of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, dedicated to promoting and furthering the development of Colorado’s grape growers and approximately 140 wineries. For additional information, visit www.coloradowine.com.

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