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Alum's organic Frog's Leap winery uses 'green' to make reds and whites

For John Williams '74, "doing well by doing good" not only applies to the organic practices he uses on his grapes and other crops at Frog's Leap winery in Rutherford, Calif., but also to the way he treats his employees, his recently built, "green"-certified vineyard house hospitality center and his mission statement to be "pro-active community citizens supporting worthy environmental and social goals."

"What reasons could there be not to do these things?" Williams asks. "Besides the benefits of improved quality of life, reduced liability, cost savings and healthier vines, we believe implementing holistic, sustainable business practices, including organic growing, are fundamental to wine quality. And for us, that trumps all other cards."

The winery, which now farms roughly 200 acres, produces about 60,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a small amount of an estate cabernet known simply as Rutherford.

Williams, who grew up on a dairy farm in New York's Chautauqua County, came to Cornell with the thought of returning to dairy farming.

"As a kid coming off the dairy farm, I remember arriving at Cornell with my eyes as big as saucers," he says. "My professors and mentors taught me that anything was possible."

He shifted gears during a Cornell work-study position at Taylor Wine Co. and then pursued the enology and viticulture master's program at the University of California-Davis after Cornell, where he apprenticed in the Napa Valley at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Upon graduating, became the head winemaker for Finger Lakes startup Glenora Wine Cellers; he returned to the Napa Valley in 1980 as the winemaker for Spring Mountain Vineyard before starting his own venture.

"I think entrepreneurs are people who can't imagine why they shouldn't just do it themselves," he says. "When you have passion for what you're doing, it doesn't seem like work."

Williams' commitment to sustainability and the environment evolved alongside his business. Frog's Leap was one of the first farms in the Napa Valley to adopt organic practices. Its wines are grown without chemical enhancements and are dry farmed, a traditional farming method that encourages deep roots and healthy vines through regular tillage and such natural soil amendments as cover crops and compost.

But healthy vineyards are not the only thing being cultivated at Frog's Leap. Working with neighboring wineries as necessary, vineyard workers at Frog's Leap have year-round employment, health care and other benefits including sick and vacation time; his recently constructed hospitality center not only meets Silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards but also employs geothermal technology for all its heating and cooling needs, and the entire winery operation has been completely solar- powered since 2005.

For Williams, these ecological decisions just make good business sense.

"For most people, owning and operating a family business is a long-term proposition," he says. "Energy costs are volatile, and investments like solar power can help control those costs for the long term."

The Frog's Leap solar panel installation cost $1.2 million, but factoring in rebates and energy savings, the system will fully pay for itself in six years. And the up-front cost of the geothermal system installed in the new vineyard hospitality house was equal to roughly six years' worth of energy bills, but will service the 8,000-square-foot building for as many as 50 years before needing to be replaced.

Not to mention the money saved on irrigation pipes, water, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. In fact, even the wine tanks are efficiently designed -- their unique square shape better utilizes floor space inside the barn, providing 33 percent more storage per square foot.

"I'm not claiming to be some kind of saint," quips Williams. "It just makes good sense all the way around."

And clearly it's catching on -- his organic consultant can hardly keep up with requests for services, and solar installations and LEED-certified buildings are going up all over Napa Valley.

"It's starting to look like the balance is tipping this way," he said, "And that's great -- the more the merrier."

Kathy Hovis is a writer/editor for Entrepreneurship@Cornell.

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