From Battlefield to Vineyard: the Stories of 3 Military Winemakers

From Battlefield to Vineyard: the Stories of 3 Military Winemakers

Grape growing takes some guts and courage; year after year, you're vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. Perhaps this is why numerous veterans in their post-military careers run wineries in Santa Barbara County, Calif.

Jarhead Wine Co.

Former Marine Corps Capt. Adam Firestone grew up in a prominent family; his great-grandfather founded the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.

Following graduation from Pepperdine Law School, Firestone chose to serve the nation, enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1984.

He was assigned to duty in Virginia, Hawaii, and the Persian Gulf and deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1991 during the First Gulf War.

He returned home to the Santa Ynez Valley, where his father and grandfather founded in 1972 Firestone Vineyard, the county's first estate winery.

When his father, Brooks, was elected to the California State Legislature, Firestone took over as president of the winery (the family since has sold it).

In 1996, Firestone started with his brother-in-law the successful Firestone Walker Brewing Company, making barrel-aged craft ales.

Then, in 1999, Firestone and fellow Marine and vineyard foreman Ruben Dominguez made a special wine for a Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation birthday ball. They called the robust wine that just doesn't quit Jarhead Red. It was a hit.

Today, they produce 3,500 cases of Jarhead wines annually. Firestone likes to say, “The Marines build character. We bottle it.”

Once a Marine, always a Marine, Firestone donates all net proceeds from the sale of Jarhead wines to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides need-based scholarships to the children of Marines and Navy corpsmen, with priority given to those whose parent has been killed or wounded in action.

Firestone has given more than $500,000 to the fund and other efforts supporting what he calls the Jarhead Nation - the greater community of Marines and those they love.

Firestone credits the Marine Corps' intense training for transforming him into a leader ready to handle every challenge and succeed at anything and giving him a sense of pride instead of entitlement.

“The military imparts critical qualities of endurance, perseverance, organization, and leadership,” Firestone says. “I'd recommend that in the first instance over an MBA or similar [degree]. The actual skills to make wine and run a business can be learned, but the results are better when introduced to a foundation built from those experiences.”

Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyard

Drafted in 1965 after graduation from UC Berkeley, Richard Sanford, the son of a World War II naval officer, joined the Navy. Sanford went to officer candidate school and set sail navigating a destroyer and serving three years in Vietnam.

After his discharge, he returned to California looking for land to fulfill his dream of living a rustic life handcrafting fine wine. But first, he would need fine fruit.

Sanford studied a century's worth of climate records from the world-class wine region of Burgundy, France.

With decisiveness beyond his years from his military experience, his geography degree in his back pocket, and a thermometer on his car's windshield, the navigator went in search of the optimum place to plant Pinot Noir grapes.

Sanford located land with well-drained soil in a coastal microclimate east of Lompoc. In 1971, he took a leap of faith and planted the first vines in the area, at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.

“It was a pretty exciting time for me personally - the time driving around on a tractor [and] getting the vineyard established. It was a great healing experience for me after the war,” Sanford recalls.

In 1981, Sanford and his wife, Thekla, started Sanford Winery and produced award-winning wines sold in 50 states and 16 countries.

They left Sanford Winery in 2005 to found Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards, which is dedicated to organic farming and sustainable agriculture.

Sanford's contribution to the wine industry has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, the Culinary Institute of America inducted Sanford into the Vintners Hall of Fame.

Pacific Ridge Vineyards

Impressed with his father's test pilot prowess, Bob Kelly aimed high, aspiring to earn his wings, too.

So, after graduating from UCLA, he attended aviation officer candidate school, and served 10 years on active duty flying the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, at Naval Air Station Lemoore, and aboard USS Nimitz (CVN-68).

Kelly deployed to Iraq during Operation Southern Watch and then served in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. He supported the fleet by flying for a decade in the reserves, piloting the C-9 and transporting everything from SEAL teams to weapons to the mail.

His naval career took him to 56 countries. “I loved it!” Kelly says.
It was a great military experience and a great life experience. A lot of things I saw and did most people can't even imagine. Flying those high-performance fighters was just unbelievable.”

But flying at supersonic speeds was taking a toll on his soul.

Kelly sought a slower-paced pastime when not in a cockpit, and he found serenity on his family's land overlooking the Pacific near Point Mugu.

There, he planted wine grapes, and nearly two decades later, he's an in-demand vineyard consultant making wine under his own Pacific Ridge Vineyards label.

Turns out, discipline drilled in the military helps in farming, too. “The Navy taught: 'This must get done!' For example, these grapes must be fertilized at this time. You can't wait,” Kelly says.

Commander Kelly retired from the Navy four years ago and currently pilots commercial airliners.

“The other day, I was flying as the captain of an airliner in and out of Los Angeles, and it's very technical and very by the book,” he says. “Things better be done right, just like in the military. But then I landed, and the next morning, I was out walking the vineyard and tasting the grapes. That's what keeps me grounded.”