Vintage Vassar: John Alban '83

By Rob Dunton '83

“Because our ridiculously overextended staff is committed to growing grapes and making wine, we are not able to conduct public tours or tastings…” — Alban Vineyards voicemail greeting

After the tone, I left a message requesting an interview with owner and founder John Alban ’83.

As founder of the first American winery and vineyard established exclusively for Rhône varieties, he introduced Roussanne and Grenache Noir to California. A native Californian (and self-professed Mug regular), Alban started growing grapes in 1986; by 2001, Alban Vineyards was named Winery of the Year by Wine & Spirits magazine. When not digging ditches or finessing the finest out of his grapes, Alban consults for growers and producers throughout the state. He is also co-founder and a director of Hospice Du Rhône, the world’s largest international celebration of Rhône varieties.

As it turned out, the warm, sarcastic voice on Alban Vineyard’s voicemail greeting was John himself. In a recent conversation, Alban revealed himself as a visionary winemaker with a refreshing sense of humor.

So what brought you to Vassar? I wanted to see what the East Coast was all about. And while I was there, I learned just how Californian I am — it’s one of those situations where you don’t really know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

Your class photo in our yearbook was your meal card from ACDC [the All Campus Dining Center]. Any special meaning you’d like to share? Is that what I did?! Ha! I have no recollection why I did that. But I’m glad to see I still find some of the things I did entertaining.

In a short history of Alban Vineyards you wrote that before you were old enough to drink legally (which was 18 when we went to Vassar), you spent a lot of time wondering why Europe was fermenting over 500 different grape varieties while California was using about six. These aren’t typical teenage thoughts. What got you ruminating about such ideas? I grew up in a family that drinks wine every night. My father is a beautifully hedonistic individual — not a connoisseur or a cork dork — he just loves indulging the senses. Through that environment, I grew fond of wine from a pretty early age. Once I was at Vassar, all of a sudden it was just as easy to spend summers in Europe as it was to fly back home. I was able to immerse myself in wine. By my sophomore year, I knew that if I could find a way, I would try to make a living in the wine trade.

You majored in biology. Why? To be honest, it was a way for me to wake at the crack of noon and still get to class. What’s funny is, now I’m usually up working about the time I went to bed in college.

How did you go from biology to starting a winery? My family had no vineyards, no winery — in fact, there is no history of winemaking in my family at all. With no tradition or leg up, I figured a bit of education would be a good starting point. The most renowned school for winemaking is at UC Davis. I’m probably the only person who has the dubious distinction of being admitted to the UC Davis med school (which I turned down) and not being admitted to the vit school.

You mean viticulture school is more competitive than medical school? How can that be? There aren’t a lot of tractors at Vassar — although the Mug offered a good education in libations! Basically, my biology degree worked toward med school, but I had no prerequisites for vit school. It just so happened that the second most renowned school in viticulture and enology [winemaking] was also in California, at Fresno State. I needed to get the prerequisites, so I enrolled there. I took wine production classes and basically completed the course work equivalent to a bachelor’s in enology before starting a master’s at UC Davis.

Wouldn’t mentoring at wineries in France or California have given you the hands-on knowledge and experience you really needed? Sort of like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz — that diploma was going to give me the confidence to pursue my dream. For a long time, I thought others viewed winemaking classes as silly. To a certain extent, I thought so, too. As much as I wanted to make my living through wine, I kept it to myself.

While you were working on your master’s, you were lured away to France? I got a scholarship from the French government to study winemaking and grape-growing in France.

Why would France spend money to teach a foreigner some of their most prized trade secrets? It does sound a bit crazy on the surface — to train me so I could return home to compete in the same industry. But in France they are so gracious to you — what they get is a lifetime ambassador singing their praises.

John Alban '83
John Alban '83

John Alban ‘83 inspects his wine in the Alban Vineyards cellars located in Arroyo Grande, California.

What was working in France’s vineyards like? Were you tempted to stay there? Being away, I discovered — as I had at Vassar — how Californian I am. Even more, by living in France, I discovered how incredibly American I am. I have tremendous appreciation for the French — the people, the culture — but I wanted to return to California. I wanted to help cultivate a greater diversity in our wines here.

This all happened in 1986. You came back, finished your master’s at UC Davis, and started the first American winery and vineyard exclusively focused on Rhône varieties [wines originating in France’s Rhône Valley]. What inspired this particular tack? There was so little variety in California wines. Chardonnay and Cabernet are California’s equivalent of vanilla and chocolate. I thought I’d be like Baskin and Robbins, creating the wine equivalent of Jamocha Almond Fudge. My research gave me hope that these varieties would grow very well in California.

Who inspired you as a mentor? The closest thing to a mentor in the wine business was Jacques Reynaud, the now deceased vintner and proprietor of Château Rayas. My apprenticeship there dovetailed with my scholarship in France.

What are some of your favorite wines? My wife distributes wines — she brings home samples all the time — and for me, a great deal of the joy of wine is its diversity. But if I had to choose: a Rayas from various vintages, say a 1990 or ’95.

What’s your favorite pastime? Now it’s being with my family — I have two little boys. Before that, it was a potpourri of sports like surfing and skiing.

Do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share with Vassar students or alums? We’ve all heard the old adage “If you get an education, at least you won’t have to dig ditches for a living.” And then there’s “No matter what you do, you will always have your college education — no one can take that away from you.” As it turns out, I don’t really remember much of my college education — it’s as though someone did take it away. On top of that, I have ended up digging a lot of ditches as part of my living. Basically, I’m a farmer, and my work is as predictable as the weather. The fact that I discovered what is really important to me while at Vassar has had a more profound effect on my life than any class, lecture, or document ever could.

Interested in trying or purchasing some Alban Vineyards wine? Contact or visit Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium, 2531 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93440, call 888.SB.WINES, or visit www.sbwines.com.

Rob Dunton ’83 is a freelance writer whose work can be found in a range of publications including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Farming at Vassar

While Vassar does not offer a traditional farming major, dozens of students each year supplement their coursework with hands-on experience on local farms. Some farms specialize in environmental education, others in organic farming. Vassar’s own farm is home to the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, a nonprofit organization that leases 10 acres of land for its organic “Community Supported Agriculture” program, and is especially popular with students. Of course, the growing season in the Hudson Valley (April through October) is interrupted by summer vacation, so students must take full advantage of the optimal farming months. Professors in the biology, geology, environmental studies, and urban studies departments work closely with students, and credit for internships can be arranged through Vassar’s Fieldwork Program.