News and Events
School of Law Alumni Become Premier Central Coast Winemakers
by Jerry Derloshon
Proving for the umpteenth time that a legal education provides a foundation for achieving excellence in a number of fields, several alumni of Pepperdine's School of Law are focusing their attention on the rich fields of California's Central Coast. There, in the Santa Ynez Valley and surrounding areas, they are producing a bountiful wine harvest. Here are glimpses into their lives, their work, and dreams . . .
In the 1900s, Firestone was one of the most prominent family names in America. Harvey Firestone founded Firestone Tire & Rubber Company and was a friend to the most notable political, social, and corporate figures of his day. His legacy and the family's prominence continues in great-grandson Adam, who followed the pioneering footsteps of his father, Brooks, into the first vineyards of the now celebrated Santa Barbara winemaking region. The younger Firestone studied biology and law (SOL '93), then served in the Marine Corps and worked as a lawyer before taking the reins of Firestone Vineyard in 1994.
Citing California's regulatory climate as "oppressive," the CEO of Firestone Winery says it is fortunate he has a law degree. "Pepperdine always had a heads up and practical element to its curriculum. This has armed us to navigate some of the rocks and shoals rather than bleating against it from the shores," says Firestone.
The wine industry is fascinating to him. "Wine consumption is undergoing a revolution," he says. "Today, people are finding that wine, consumed in moderation, will allow a dinner with family and friends to last longer." He adds, "People are also discovering that wine in moderation drastically reduces the incidence of coronary and other disease. That gives you family, friends, and health. What could be better?"
One of America's founding fathers, Ben Franklin, on the subject of wine: “We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage, in Cana, as a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain, which descends from Heaven upon our vineyards, and which enters into the vine—roots changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”
Firestone Winery is a family operation, but the last decade has allowed Adam to put another set of fingerprints on the wines. "That is the aspect of generational growth that is ultimately the most rewarding," he says.
He and his wife, Kate, have four children between the ages of two and fifteen, and he says they hold dear, "The aspiration that at least one among them will someday attend Pepperdine, and then take their turn at winemaking allowing Kate and me a little more time for travel."
Gary Verboon (SOL '81) sees his work, not just as CEO of Rancho Arroyo Grande Wines, but all of his many business pursuits, as answers to a question he asks every morning when he rises. "My prayer," he says, "is, 'God what do I get to create today?'"
He approaches each new day as an opportunity to do something interesting. As CEO of the conglomerate Avacus Corporation, he has created or acquired a series of companies reflecting his interests and passions. One of those passions is making wine.
The work goes on in earnest at the 4,000-acre historic Rancho Arroyo Grande located in the California Central Coast where two wineries—Rancho Arroyo Grande and River Wild Winery—represent the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Joining Verboon in the operation of the dream are his wife, Tereze and young son, Ian. They acquired the winery in 1997.
Rancho Arroyo Grande Wines holds production to 6,000 cases per year from 230 acres of estate vineyards and every cluster is hand sorted for uniformity prior to crushing. The wines are aged in French Oak barrels for up to two years prior to release. Many of the limited release wines are sold through the company's Web site (ranchoarroyograndewines.com), or through outlets in several states.
River Wild Winery is Verboon's second winery and "the first winery in the U.S. to make wine exclusively for food pairing." At River Wild Winery, Verboon makes wine blends that are carefully paired for foods. For instance, they produce a venison blend, a trout blend, a turkey blend and a waterfowl blend.
An avid horseman with about 20 quarter horses on the estate, Verboon recalled his Pepperdine years saying the faculty of the School of Law had a profound effect on him. "The guidance and wisdom imported in class or from conversations has been applied many times when confronted with issues in my law practice or business operations."
He adds that he makes a point of reconnecting personally with Ronald Phillips, former law school dean and now dean emeritus and vice chancellor of the University. "He was an early role model and today continues to embody the finest example of a Christian professional. He acts as a great sounding board for new ideas and concepts and brings a true sense of wisdom to the inevitable conundrums presented in a complex life," says Verboon.
Geoffrey Rusack (SOL '89) and his wife, Alison Wrigley, used to enjoy visiting their friends, Adam and Kate Firestone at the Firestone winery. Geoff and Adam Firestone are both alumni of Pepperdine's School of Law and have remained friends.
The Rusack's liked it so much they jumped on an opportunity Adam told them about and bought a 48-acre winery in the Santa Ynez area from a dentist. That was in 1992. Today, Rusack Vineyards produces about 5,000 cases per year and the winery's Web site (www.rusackvineyards.com) isn't glamorizing when it boasts, "Nestled in a picturesque canyon amidst the oak-studded rolling hills between Solvang and Los Olivos lies Rusack Vineyards, a boutique winery dedicated to producing top-quality grapes and outstanding handcrafted wines."
Establishing Rusack Winery in 1995, Geoff and Alison Rusack are creating world-class wines with the highest standards of production. Like their alumni counterparts, Rusack's wines are truly "made by hand."
Rusack Vineyards has 24 acres planted and produces wines primarily from estate-grown grapes. The general manager is Catherine Kernott, a 1985 Seaver College alumna who grew up in the Santa Ynez area. An accounting major with "Big 8" working experience, she traded the large accountancy environment for the sun kissed hills and vibrant blue skies of the valley she once again calls home.
This story first appeared in the Pepperdine Voice Magazine, Winter 2004.