Earl Jones is a big man with bright blue eyes and work-worn hands. His voice, after 20 years in Oregon, still carries traces of the southern lilt he picked up during years in Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana. As a boy, he drove a tractor between rows of corn, wheat and soybeans on his parents' farm in Kentucky, but his passion was science. When he left home to attend Tulane University in New Orleans he never wanted to grow anything again. Instead, he turned his keen analytical mind to medical science.
While at college, a chance encounter with a bottle of Pouilley-Fuissé introduced Earl to fine wine. Back home on the farm drinking was limited to the occasional dram of whisky at Christmas. Now he realized there was a whole world of culture, history and sensory delight to be found in wine. After earning his MD, Earl pursued a career as an immunology researcher. While teaching at Emory University in Atlanta he met Hilda. They married after a year-long courtship and together explored the world of wine – especially the Rioja wines that paired beautifully with their favorite foods.
Ever the researcher, Earl accumulated a wine collection and winemaking lore. When he decided to leave the medical field it was natural for him to consider a career in wine, though it meant moving his family across the country and embarking on a project with no guarantee of success.
Hilda Jones always wanted to live on a farm, but grew up in the sun-drenched city of Tallahassee. Her mother, a fashion designer, and father, an accountant turned business owner, immigrated from Iceland to Florida before Hilda was born and their courage runs in her veins. “When you have parents who leave one country for another it gives you a different perspective.”
That's why Hilda didn't hesitate to leave her successful career as a medical technologist to move across the country with Earl and their youngest daughters, Hanna and Meredith, to plant a vineyard and build a winery. She met her husband through research – Earl had a piece of rare lab equipment she needed to borrow – and trusted his approach to work and life. Hilda had also come to share his love of wine and the food, culture and history of Spain.
Hilda wasn't afraid to swap status, security and familiar surroundings and start a new life as viticulturists in rural Oregon. “The worst that could happen was it wouldn't work,” she says with a smile. “I figured if that happened we'd sell out and move on. I never saw it as a chance of failing.”
Earl tasted his first bottle of fine wine as a university student. When Hilda and Earl married wine became an important part of their personal and social life. “Earl was chair of the dermatology department at Emory,” Hilda says. “So we'd host parties for visiting professors. At first it was mixed drinks, beer and some wine. But over the years we focused more and more on wine.”
Earl traveled to medical conferences all over Europe, which gave him a chance to learn about Old World wine and food. He tasted, collected, and brought home great bottles. Through the years he and Hilda developed a particular affection for Spanish wine culture. “We were fond of their unique concept of tapas,” says Earl. “At the day’s end, it seemed remarkably civilized to sit with friends and enjoy a glass of wine paired with a harmonizing portion of food. What could be better?”
Wine was a pleasurable avocation away from the increasingly pressured, regulated world of medicine. Earl was troubled by the rise of HMOs and the fact that administrators and accountants were making decisions about access to health care. He didn't want to pour his intellect and energy into a morally questionable system.
It was time to change their lives but how? Earl wasn't going to waste years of study and training. He was looking for “something that involved research and would challenge me forever.” They talked about planting a vineyard but plenty of people did that. If the Joneses were going to leave their successful careers and step out into the unknown they needed a bigger goal.