Paying It Forward

Earlier this month, I attended the retirement seminar for the legendary Dr. Andy Walker, Professor Emeritus in the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis. Although technically known as an accomplished grape and rootstock breeder, hearing his former students speak about him made me think that perhaps those nematode-resistant rootstocks and Pierce’s Disease-resistant grape varieties he developed, not to mention the phylloxera research he did, are really only part of his legacy. Maybe not even the most meaningful part.

Every one of Andy’s former students who were asked to speak at the event said yes (though family illness prevented a few from attending). And to a person, every one of them seemed absolutely lit up, not only about their time in the Walker Lab, but about the work they do today.

Having started my career in Corporate America, I can say from experience that it’s really rare to love what you do for a living. For most people, the best part of the workday is NOT working. A typical refrain goes something like:
When is it lunchtime?
When is it 5 o’clock?
When is it Friday?
When’s the next holiday?
When’s my vacation?
When can I retire?

Very seldom is it, when can I go to work? But Andy seemed to have instilled in a generation of grape scientists (80 students!) a true passion for the work—even for those whose original path pointed in other directions.

When I was considering transitioning from my high-tech job to the wine industry (and ultimately to the position I have today), my mom begged me not to. I had a great salary, benefits and retirement, and was advancing up the corporate ladder. But as I told her then, I don’t believe it’s naïve to think that what sustains you financially can’t also be fulfilling. I wanted a job that I wasn’t just good at, but something I love, work that matters. And that’s what I saw in Andy’s former students a few weeks ago.

That seed of purpose and contentment is as real and as valuable as any rootstock or scion. And Andy Walker gave it generously to the young people who were lucky enough to have had him as a mentor. Each has gone on to serve in a research, extension and/or outreach role that’s important to our industry, each in a unique way.

To Andy and countless other professors and role models who have helped to focus bright minds on advancing the grape and wine industry, we are in your debt. In a few days, we’ll be closing the application period for the new NGRA Fellowship (see info below). Maybe with that award to one aspiring grape scientist, we can begin to pay your gift forward.

Donnell Brown