Fairfield Now - Spring 2009
Class of '59 profile:
Antony Champ: Vineyard Haven
By Alistair Highet
Antony Champ '59 with his wife, Edie.
There were big changes going on in Napa Valley in the 1960's when Fairfield alumni Antony Champ '59 first started to visit. At the time, with a doctorate in organic chemistry from Case Western Reserve University, he was working for Celanese, a large chemical company. Each fall he would be sent out to California to do some college recruiting for the firm at the campuses of Stanford, Berkeley, and U.C. Davis.
"My wife Edie would come with me and when we had a free day we'd get out to Napa Valley. We just fell in love with what was happening there."
At the time, famed wine pioneer Robert Mondavi had just begun to produce premium wines in California. Mondavi was proving that the soil and growing conditions in Napa could make a wine that would rival the wines of Europe.
Fast forward a few decades and discover that the Champs own one of the most well regarded vineyards in the Northeast, White Hall Vineyards, in the hills of Albemarle County, Va. just 13 miles from Charlottesville. Currently, the winery produces 7000 cases a year, and grows a variety of grapes on 45 acres of estate-owned land. The growing conditions have proven mild and balanced enough for White Hall to have significant success with grapes that have often proven difficult to grow on the east coast. "We have a long growing season," Tony explained. "It's long enough to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, and we are having a lot of success with the Viognier," a wonderfully aromatic but fickle white wine grape that is native to the Rhone Valley in France.
Currently, the winery has vineyards comprised of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and other varietals. Among the estate's many awards, the 2006 Viognier was awarded a Gold Medal at the 2008 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, while the Petit Manseng and the Petit Verdot from the same vintage were awarded silver medals.
Champ grew up in Norwalk and went to Fairfield Prep before going on to Fairfield University. "Of course, when I went it was just two buildings," he laughed. "I have warm feelings about the University." One of his teachers was the late John A. Barone, who joined Fairfield University in 1950 and taught organic chemistry before going on to eventually become the University's first provost in 1970. "He was kind of a mentor to me," Champ said of his teacher.
After getting his doctorate, he went to work for Celanese Corporation where he specialized in synthetic fibers and held various positions with the company before becoming a vice president. Later, Champ and other investors formed Fiber Industries by purchasing some of Celanese's assets, which soon became the third-largest U.S. producer of polyester fiber. Champ served as the company's president and CEO until it was sold to Wellman Industries in 1989.
During that period, his passion for wine continued to grow.
"When I left the industry, Edie and I looked at each other and said, 'Let's do something we always wanted to do,'" he said. With 5 children all living in the east, the decision was to look for a suitable growing location that was not in California. "We looked at Charlottesville and fell in love with it," he continued. "It was time to try the wine thing." The house and the first six acres of grapes were established in 1992.
White Hall continues to thrive. Wine lovers might be on the lookout for the winery's marquee red wine, the 2006 Cuvee des Champs, which is about to be released. Literally translated as "blend of the fields," but also a play on the couple's name, the cuvee is a blend of the major wine grapes of Bordeaux - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The wine is expected to be something special. For more information about White Hall Vineyards go to www.whitehallvineyards.com.