1939 - 2017
Born in 1939, Tom Burgess grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, in the northern part of the state. His father, Otis, was a co-founder of Morse Controls, and Tom’s summers were spent selling parts out of a station wagon for Morse Controls. He had an early exposure to wine in Ohio. Prohibition had closed down Ohio’s fine wineries, but by the time Tom was a teenager the industry had begun a modest recovery, and vineyards were beginning to appear on the shores of Lake Erie once again.
Tom attended Miami University in Oxford, OH where he majored in Geology and Aeronautics. He joined the Air Force ROTC in college and went on to serve over 5 years. He earned incredible assignments in the Air Force, flying Project Gemini astronauts around in a C-135. He met and became lifelong friends with Neil Armstrong on one of these flights when Neil had to splash down in the South Pacific unplanned, then needed a ride to Honolulu.
His work transporting dignitaries took him around the world, where, on his off time, he continued his avocation as a wine enthusiast, sampling some of the best vintages on the planet. While in the Air Force, he would fly to Travis Air Force Base and rent a car to visit the Napa Valley.
His early exposure to wine in Ohio, and then international travel provided him the wisdom and intelligence to make his next move: Tom the Vintner. In 1970 he and a friend were visiting Napa Valley and stopped at Beaulieu Winery. They happened to arrive just after a shareholder lunch, when library Cabernets from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s were available to taste. It was a seminal event in the young pilot’s life. In Tom’s words, he “heard the wolves baying in the woods” when he tasted these outstanding wines: the Napa Valley was calling for him.
Because of the advent of jet travel to Europe, many Americans got turned on to wine and food as a part of life. In the early 1970s, a bank predicted Americans would increase consumption of fine wine by a significant multiple. This report gave Tom and others the confidence to start great wineries.
Tom found six wineries for sale in the Napa Valley. By far the most appealing was Lee Stewart’s Souverain, which offered a fully operational winery, award-winning vineyards and a house with views of Bell Canyon Reservoir and the upper Napa Valley. The Howell Mountain winery, with its mountain fruit and heritage of gold and silver medals, was his choice. In 1972, Burgess Cellars was born.
In 1972, the number of wineries in Napa and Sonoma essentially doubled in one year! Hence, Burgess Cellars belongs to “the Class of ’72”. There were only about two dozen wineries at the time, now there are over 500 in Napa producing about 1400 brands. When Tom purchased the 1870’s era winery, he established himself as a pioneer of mountain side wineries.
The harvest of 1972 was a tough one for Napa, but these brush breakers persevered. Soon, Tom was on the road selling his Napa Valley wines just like he used to sell Morse Controls. He had certain skills that helped him thrive: his early exposure to enology, his recent connections with influential and well-placed wine lovers, and his ability to fly. He opened up new markets for Burgess wine as well as other Napa Valley labels. In fact, Tom was the first to sell a California wine to a couple of major distributors!
Burgess bought a Cessna and later a SIAI Marchetti aerobatics airplane. He flew hundreds of customers, distributor salespeople, and press up for flights over the Napa Valley. He loved showing how small the valley really was, and sometimes he would fly upside down until they agreed to buy a pallet of wine!
After running the winery for 32 years, Tom asked his adult children to come back and work with him. In 2012, sons Steven and James became President and Vineyard Manager of Burgess Cellars. Today, they embody the pioneering spirit of their father and love for Napa Valley and mountain winemaking. The second generation is piloting Burgess Cellars to the pinnacle of Napa Valley quality, and building on the legacy of Tom Burgess.