Lucie Morton says she remembers when Tony Wolf first appeared on her radar. He was a recent Cornell graduate, and she was a member of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, looking to add viticultural expertise for what was then a fledging wine industry.
It was, she says, five jobs in one: grape research scientist and extension agent, professor of viticulture, communication hub and administrator. Years later, she would tell an audience at the Eastern Winery Exposition that the man she was introducing was “a kind of Hail Mary hire” who turned out to be a “winning touchdown.”
“Tony has steadfastly maintained the highest standards in each of the roles he was cast into some 30 years ago by an embryonic Virginia winegrowing industry that could not afford to hire five people,” she told the group.
Over that period Wolf has influenced students, grape growers, and the wine industry of Virginia and adjoining states, making him an outstanding recipient for one of Wine Industry Advisor’s most inspiring people awards.
The timing couldn’t be better, with Wolf announcing recently that he plans to retire in early 2022. “It is time for a fresh start—both for the viticulture position, and for my own pursuits,” he writes in his November newsletter, one of his signature contributions to the industry at large.
Wolf earned his master’s from Pennsylvania State University and PhD from Cornell University, and has been teaching at Virginia Tech since 1986. In addition to his viticulture research and extension roles, he has taught an online viticulture course and served as director of the school’s Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Frederick County, Virginia.
An academic setting, of course, requires its share of writing. That’s something longtime colleague Gill Giese, an extension viticulture specialist at New Mexico State University, says Wolf has mastered. “I will not numerate all the papers, works, presentations, consultations, committee assignments, service to region, institution and industry, as well as the teaching and mentoring Dr. Wolf leaves as testament to his stellar career,” Giese says. “His attention to detail and insistence on thoroughness, accuracy, and precision was maddening sometimes. But he, as mentor, would accept nothing less.”
Wolf ticked off a couple of major highlights during his career, pointing to his involvement in the introduction of “new” cultivars to the state, such as Fer Servadau, Mourvedré and Petit Manseng, and to the results his department got from better understanding the ecology of Grapevine Yellows, which affects susceptible varieties such as Chardonnay. “The Grapevine Yellows research is a good reminder that not all research results in magical moments of breakthrough discovery,” he says. “Sometimes you have to be satisfied with the small, incremental increases in knowledge that come from your hard work.”
It’s that persistence that several of his friends cited when asked about his strengths. “What, for me, sets Tony Wolf apart on the world wine grape stage is—first and foremost—his unstinting work ethic,” says Morton. “I don’t know how he has done and continues to take on so many jobs and responsibilities.”
Adds Tremain Hatch, an associate of Wolf’s since 2010, “Tony is a hard worker and demands hard work of those around him. This is to the benefit of those around him. I have been fortunate to have Tony as a mentor.”
Wolf says he saw that same work ethic in two men who inspired him: his father, who was a fish disease scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dr. Robert Pool, his PhD adviser. “The other inspiration that I encountered when I was hired was unexpected. It was the reaction to people who valued and appreciated the effort that I was making to help answer questions or solve problems that they were having in their vineyards.” That, he says, inspired him to do more to serve the industry.
That service came, in part, through his newsletters, which began in January 1986 and continued bi-monthly for years until recently becoming more sporadic. Today, he admits, he’d rely more on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram in addition to podcasts to more effectively communicate to those seeking instant information. “We are expected to market—advertise—ourselves, and these various platforms are excellent means of reaching non-traditional audiences,” he says. “Hell, I use YouTube videos to do my own car and bike repairs!”
Whoever takes over will replace someone unique, says Bruce Zoecklein, the head of the Enology Grape Chemistry Group at Virginia Tech from 1985 through 2013.
“Many spend a career looking for a career. Not Tony Wolf, who found his passion in helping guide Virginia viticulture through leadership and by highlighting applied knowledge,” Zoecklein says. “Perhaps the most important question one can ask is—did he make a difference? Tony Wolf certainly has.”
About Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation, and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened up the submission process to the industry at large. With over 100 nominees, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who they felt has truly positively impacted the US wine culture over the past year. Read more here.