John R. Higgs '61, Vinter and entrepreneur


John Higgs '61

The Record, October 2011 -- WHEN WASHINGTON STATE FARMERS began growing apples, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley, who had been industry leaders, began a rapid descent toward bankruptcy. At the time, James A. Higgs, Sr. '26 owned many orchards in the Valley and was struggling to keep his business afloat. As the competition increased, Higgs sold most of his orchards but kept one ten-acre farm just outside Fishersville, between Waynesboro and Staunton.

It had an apple-packing barn and a small house where the family lived for a while. After Higgs' death, the land went to his daughter and fell into disuse. Weeds grew so thick over the decades that it hardly resembled an orchard when Higgs' son, John R. Higgs '61, retired from a career at Philip Morris and considered returning to the family farm to make a living from the land, just as his father had done decades earlier.

The idea for a winery came to Higgs while he and his wife Shelby were enjoying a day of opera at Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville. Everything was perfect: the setting, the wine, the music. Higgs thought to himself: "I could do this."

Recently retired from Philip Morris, during which he spent many years living in Turkey, Switzerland, and Russia, Higgs took his love of wine, his chemical engineering expertise, and the old family orchard and set out to create his own vineyard and winery: Barren Ridge Vineyards.

In 2007, John and Shelby Higgs, and many of their friends, planted the first vines. Four years later, they are reaping the benefits. At first, he bought grapes from neighboring Virginia vineyards to create his wines; 2011 marked the first year his wines have been made entirely from Barren Ridge grapes. Along with familiar chardonnay and merlot, wine aficionados will also find viognier, vidal blanc, traminette, touriga, meritage, and petit verdot, which, Higgs says, "is the future of wine in Virginia."

"My grandfather lived in West Virginia. He had a large family and he wanted his children to have the best education they could. At the time, he thought Hampden-Sydney was-and in my opinion it still is-a good place to get a liberal arts education, so he sent my father and my uncles."
JOHN HIGGS '61
vinter and entrepreneur

Not going to Hampden-Sydney College was almost out of the question for the young John Higgs. His father went there, as had most of his uncles and both of his older brothers, Dr. James A. Higgs, Jr. '48 and William D. Higgs '50.

The family tradition continued into the next generation with his nephew James B. Higgs '78 and his son Robert L. Higgs '93, who was working the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Luckily, he went to the ground floor after the North Tower was hit and was able to escape the building when it was struck by the second plane. Shortly thereafter, Robert Higgs and his wife left New York City. They now live in France where he is learning the language and studying the wine industry.

"My grandfather lived in West Virginia," Higgs recalls. "He had a large family and he wanted his children to have the best education they could. At the time, he thought Hampden-Sydney was-and in my opinion it still is-a good place to get a liberal arts education, so he sent my father and my uncles."

Higgs says he had no idea what he wanted to study at Hampden-Sydney, though he had been interested in philosophy and languages. He laughs a bit as he says, "I really liked studying but it's kind of hard to go from a farming community where you don't have to work too hard academically and your life is pretty regimented, then all of the sudden you go to a place where you have complete freedom and you have to study."

"There were so many inspirational people at Hampden-Sydney then. Bob Thalman and Stokeley Fulton '51 were great coaches and there was a Bible professor ["Snapper" Massey] who was fierce. He scared the heck out of all of us, but he was a great teacher. [Bernard] Firenze was the German teacher and I always had a lot of admiration for him. They had some great professors there, and I'm sure they still do. It was a great atmosphere. I regret that I wasn't at a point in my life that I could have taken advantage of it as I should have."

Higgs had trouble putting the effort into his work that was necessary to succeed in the classroom. After two years at Hampden-Sydney, he decided to take a year off. His father's apple business was waiting for him, but he knew that was not the place for him.

Higgs returned to Hampden-Sydney after the hiatus but he still was not focusing on his work and left again after the fall semester, this time for good. Rather than go back to the farm, he joined the Army, where the discipline he had needed was thrust upon him. He also developed a love of chemistry.

After the Army came marriage to his wife Shelby, which also increased his focus on classes at Newark College of Engineering. "You don't bring a bad report card home to your wife," he says with a laugh.

After he finished his bachelor's degree, they moved back to Virginia, where he got a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia and landed a job with Philip Morris, managing manufacturing plant operations in the U.S. and overseas. Though the work was rewarding, Shelby grew tired of her husband's schedule and he decided it was time to retire back to the United States. Just a few years later, he found himself walking the rows of grapes at Barren Ridge.

"The goal is to continue to grow the business. It takes a few years for the grapes to get where you want them to be, to give you enough volume. I need to plant some more grapes. I need to be able to get the winery up to 5,000 cases. We'll probably produce 4,000 cases this year. We're slowly building up our client base to the point where I'm comfortable."

"What's nice about building a business is having a vision of how things should be and being able to realize that vision. It's almost like a painting. You have something in your mind and you see it and you work on it until you complete it. Here it was visualizing the architecture and how we wanted people to enjoy our product. It was also about how the wine should taste. One of the things that has given me as much joy as anything else is how well received the wines have been."

"We're building a legacy to leave the family, and it's a legacy that was passed on to me from my father. In this business, there is a tie to the land. If you grew up on a farm, you just feel that connection and you can't do a damn thing about it. I feel that I am carrying on a tradition-and it's nice. Traditions are nice."

A vineyard and winery is a full-time job, but Higgs loves the work. In a way, working the land now is a continuation of his father's work. "We grow it here, package it here, and sell it to people right out the front door, just like my father did.