American Fighter Pilots Turned Winemakers

Aluve WineryMost pilots who retire from the Air Force find a second career with the airlines. But when JJ and Kelly Menozzi left the military, this married couple who had each served more than two decades flying for their country wanted nothing to do with commercial flying.


For starters, two commercial airline pilot schedules would have meant never seeing one another. And for JJ, a veteran fighter pilot who flew his F-16 in Iraq enforcing no fly zones, or for Kelly, who operated the hulking KC-135 in war zones, flying business people and tourists from New York to sunny Los Angeles, where temperatures are in the… Well, that just sounded dull.


So they reassessed. Their other passion was wine. They had always loved being among the vines, tasting the nuances of the vintages and varietals, planning their travels to wine regions. When they visited Walla Walla, Washington, they fell hard for the place and decided it would be in Walla Walla where they transitioned from one passion to the other.


The Menozzis bought land, planted vines, interned with established winemakers, and studied viticulture at the community college, where the program is renowned. Then last year, Aluvé, a portmanteau of the Italian words ala (wing) and uve (grape), was born.


While the regimented lifestyle in the military doesn’t seem to lend itself to breeding quality vintners, a career that one would imagine requires some level of free spiritedness, JJ contends that there is much crossover between his two worlds.


“You learn to fly by procedures–don’t go any higher or lower than this,” he explained. “After the basics are down, you learn all the tricks. As a pilot you learn to be perceptive of your gauges. Same with the fruit, gauging when to water or spray, monitoring barrels.”


According to Kelly, the Air Force had given them two advantages in a state with nearly one thousand wineries and a town with more than one hundred: they understood “attention to detail” and were accustomed to “lifelong learning,” important qualities for winemakers.


Both Kelly and JJ have three Masters’ degrees each, along with their accreditations from the viticulture program. Additionally pilots like the Menozzis are familiar with forever learning, as plane technology and their roles in the Air Force would constantly change. As climate alters and weather remains fickle, winemakers are forever students of Mother Nature’s unpredictable adjustments. So the Menozzis were prepared.


The couple’s main goal as winemakers is to stay small, producing around one thousand cases yearly, and inhabiting all the roles: to be the winemakers and to be the pourers in the tasting room.


“At so many wineries,” JJ said, ” you meet an eighteen- or twenty-one-year-old telling you about the owner’s vision.”


Some of their greatest experiences as wine tourists, however, had been sipping wines with the winemaker. The Menozzis aim to deliver that same experience.


Aluve Winery is a way for them to connect to people, Kelly explained. When visitors come to Aluve’s infrequently opened tasting room–after all, the Menozzis will be busy most days with production, so tasting room hours are Friday, Saturday, and by appointment–it will be Kelly’s or JJ’s fingers gripping the label, that lovely haze of sky-blue and purple-grape sliced through with the airplane-silver font of the winery’s name.


And it will be JJ’s nostalgic eyes, as stories about Italian grandfathers making wine in the family’s Ohio home during Prohibition are told. And it will be Kelly’s eyes going big when the important contours of their land are detailed, as if she were explaining the dimensions of a steel bird. And when customers listen to the tall transition from Primo Volo, Aluve Winery’s red blend, meaning First Flight, to some actual first flight, something special will certainly take place, as the tales told will belong to the pilot vintners of Walla Walla, stories that no other winemaker could ever tell.



Posted on by Noah Lederman in Somewhere, United States

2 Responses to American Fighter Pilots Turned Winemakers

  1. Bobby Cain

    Thanks for the inspirational article. This article contains two things I like most inspiration and wine.

  2. Juliann

    Great post! I love hearing the background stories that lead up to a business venture… a.k.a. pursuing one’s dreams. I think I’d want a totally different career after the military, too. Life is too short not to pursue all of your passions.

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