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Rocket scientist celebrates earlier career with wine release

Posted By Neal Hulkower , Monday, June 19, 2017
Updated: Thursday, June 1, 2017


For Don Hagge, space is not the final frontier.  The land is.  This one time space scientist began life on a North Dakota wheat farm and after a multifaceted career that included stints at NASA planted an Oregon vineyard.  In 1999, he established VIDON Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains American Viticultural Area with his wife, Vicki, branding it with a contraction of their first names and pronouncing it vee-dohn.   The boutique winery above the 12.5 acres of vines produces 2000 to 2500 cases a year of mostly Pinot Noir with lesser amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Syrah and Tempranillo, all of it estate grown as of 2014.  Both the vineyard and winery are Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certified and participate in the Carbon Reduction Challenge. 



 Don and I were brought together by Carl Giavanti, a Winery Marketing and Public Relations consultant, who was struck by our common background as “rocket scientists.”  After 2 years flying Navy planes in Korea, Don earned a Ph.D. in physics from University of California at Berkeley, as well as an Executive MBA from Stanford.  He is much more hands-on than I am.  At NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, he designed experiments for Explorer 38, 39, and 40 and then became Chief, Apollo Physics Branch, at the Manned Space Flight Center (now Johnson Space Flight Center) in Houston.  On the other hand, my doctorate is in applied mathematics with a specialty in celestial mechanics, an analytical pursuit which I utilized to design interplanetary trajectories at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  In contrast to Don, I am no “metal-bender.”


At 85, Don is almost a generation ahead of me.  As such, he met many of the first American astronauts.  In comparing notes, we both knew Karl Henize, one of the original scientist astronauts.  As a freshman astronomy major at Northwestern, I was a research assistant to Henize who had a groundbreaking experiment on Gemini 12.  In August 1967, Henize was named to the astronaut corps.  It wasn’t until July 1985 that he got into space at age 58, becoming the oldest person to do so up until that time.   Don was visibly moved when I told him that Henize died in 1993 attempting but not succeeding to become the oldest person to climb Mount Everest.   He still remains in contact with several former astronauts, tasting wine and exchanging e-mails with arcane subjects like “Gravity emergent?”


Don worked at NASA Houston from the time of Apollo 7 through Apollo 13 after which he had a varied career in high tech that included successful serial entrepreneurial ventures.  Before settling in his home in Newberg next to the winery, he lived in various cities in California, Idaho Falls, Seattle, and Portland.


The impending launch of VIDON’s Space Exploration Series was the impetus for our more recent meeting.  The series comprises three bottlings from the 2015 vintage: Apollo Chardonnay, Explorer Tempranillo, and Saturn Syrah.    The Chardonnay has a deep yellow color with green overtones and polished aromas.  It is mouth filling with a longish finish.  Drinking nicely now with reasonable acidity, it could age longer.  Only 25 cases were made.  Not surprisingly, both the Tempranillo and Syrah were still tight though clearly exhibiting varietal typicity.   The former had a juicy fruit aroma while the nose of the latter, co-fermented with a bit of viognier, exhibited mostly meat followed by spice.  Don made 140 cases of the Tempranillo and 148 cases of the Syrah.   A Valentine’s Day release is planned.


Having grafted his Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc vines to Chardonnay, Don expects to make an Apollo Chardonnay reserve every vintage.  He is focusing on Syrah as an alternative to pinot noir for which there is no space series bottling.   However, he continues to produce 3 single clone Pinot Noirs each named for a grandchild, and a 3 clone blend that contains 777, 115 and Pommard.  Each is nicely balanced, restrained and elegant even in hot vintages.  There is also a Melange Pinot Noir that includes the 3 clones plus Gary Andrus’ suitcase clone, AS2.


Further evidencing that as time passes we all become more of who we are, Don remains kinetic, as Vicki is fond of noting.  He jumps on his tractor to mow and till as much to relax as to get the work done.   He finds outlets for his inventiveness and iconoclasm. “I’m a scientist, not a winemaker, therefore I’m not hung up on winemaking traditions,” he reminds us.  Don seals his bottles with glass stoppers and screwcaps even building his own bottler to accommodate the former.  He prefers translucent, food-grade polyethylene oxygen-permeable tanks to stainless steel for aging and argon to nitrogen to displace oxygen.  He built his own dispenser for the tasting room that uses argon to preserve wine for weeks.   To reduce exposure to oxygen, Don designed a bunghole/barrel aspirator with two tubes, one through which argon floods the ullage and provides pressure to push samples through the second.  He hopes to try it out soon.


Don’s skills are not limited to hardware.  He wrote the software for an online meta wine club that allows folks to purchase from several wineries without the usual constraints.  He calls it “Vin Alliance” and expects to go live soon.


Though no longer involved in the space business, Don and I have remained true to our respective proclivities.  While I continue to be paper bound, writing about wine rather than making it, Don applies his talents to making good things for us to drink. VIDON’s Space Exploration Series is testament to the fact that you may take the scientist out of the space program but you can’t take the space program out of the scientist.


For more information and to acquire VIDON wines, visit www.vidonvineyard.com.


Neal Hulkower is a mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville, Oregon.  His wine writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications including the Journal of Wine Research, the Journal of Wine Economics, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest, and The World of Fine Wine.  Occasionally, he can be found pouring quintessential Pinot noir at the top of the Dundee Hills.

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Tags:  Oregon wine 

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