Lou Fancher

Susan Reed, Saint Mary's College Class of '92, assists Jim Ryan of Concannon Vineyards in pouring vintages at the recent Summer Wine Festival at Saint Mary's College.

By Lou Fancher

MORAGA -- College buddies and wine drinking compadres came together in beautiful harmony at the Eighth Annual Summer Wine Festival at Saint Mary's College on Aug. 12.

With more than 450 guests, each porting a soon-to-be-filled glass bearing the SMC logo and many of them graduates of the college, 70 percent of the $45-60 ticket price is directed to scholarships for underresourced students.

"I only made it through Saint Mary's because I received $80,000 in scholarships from the state and the college," confessed Cindy Neander Cooper, Class of '96, the founder and chairman of the festival.

"I can't write a check for $20,000, but I can sure throw a party," she said, laughing and turning her focus to the roughly 40 vendors filling the Soda Center.

Eight years after cold-calling vineyards for participation in the inaugural event, Cooper and Alumni and Volunteer Engagement Associate Director Laurel DeMaria declare the festival a smashing success.

Over the past seven years, more than $100,000 has been raised, according to DeMaria. Cooper said the effort began with one simple question.

"I looked at all the alumni fundraising activities and said, 'What's missing?' " she remembered.

With SMC's hallowed winemaking history (a Christian Brothers Winery Vintners Hall of Fame includes brother Timothy Diener, Class of '33,) and a surprising number of graduates working in the industry, the answer was obvious.

So obvious that Bob Kozlowski, Class of '50, was almost at the same time beginning to form a Gaels in Wine group.

"I wanted a social group that would talk about the things I love to talk about -- Saint Mary's and wine," he said. "We started meeting in 2007 with 10 members and now we have 126, so as far as I'm concerned, it's working."

Kozlowski, like many of the festival's vendors, began as a home winemaker.

"Zinfandel," he states, when asked about his first foray. "Unfortunately, it was no good, but eventually, I learned."

Kozlowski learned enough to be sought out as a winemaker by Kenwood Vineyards, where he worked from 1970 to the late 80s.

"During the early days, there were a small group of vintners," he recalled, "but now, wine is so big, you have to hold a gathering in Las Vegas."

He attributed part of that growth to winemakers' open, generous attitudes toward their peers.

"A winemaker needs a palate, and the grapes are all different, so you're not going to keep a secret," he said.

Jim Ryan, Concannon Vineyards' estate manager and a veteran participant at the festival, said more sophisticated wines and the local gourmet food component keeps both college supporters and foodies coming back, year after year.

And Captain Vineyards intern Matt Lebel, just squeaking in the door at the legal age of 21, swirled a second-in-his-lifetime taste of his employer's 2008 Petit Verdot.

"It's spicy, and leaves you ... " he paused, stymied, then allowed a fellow guest to suggest, "speechless?" before nodding with relief.

But Cindy Thompson, hovering at the silent auction table, had no difficulty choosing her words.

"You don't want that, you don't want that at all," she insisted, pointing at a display featuring a golf outing for four and tastings at Wente Vineyards.

With competing bids for the item rising into the 300's, Thompson wouldn't say how high she'd go, but she had high praise for the chardonnay in her glass and for the festival itself.

"This brings out wineries you don't know about, because you always go to the same stable, the familiar, when you go to Napa. These are unique and maybe not well known, which is ... terrific," she decided.

Kozlowski, Cooper and DeMaria agreed that the growth of local vintners has boosted attendance. When last seen, each was celebrating the opportunity to share a glass and possibly, help a future Gaels in Wine member reach graduation.