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On certain afternoons, before the sun begins its slow retreat behind Sonoma Mountain and casts a golden glow across the valley and its tidy rows of vines, George Hamel, Jr., brings a glass of wine to his deck and drinks in the panorama. 

“I never tire of looking at that view,” says Hamel, the owner, along with his wife Pam, of Hamel Family Wines

These are rare moments of silence and stillness, and Hamel has learned to savor them. His first career in finance was fast and furious, defined by taking chances and seizing opportunities. The winery is the second chapter, as well as a reward. 

The 1980 communication arts grad began as a financial consultant at Merrill Lynch, and later moved — along with Pam, daughter Casey and sons George III, John and Luke — to San Francisco in 1996. He served as a partner at private equity firm BLUM Capital before co-founding the investment management firm ValueAct Capital in 2000. 

But even before he retired at the end of 2014, another venture was tugging at Hamel’s entrepreneurial instincts. A vacation home they purchased in Sonoma Valley in 2006 came with an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Hamel thought they’d bottle a little wine to share with friends, but the pursuit didn’t stay a hobby for long. 

“I’ll admit, in the back of my mind, wine was appealing to me from a business perspective,” Hamel says. 

In 2010, the Hamels bought a 124- acre property nestled into the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains. They transformed it into a stunningly modern, environmentally friendly vineyard with a winery, cave and estate house for tours, events and unmatched views of the Sonoma Valley. Hamel Family Wines officially opened its new facility in 2014, adding 125 acres of additional vineyards along the way. 

I’ll admit, in the back of my mind, wine was appealing to me from a business perspective.

And the “family” bit isn’t mere branding. Sons George III, who earned an MBA from Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, and John, a UW-Madison journalism grad with a winemaking certificate from the University of California, Davis, are managing directors of the business. While Hamel spent the early days of his “retirement” working fulltime at Hamel Family Wines, he’s now relinquished the daily management to his sons. 

“We didn’t want Thanksgiving to feel like a board meeting—or for the kids not to want to come at all,” he says. 

The Hamels produce about 6,000 cases of wine annually, specializing in Cabernet blends that take full advantage of the Sonoma heat, as well as Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and a rosé — a more limited repertoire than some wineries. “We want to have four or five varietals and do them all well,” Hamel says. 

They take their role as stewards of the land seriously, choosing organic and biodynamic farming practices to best care for the environment and their wines. 

“Any winemaker will tell you, 95 percent of the quality of a wine happens in the vineyards, and we fully subscribe to that belief,” Hamel says. 

The Hamels are also dedicated supporters of UW-Madison, with George serving on the Chancellor’s Advisory Council and the Department of Communications Arts board, Pam on the School of Music board and the pair providing a $15 million gift for the new Hamel Music Center, along with generous support to a host of programs across the university. Hamel says these are ways to give back to a place that gave him a start. 

“My time at Wisconsin was formative in a lot of ways of who I became,” he says. “I learned how to navigate and advocate on my own behalf. And a diversity of knowledge made me understand there’s a whole world out there.” 

And that includes a special place that he can call his own. 

This story appears in the fall 2018 issue of Letters & Science magazine.
Read the full issue here.