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Once a physicist: Chris Loxton

Chris Loxton started his own winery, Loxton Cellars, in California after 10 years in physics research.

Chris Loxton

You're from Australia and your family has been in the wine-making business there for generations. Did going into physics make you feel like a black sheep?
No, I was good at physics in high school and my parents were nice enough to encourage me. So before I knew it, I had a PhD in physics.

What did you do after you got your PhD?
I moved to the US to do a one-year postdoc at Pennsylvania State University, and when my supervisor moved to Arizona State University, I went with him. While I was in Arizona I met someone who had worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he recommended me for a position there. At the time, the Nobel laureate John Bardeen was still alive and working in the Illinois physics department, and they had an interdisciplinary research centre where people would come to do surface physics. My job was to look after their suite of materials-analysis instruments, and it was really fun. I collaborated with people from other labs, gave them advice and trained PhD students or postdocs to use the equipment. I could pick and choose all sorts of interesting projects to work on, and that's how my one-year postdoc turned into a 10-year career.

Why did you decide go into winemaking?
I'd wanted to be a winemaker since I was halfway through high school, and eventually I decided that I didn't want to look back at age 55 and say "Gee, I wish I'd done something else". I talked to some friends who were in the wine business and they recommended going back to school to study winemaking. So I took some classes at the University of California-Davis for 12 months, and then I worked in Australia and the US for two years, bouncing around from winery to winery during harvest to get practical experience. Eventually I got the opportunity to make my own wines here in California and I've been doing that since 1996.

Are there any parallels between your two careers?
I joke that doing a PhD is great experience for owning a winery: you work really hard for almost no money. Seriously, though, when I was an experimental physicist I would make lots of observations and then try to rationalize them to find out what they meant. The same thing happens in winemaking, but the big difference is that in physics, it's a lot easier because you have control: you vary one thing, watch what happens and then try to reproduce it. In winemaking you have to deal with the weather and variables like soil and temperatures, and they are all changing. After harvest, when you taste what you've made, you try to rationalize about it, but it's almost impossible; the system is too complex.

What are you working on right now?
We're still a few weeks away from harvest, so I'm bottling, which is an interesting process for someone who likes things to be reproducible. Blending wines is one of those things where 1+1 does not equal two. It's like cooking, where a tiny bit of salt can make a big difference. And of course, I'm not doing lab work; I'm just tasting it and going by gut feeling. I spent years trying not to do things that way, but now I kind of have to, because I want to make a product I like and that's very subjective.

Do you have a favourite wine from the past?
My favourite was a Syrah from 1998, which was a difficult year, cold and rainy. I was using grapes that I bought from somebody else, but I worked in their vineyard almost every weekend, manicuring the vines and so on. I learned so much just by looking at the weeds and the way the vines grew, and when the grapes were ready I insisted on having them picked at several different times instead of all on one day. The result was a wine that was really quite nice; not a great wine, but good. The person who got the rows next to me, though, didn't do the work I did, and they were so unhappy with their wine that they never released it. So that was my favourite. It wasn't my best wine, but it was an example of how even in a tough year, I managed to understand enough to make a good wine.

Any advice for someone interested in making a career change?
Don't think about it too much because you'll end up deciding not to do it. Early on, I remember thinking, "I wish I'd spent just one more year working, because then I'd have a little bit more money". But as it turns out, I would never have had enough money, and sometimes you just have to do what you really love to do. Also, it's funny. Nobody in my family except for one distant cousin ever came to visit me when I was working as a physicist in Illinois, but since I've had this wine business in California, it's been like running a bed and breakfast – they just keep coming out all the time! I think there's a little bit more glamour, and certainly something a lot more concrete, in making a bottle of wine than there is in detecting a particle. It's a fun thing to do and it's worthwhile.

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