“La Randonnée” is French for a rambling walk or hike. For department alumnus Kevin Green (ChemEngr’96), the metaphor of an extended journey is apt for his own winding career. First as a student studying chemical and environmental engineering at CU Boulder, to a stint at Intel, then as an expatriate living in Ireland, and finally as a winemaker at Apollini Vineyards in Oregon and for his own label, appropriately named La Randonnée Wines.
Green’s professional journey from CU Boulder to winemaking may have been untraditional, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Did your training as a Chemical and Environmental Engineer prepare you for a career in the wine industry?
Of course! As Engineers, we are problem solvers, and there are problems galore in virtually every career, every day. When working for a small business or starting one's own business, there are new challenges all the time. Logistics is an underrated skill that engineering trains us to do through problem-solving. There are many logistical challenges in winemaking.
An example of this is the logistics of pulling off a bottling when many materials from different suppliers must all arrive simultaneously: multiple colors, molds and types with different branding of glass, capsules, labels, corks, screw caps, boxes, etc—and of course, the wine has to be ready to go on a certain day, which involves a lot of preparation and time. In Oregon, a bottling truck shows up at a reserved time and if everything is not ready to go, the winery must pay regardless and may not be able to reserve the truck again for many months.
Fermentation is all about the transformation of sugars into alcohol, heat and CO2. The parameters which influence this all go back to chemistry and biochemistry, but the engineering really comes in for the management of this process. Wine is a living thing and represents the intersection of chemistry and human anatomy. If only I'd known and had been taught such a fascinating practical application of organic chemistry at university—those classes would have made so much more sense and seemed so much more relevant!
What attracted you to the wine industry? Why did you decide to leave a more traditional corporate job?
I found that I was not well suited to working in a corporation. I was able to learn more narrowly focused jobs and skills in greater depth, but I also found that I was using a narrow part of myself—only my brain and hands—mostly on a computer.
I wanted to use more of Kevin, to be on my feet more, to be outside if possible and have more interaction with others. I discovered that I could tick off more of those boxes with smaller companies. I first went to work with a friend as a consulting engineer as I transitioned to the wine industry—where I also found that the smaller the company, the more skillsets were required to be successful. Working in a small winery requires mechanical, electrical and other DIY troubleshooting skills that one could never really use in a corporation. I like having a different challenge to address almost every day.
My parents grew up on farms in Iowa. My mom's outdoor, conservation and farming focuses—plus the hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park we went on together—are aspects of my background that are well suited for the viticulture aspect of winemaking and grape growing.
How does your personal wine label, La Randonnée Wines, reflect your professional and personal experiences of change?
La Randonnée is a metaphor for my journey in life. Literally, a randonnée is a walk or a trek, but for me it is the story of how I came to make wine in Oregon and sell it as part of my own business. My economics PhD father encouraged me to study engineering because I could always go to grad school to become an economist or psychologist, which were my other short list career choices at the time! I thought I wanted to work on the Front Range for a small environmental consulting company. Although I was correct in thinking a small consulting firm would be right for me, the experience of traveling and living in other parts of the world are thanks to moving to Portland and first working for a corporation.
Going to CU Boulder was a huge part of this journey—it was hard for me to stay solely in the Engineering Center. I took a semester off for an internship, got a minor in economics and even studied French.
If young engineers don’t need everything figured out the moment they graduate, what should they have figured out? What ideas and principles can they hold to help contribute to long-term success and contentment in their work?
Knowing oneself emotionally is key to being successful in life. There is no better time to take the opportunity to try new experiences, jobs, friendships, travel, apartments, living arrangements, hobbies and activities than in college and the few years after graduation. This exploration can help anyone know themselves better. The better I know myself, the more confident I have been in my decisions in life.
Related to this is having a moral compass. It will be tested in life and in business, and being true to one's beliefs—be it family, friends, fairness, volunteerism—whatever it is that keeps you grounded—will do just that, no matter what life throws at you.
Even if you don't like your job at times, you can still like yourself. You can know that you have the opportunity to change your job and life, and start again, as I did.
Also, start saving for retirement from the start! My mother was a certified financial planner, and the fact that I took this advice has given me choices to take risks, change my career and start a business.
Do you have any fond memories or connections that made your time at CU Boulder special?
Taking classes with Dr. David Clough was a joy. The grad statistics class has stuck with me through all of my careers and the unit operations class was where I probably learned—but didn't yet realize—that I wanted to do things hands-on.
I was first president of the Engineering Ambassadors, and we had the opportunity to lobby legislators at the capitol in Denver for funding for the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program. I hope that this hands-on facility has made learning engineering easier for all those that came after me. Learning primarily through theory was difficult for me.
Writing for the CU Engineering magazine kept my brain fresh as a break from studying. I liked our little family hallway in the then-Department of Chemical Engineering. It felt like a safe and supportive place.
What other advice might you provide current chemical and biological engineering students?
Listen. Listen to your heart, your friends, your family, the news and the world around you. Be inquisitive and try to learn from others and from your own experiences. If you don't like what you are doing, or have a bad day at work or at school, do some journaling or talk to a friend. The answers are inside of you and will eventually become clear.
Green and his wife Clodagh currently reside in Hillsboro, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. They met while in a “hillwalking” group outside of Dublin when Green worked as an engineer in Ireland.