Uncorking the liberal arts: Shelby Perkins '95
Each bottle of Oregon-based Perkins Harter wines, founded, owned and operated by Shelby Perkins ’95, reflects not only inspiration and love of Côte des Blancs and Chablis wines but also a journey of personal discovery and creative problem-solving rooted in the liberal arts.
From impressionist landscapes to stunning black-and-white photographs of the Oregon coast, the label for each reflects the lifelong interest in visual art that first brought Perkins to Skidmore College from Binghamton three decades ago.
A Skidmore geology minor, the bottles also present detailed information, including climate, wind, elevation and soil, and insight into how volcanic rifts millions of years ago and cool coastal breezes help to create the bright, natural acidity of each Perkins Harter wine.
"Many people don’t think of farmers as academics, but they really are,” she said. “We’re talking about hydrology, fungal health, soil health, weather patterns and mean temperatures and then also looking at the economics of making sure that the farming decisions make sense.”
The path from a college student in Saratoga Springs to a winemaker in the Eola-Amity Hills of Oregon presented many curves and occasional bumps.
“When I went to Skidmore, I was studying studio art. For my science requirement, I took Historical Geology and totally fell in love with geology. I came in intending to paint and ended up a business major with geology and environmental studies minors.”
Always drawn to the outdoors, Perkins became an outdoor guide and water testing lab assistant after graduation. After a couple of years in the Northwest, she decided to study environmental law at Vermont Law School, eventually earning two law degrees — a Juris Doctor and Master of Studies in Environmental Law — along with a Certificate in European Union Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She found herself working as a nuclear weapons cleanup policy assistant and attorney-advisor for the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Sure enough, I ended up getting a job working at Yucca Mountain (proposed spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste repository), the project that I wrote a paper on to fulfill a requirement for my geology minor at Skidmore,” she said.
After her work concluded due to the shutdown of the Yucca Mountain project, Perkins began looking for a different path. Following a “revelatory” trip to Antarctica, she was a science and technology fellow at the National Academies, worked on a climate change project with Google, provided low-Earth orbit market research to SpaceX and conducted renewable energy technology research for a venture capital firm.
With a liberal arts education, you stop seeing the boundaries between subjects. It’s the blending of subjects that really gives us new resolution and new ability to see the world in new ways.Shelby Perkins ’95
The outdoors continued to beckon, and she landed in wine country — Sonoma County, California.
“I worked a harvest and just fell in love completely with the wine lifestyle and being able to create and use my backgrounds in business and science,” she said.
Perkins is a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and holds a Diploma with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. She also studied with the Institute of Masters of Wine.
After making zinfandels in Sonoma for four years from vines dating back to the late 19th century and becoming concerned about the long-term sustainability of the operation, Perkins decided to search for soils and climate more suitable for chardonnay and pinot noir.
She is the owner and winemaker of Perkins Harter Wines and is co-owner of the Bracken Vineyard in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where she lives with her husband, Peter Harter. Perkins Harter produces chardonnays that are dry, lean and light-bodied with citrus and white flower aromas. Its pinot noirs are light and acid-driven, with airy minerality and fresh red fruit on the nose and flavors of red cherry, cranberry, light strawberry and bay leaf on the palate.
Perkins, who is also actively involved in legal and policy efforts for the wine industry, notes that “farming takes an incredible amount of intellectual and emotional agility.” 2020 was a year of particular challenge: Not only did Perkins confront the demands associated with growing a young business, but smoke from raging wildfires nearby also threatened her vineyard and her crop.
Whereas some may have feared ruined chardonnays and pinot noirs, Perkins saw new opportunities for rosés and sparkling wines — not the varieties she had anticipated but a reflection of careful, scientific analysis and quick, creative thinking. Born was a new Spaghetti Western label and 2020 bottles of The Good, the Bad and the Bubbly and A Fistful of Bubbles.
“I am definitely the beneficiary of a liberal arts education because so much of what I do has always been complex thinking,” Perkins said. “With a liberal arts education, you stop seeing the boundaries between subjects. It’s the blending of subjects that really gives us new resolution and new ability to see the world in new ways.”
“I do benefit from having studied many things and not living in fear of new subject matter, because at the end of the day, I ended up having to be a constant academic.”