Thunderbird graduate, Thomas Hedges ‘75 admits, “I’ve always been kind of a dreamer.” Many of his dreams have come true. His company, Hedges Family Estate, owns five vineyards in the Red Mountain area 200 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington and produces over one million bottles of wine a year. But this adventurous entrepreneur was not always living the dream, and he credits his Thunderbird connections for helping him get to where he is today.
Hedges recalls back to 1987 when he was trying to break into the wine business. He had found an opportunity to buy excess bulk wine that wineries could not afford to bottle or market. He knew he needed a loan to finance his new adventure, but SeaFirst Bank did not give him the news he was hoping for. “The guy said he couldn’t finance me,” says Hedges. “I got into my beater car and drove to Lake Washington. I sat there crying, literally crying, looking through the phone book for another bank.”
This was not Hedges first disappointment, and it is not the beginning of his story either. Rewind back to 1975. Hedges had just graduated from Thunderbird with a degree and a French girlfriend named Anne-Marie that he had met while away on a school-sponsored summer program in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The couple married in France, and then moved to Vancouver, Canada when Hedges was offered a job with Castle and Cooke Foods, marketing Dole pineapples. Hedges was later promoted to Manager of South American Marketing in Argentina. He laughs as he remembers how his global education came into play. “They said they wanted someone whose wife wasn’t from Iowa,” he says. “They wanted someone with international experience.”
Hedges left Castle and Cooke Foods when his entrepreneurial spirit got the best of him. His boss quit and asked Hedges to follow him back to Seattle for a start-up company marketing bananas. When El Nino hit their banana plantations in Ecuador that year, Hedges found himself with a wife, two young children, a mortgage and no income.
After a stint selling potatoes in New Brunswick, Canada, Hedges called a friend from high school who had a client needing help shipping produce to Taiwan. Three months in, Hedges remembers a phone call that would detour him once again. “My friend called and said, ‘Drop everything. The Taiwanese government has de-monopolized and privatized alcohol sales. We’re going into the wine business!’ ” Hedges remembers that this venture started with catastrophes, including a shipment of wine that sat in the sun on the docks in Kaoshiung for too long and was ruined.
Hedges continued to pursue the wine business and soon after, in 1987, an opportunity arose to ship wine to Europe. Because the 1986 Chernobyl disaster had potentially tainted crops, Hedges says, “this particular wine buyer in Europe was looking for new sources in the New World.” It was around that time when he discovered the wineries that had excess bulk wine. Hedges came up with a plan to blend those wines and bottle them in Sweden. He began selling a 1987 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the Swedish Wine and Spirit Monopoly. Hedges knew he was on the verge of something big, but he needed some capital. While that initial call to SeaFirst Bank had left him feeling defeated, the phone book had turned up another number. Hedges dialed First Interstate Bank and tried again. This time, he would find a fellow T-bird on the other end.
Hedges remembers the excitement of that call: “He says, ‘You went to Thunderbird? I went to Thunderbird!’” That connection brought him the financing he needed, and it only got better from there. “Slowly but surely, we got bigger,” says Hedges. In 1989, he and his wife bought a 50-acre property in the Red Mountain area of Eastern Washington State. Today, the Hedges farm five vineyards, two of them biodynamically, which Hedges describes as, “more than being organic.” The process considers the vineyard as a self-contained biosphere. “It has respect for the land.”
The wine produced from that land now ships to 25 countries. Hedges believes his estate as a percentage of total production is probably the largest exporter in Washington, with 10 percent of their wine shipping to places such as Japan, Canada, Denmark, Brazil and New Zealand. Even that part of the story has a Thunderbird connection. In Japan, Hedges says, “The agent I sell wine to used to be the president of the Thunderbird wine club.”
As Hedges continues to find success, he demonstrates his desire to help other Thunderbird students succeed as well. Since graduating, he has been back to teach a class on the global wine industry and even has a table in the school’s Pub named after he and his wife, Anne-Marie, for their company’s generous donation. His advice to current students is simple. “Don’t burn bridges,” he says. “Note names and contact information. You never know when you’re going to need them. And, follow your dream!”