John T. Williams
Founder & Winemaker
Some background knowledge
John T. Williams grew up on his family’s farm in rural western New York, and attended Cornell University to study agriculture. A fortuitous work study program at the Taylor Wine Company shifted his focus from veterinary science to vines. His early exposure to mentors including Dr. Konstantine Frank and Hermann Wiemer opened his eyes to a world of wine that extended far beyond the Finger Lakes region, and in the spring of 1975 he boarded a Greyhound Bus and made his way to the Napa Valley.
Upon arriving in California, John enrolled at UC Davis, where classmates included Cathy Corison, John Kongsgaard, Dan Lee, Steve Kistler and Lee Hudson. While completing his Masters, John took a job with a small family winery called Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where the Winiarski family and consulting winemaker André Tchelistcheff contributed greatly to John’s continuing education around wine and life.
It was a heady time to be a part of New World winemaking, and these formative experiences laid the groundwork for a life’s work pursuing excellence in the vineyard as the true path to excellence in the cellar.
Founding Frog’s Leap
In 1980, John was named winemaker at Spring Mountain Vineyard, and the following year he and his new bride, Julie Johnson, joined forces with Larry Turley to found Frog’s Leap Winery, producing Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel from fruit they purchased from neighbors and friends including Spottswoode, Truchard and Hudson. The wines met with much success, allowing John to leave his job in 1984 to focus solely on his growing business and family.
Farming was always an integral part of the allure of winemaking for John, and building on the lessons of his mentors in 1988 he took initiative to introduce organic farming expert Amigo Bob Cantisano to a group of his grower partners, including Frank Leeds, who assumed responsibility for farming operations for the winery in 1989, and Frog’s Leap was the first winery in the Napa Valley to receive certification through California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) that same year.
If the 80s were defined by growth for his fledgling business, the 90s were a time of change and transition for John. He dissolved his partnership with Larry Turley in 1994, and moved the winery to its current home in Rutherford. He worked closely with Frank to identify and acquire suitable vineyards and they adopted the dry farming techniques that were heavily relied upon by old time farmers in the region (including Frank’s Uncle Roy Chavez) to create wines that were more deeply connected to the soils in which they grew. Continuing to educate himself regarding organic and sustainable farming practices, John began to focus in on healthy soils as a driver for quality wine production. As the reputation of the winery continued to grow, so did the complexities of the business and John and Julie separated in 1999.
The Next Chapter
As John matured so did the company he founded. The first decade of the new Millennium saw a period of thoughtful expansion and evolution of purpose. The winery went solar, and built the first LEED certified building in the California wine industry. In confronting the challenges of his own business, John began to see that Frog’s Leap was much more than a family asset. It was a company with a unique and powerful public platform for challenging conventional thinking. He doubled down on familiar concepts of responsible stewardship of land and resources and expanded thinking to consider the health of human resource and the role he and Frog’s Leap could play in the larger world. He was instrumental in facilitating the Napa River Restoration project in Rutherford which has served as a successful model for public private river restoration nationally.
Long recognized as an outspoken advocate for sustainability, the past decade has included several personal high points for John. He has been recognized by his colleagues in agriculture for his work in sustainability, and is currently deeply engaged in climate advocacy. He is working closely with his son Rory, who oversees vineyard operations, to bring new viticultural perspective to the winemaking process and their collaborative work in the cellar drives continued efforts to produce wines of balance, restraint and respect for terroir. In 2020 his wife, Tori, joined the team at Frog’s Leap and both his daughter, Kelly and his son, Kylor serve as trustees for family ownership insuring that the winery remains family owned and operated well into the next generation.
In 2017 John’s name and signature appeared for the first time on a bottle of Frog’s Leap, and with the 2022 harvest he enters his fifth decade of winemaking. He lives and works every day in Rutherford, California surrounded by his vines and his growing family which currently includes four children, five grandchildren, and a dog named Sadie.