Bottling The Aggie Spirit
Former political science student and entrepreneur Duke Meadows' love for the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M has aged like a fine wine.
By Amber Francis ’22
Art by Angelyn Wiley ’17
Aggies often talk about the “Spirit can ne’er be told, the spirit of Aggieland.” While many of us struggle to explain it to friends outside the Aggie family, three alumni are attempting to bottle and share it with the world.
Duke Meadows ‘96, Mike Nance ‘96, and Zachary Huyge ‘97 are giving Aggies and non-Aggies alike the chance to uncork the spirit of Aggieland one bottle of Texas wine at a time. We spoke to one of the entrepreneurs, political science grad Meadows, to learn more about their foray into the winemaking industry.
Meadows was afforded the chance to join the Aggie family by his father, an Aggie eager for his son to discover the joys of student life at Texas A&M University uninhibited by the worries and stress of juggling a part-time job. His father’s generosity empowered Meadows to fully indulge in the Aggie experience he and his friends are now sharing with the world.
For many, the years we spend attending college are just that: time spent working towards a diploma. To Meadows and his partners at 12 Fires Winery, Texas A&M University isn’t simply a place where they pursued a higher education; it’s the place that forged their Aggie brotherhood.
As a political science major and cadet in the Corps, Meadows met his lifelong friends and future business partners (as well as his best friend and college roommate Chris Breen ’96). The four became heavily involved with the annual Aggie Bonfire. The tradition quickly became more than a pile of burning logs to this set of friends; it forged a bond between them and ignited the Aggie spirit within them that still blazes brightly today.
“It has an impact on you; it influences you,” Meadows remarked. “At Texas A&M you can create something bigger than just yourself. Those core bonding moments, whether found through the Corps, Aggie Bonfire, or university football games, form friendships for life. It’s years of your life that can never be duplicated.”
Discovering The Sommelier Within
After graduation, the group of men went their separate ways. Meadows followed in his father’s footsteps and took up commission as an officer in the Air Force. He began his military career stateside and was stationed in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11.
Meadows moved from base to base for a time after serving in the Middle East. He even lived in Las Vegas and took on the role of Texas A&M Club President for a couple of years. After seven years of military service, Meadows made the tough decision to retire from the Air Force, leaving the military behind and returning to Texas to join corporate America.
“I still remember the day I came home and took off my uniform for the last time,” Meadows remarked. “There’s always a handful of significant memories in one’s life, and that was mine: taking off that uniform for the last time.”
Service men and women often expect the adjustment to civilian life to be rough, because there’s a lack of belonging to a group that serves a greater purpose. Thankfully, the bond between Aggies and our shared core values helped make this adjustment easier for Meadows. In Houston, where he landed after leaving the Air Force, one is all but bound to reconnect with Aggies.
Meadows credits his Aggie ring and the alumni network with creating many opportunities for him within the corporate world. His Aggie connections even played a role in landing his current job as a capital project sourcing director in industrial gas.
In the thrall of corporate America and eager to own his own business, Meadows excitedly began researching business opportunities. Sipping countless glasses of wine, he pondered over everything from fitness to food, but nothing felt quite right.
One fateful evening, on the drive home to Houston from a Texas A&M football game in College Station, Meadows dropped by Bernhardt Winery to see his buddy Nance. Nance was volunteering and learning to make wine there. Meadows had always been passionate about wine from a consumer perspective, and something clicked that night. Meadows returned to Bernhardt to volunteer alongside Nance during harvest. Together, they slowly learned more about the art of winemaking.
Eventually they brought in Huyge, and started exchanging spreadsheets, powerpoints, and ideas centered around founding a winery. Starting a business together felt as natural as breathing.
“We Aggies have a brotherhood and sisterhood that’s hard to find,” Meadows said fondly. “It only makes sense that I’m going to build a winery with my Aggie buddies.”
The group of friends spent a while looking for suitable land to build their winery on, and though it took some time, Meadows eventually found and purchased a plot in Johnson City during 2017. This purchase strengthened their resolve and determination to fully realize their business idea. Their first two years of owning the land were spent clearing it and planting the vineyard. Finally, in 2019, they began selling their first wines out of a cooler.
Igniting The Aggie Spirit Through Wine
Each Aggie uses his talents and expertise in their role at 12 Fires.
Huyge oversees the company website as well as the social media accounts, marketing, and IT for the company as 12 Fires’ resident technology-savvy salesman. Nance serves as winemaker, traveling year-round to vineyards across the state to find Aggie grapes to make their Aggie wine. Meadows, a man with a keen sense for numbers, works primarily behind the scenes of the operation, handling the bulk of the administrative work including spreadsheets, accounting, and contract negotiations.
As a political science major-turned businessman, Meadows accredits his degree with teaching him the importance of keeping a close watch on presidential administrations and their economic policy. Those policies can have massive repercussions for business owners, who he champions as the backbone of America. He also asserts that his political science background encouraged him to be more cognizant of how government decision-making impacts businesses.
Political scientists often look back at historical decisions, tactics, and practices to make sense of the current political climate. Looking back to the early days of the winery, Meadows reminisced on what he stressed to be the most difficult task of all: finding a name.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do, believe it or not. Everything else is color-by-numbers; you buy the land, clear the land, plant the vineyard, get with architects to design the buildings. The name is different,” Meadows explained. “It dictates what your brand is going to be, what your marketing will be like, it’s everything.”
Despite the initial difficulty, as time went on the direction that the company was taking became more and more clear.
“The number 12 kept coming up. We bought 12 acres of land for the winery. With Texas A&M there’s the 12th Man, and I was in Squadron 12,” Meadows goes quiet for a moment. “And when the bonfire fell in 1999, that’s how many souls passed away. One of them was my best friend and roommate in Squadron 12, Chris Breen.”
Naming their winery 12 Fires was a way to make Breen part of the process of bottling the Aggie spirit. It gives the Aggie business partners at 12 Fires a chance to share the story and legacy of the 12 students who passed anytime someone asks about the company’s name.
Symbolism is important to the alumni at 12 Fires, which is why their logo resembles the Bonfire Memorial on campus. The ring of fire around the number 12 represents the Aggie family rising like a phoenix after the tragic collapse of the 1999 Aggie Bonfire. It depicts the 12 portals at the memorial, one for each Aggie’s life claimed by the collapse. Each portal is alight with the Aggie spirit, symbolizing that the Aggie spirit connects us to the Aggie family even after we are departed.
“Yes we’re trying to sell good wine, but we also want to have a good story, a respectful story. It’s a fine line of naming something after a tragedy. You never want to come across as capitalizing off of people’s deaths,” Meadows asserted. “But it’s a legacy, and you want their memory to live on. In it’s own odd way, 12 Fires is a tribute to those twelve souls who passed that evening.”
The Aggie Spirit at 12 Fires doesn’t stop at names and branding. It’s an ideal embedded within the very fibers of the business itself. Texas A&M alumni are involved in nearly every step of the process.
As a relatively fresh startup, the business operates in phases. The Aggie winos are currently in talks with investors to expand their facilities and construction projects. They hope to have a formal tasting room completed in 2021.
Thanks again to the Aggie network, 12 Fires wines are available for purchase in Bryan-College Station at Aggieland Outfitters, The Republic Steakhouse, and Gate 12.
On the weekends, 12 Fires holds it’s wine tasting nights, with all three owners traveling to Johnson City and conversing with guests one-on-one in a makeshift tasting room.
What 12 Fires Winery currently lacks in multimillion-dollar buildings, it makes up for with great wine, an overwhelming sense of sincerity, and a great story, often gaining them customers for life. On their tasting nights the three men make sure to greet every guest personally before pouring them a glass of their bestseller, a Texas-grown tempranillo, and sitting down with them to talk.
Meadows remarked that he and his business partners relish the opportunity to meet people and ignite their Aggie spirit with 12 Fires wine. “We embrace them, get to know them and tell them our story.”
Just as Meadows’ father uncorked the Aggie spirit for his son, the spirit of Aggieland for other Aggies can be uncorked by funding scholarships. Learn how to fund a scholarship in the College of Liberal Arts by contacting Andrew Millar at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (979) 845-5192.