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Working at Biltmore

by ANN HARDIE

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PHOTO ©MARK FILE

More than a century ago, George Vanderbilt II, a descendant of shipbuilding and business tycoons, opened Biltmore Estate in the western North Carolina mountains as a self-sufficient working farm—albeit one with a 250-room castlelike main house. Today, three graduates of the College of Agricultural Sciences use cutting-edge science to keep Vanderbilt’s vision alive. 

The gray pickup snakes along a well-paved road away from the opulent stone home that draws a million tourists a year to Biltmore, an 8,000-acre estate nestled in the southern Appalachian Mountains near Asheville. The man behind the wheel, 61-year-old Ted Katsigianis (’75g,’79 Ph.D. Animal Industry), cruises past rolling meadows and 100-year-old groves, horse stables and riding trails, corn fields and beds of bursting sunflowers, and a spanking-new inn and bustling winery. 

Veering off the road at a locked gate, he swipes his key card. After a short bridge trip across the French Broad River, he enters what he calls Biltmore’s “wild and woolly” part—a place where the road gets bumpy and the vegetation grows at will. “There’s a lot more going on here besides the ‘big house,’” he says, referring to the four-story mansion modeled after the great chateaus of France’s Loire Valley that remains this country’s largest private residence. 

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Ted Katsigianis with Jellybean.  She's a jenny (female donkey) that guards Biltmore sheep from dogs and coyotes.
PHOTO: CHIP SIMONE

A 28-year employee of The Biltmore Company, the for-profit business owned by Vanderbilt’s heirs that employs about 1,900 workers, Katsigianis has had a direct hand in most of what goes on there in one way or another. He currently serves as vice president of agricultural and environmental sciences, which gives him responsibility over everything from the hormone-free beef and lamb served in Biltmore’s six restaurants to the biodegradable take-home boxes that patrons use for leftovers. “I am very proud of those boxes,” he says, smiling. While The Biltmore Company has received many conservation and environmental awards over the years, Katsigianis is particularly proud of the 2008 Triple Bottom Line Award it got from Sustainable North Carolina for “social and environmental stewardship performed while promoting economic prosperity.” 

The road through the “wild and woolly” part of Biltmore is full of surprises. It passes by the field where a particularly gruesome scene from The Last of the Mohicans was filmed, followed by another field containing a 2,000-pound breeding bull lollygagging under a shade tree. The road also borders a 100-acre vineyard teeming with grapes that eventually will stock the Biltmore Winery, which opened in 1985. Katsigianis, who oversaw the winery’s operation for 17 years, walks the periphery of the vineyard. He plucks a handful of Chardonnay grapes and nods in approval at their taste. He then points to a vine of Vitis vinifera, the common grape. “Those grapes love the Mediterranean climate,” he says, adding that the fruit often does well at Biltmore despite the less-than-ideal climate. 

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PHOTO: CHIP SIMONE

The next stop is a pen holding a handsome lot of Black Angus cows that gather as Katsigianis approaches, expecting to be fed even though they already have been. “They look like they need to eat, don’t they?” Katsigianis asks sarcastically. He remarks on how calm the six-month-old youngsters are, which is no accident given that he selects for temperament when breeding. “Life is too short to work with a bunch of crazy cows,” Katsigianis offers. Singling out one with the ear tag 77T, he says, “I knew that one was going to be good the day she was born. We know more about these cows than we do ourselves.” 

Cattle brought Katsigianis to Biltmore and, in large part, have kept the native of Long Island, New York, here. After earning master’s and Ph.D. degrees in animal science under adviser Thomas Merritt at Penn State, he worked as a livestock extension specialist at the Universities of Kentucky and Maryland. While at Maryland, a close friend called him about a buddy with a farm in North Carolina who was looking to get out of the dairy business and into beef cattle. The buddy turned out to be William Cecil, George Vanderbilt’s grandson. Katsigianis agreed to consult and eventually became a permanent employee of The Biltmore Company. 

Although he started out with only 29 head of purebred Angus cows, Katsigianis is currently responsible for around 500 cattle, some 200 of which are registered with the American Angus Association. Biltmore also has about 500 sheep—crosses of White Dorper rams bred with Dorset ewes from Penn State. Because caring for this livestock is a 24/7 job, Katsigianis lives on the Biltmore property in a two-story dark-brown cottage built in the 1930s. However, to study the pedigrees and performance evaluations of animals, identify semen from bulls worldwide for breeding, and decide which of the estate’s animals will be sold, bred, and, yes, eaten, he works on a computer at the company’s corporate office in downtown Asheville. 

Katsigianis says he did not expect to stay, “never in a million years.” But he grew close to the family—Cecil’s son now heads the company and his daughter is vice chair. The real draw, however, was the hands-on animal science that Biltmore affords. “I love animal selection and breeding,” he says. “The science is fascinating and is always evolving.”

A Winning Winery 

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The vineyard at Biltmore.
PHOTO: CHIP SIMONE

While Katsigianis applies his animal science expertise toward caring for the estate’s livestock, another College of Agricultural Sciences alum uses her skills to create award-winning wines. Sharon Fenchak (’97 Food Science), a dynamic force with long dark hair, is one of Biltmore’s two winemakers. The 41-year-old, wearing brown slacks, a gray Biltmore T-shirt, and sneakers, says she likes a challenge—a good thing considering that North Carolina’s rain and humidity often lower grapes’ sugar content and lead to rot. “It can be very difficult to make wine here, but we still do it, even in bad years,” she says. 

Although the idea of a winery in the Blue Ridge Mountains might have sounded harebrained when the first grapes were planted at Biltmore in the early 1970s, the 96,500-square-foot pebbledash building that originally served as a dairy now produces close to two million bottles annually and draws more than 600,000 visitors a year, making it the most trafficked winery in the country. 

According to Fenchak, 2011 has been a very good year. The dry, hot summer that North Carolina experienced yielded an early and productive harvest—close to 220 tons of fruit. Typically, the winery, which tries to support local growers, gets about 20 percent of the grapes it uses from North Carolina. The remaining 80 percent come from California. 

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Sharon Fenchak in the Biltmore Winery.
PHOTO: CHIP SIMONE

A former Army soldier, Fenchak carries her fit frame through the winery with a sense of purpose. The way she sees it, she and the rest of the winemaking team have an awesome responsibility. The 45 varieties that Biltmore produces, ranging from full-bodied reds to dry whites to sparkling wines, will be the first wines that many of the visitors in the elegant gold and brown tasting room will try. 

“Biltmore can be a great first-time experience for them, and hopefully they will become wine drinkers for life,” Fenchak says. Some visitors, she adds, want to know where the grape stomping takes place, à la the classic I Love Lucy episode, and are surprised by the state-of-the-art machinery that turns grapes into juice, as well as the enormous steel vats and oak barrels where that juice, when combined with yeast, converts to alcohol.

ABOUT THE BILTMORE
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PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Building Biltmore was, at the time, one of the largest undertakings in the history of American residential architecture and the results were astounding. Over a six-year period, an entire community of craftsmen worked to build the country’s premier home. The estate boasted its own brick factory, woodworking shop, and a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials to the site.

The celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled the house on three châteaux built in sixteenth-century France. It would feature 4 acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The basement alone would house a swimming pool, gymnasium and changing rooms, bowling alley, servants’ quarters, kitchens, and more.

The grounds of the 125,000-acre estate were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park and the father of American landscape architecture. He not only developed acres of gardens and parkland, but in his efforts to protect the environment and reclaim overfarmed land, Olmsted established America’s first managed forest.

While Fenchak and her team rely on sophisticated scientific techniques to produce their wines, the most critical part—the wine tasting—is more subjective. In her lab, Fenchak sips a promising red from a nondescript glass container, savors it a few seconds, then spits it out. She checks the liquid for color, smell, and, of course, taste. “If I were making wine for myself, everything would be pretty close to dry. But this job is not about what I like. It is about what our customers like,” she says, adding that many new wine drinkers prefer the sweeter varieties. 

Fenchak’s passion for winemaking began when she was nine years old growing up in Cresson, Pa., a small town southwest of State College where, ironically, beer is king. That’s when she first tried to turn the grapes on her grandmother’s arbor into wine. “It was a disaster,” she laughs. But a love of fermentation was born. “I became fascinated with the fact that you can take something and change it so drastically with yeast,” she says. “All the best things in life are fermented—cheese, beer, wine.” 

The latter won out. After high school, Fenchak joined the Army and was stationed in Italy. “That is where I really fell in love with the idea of wine,” she says, “and where it hit home that this is what I wanted to do.” 

After her tour, Fenchak attended Penn State, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science. The degrees required her to take tough math and science courses, but she loved that she got to eat and drink her experiments. A couple of jobs at smaller Georgia wineries eventually led her to Biltmore, where she now works alongside vice president and winemaker Bernard Delille. The Biltmore Company wants its label, currently sold in 30 states, to be a national brand. 

Most days Fenchak can be found on her feet, though seldom doing the same thing. She might be out in the vineyard checking the grapes for proper acid and sugar balance—Biltmore grows European varieties, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, that have been grafted onto American rootstock, which helps them better gird against North Carolina’s pests. She also might be trolling vineyards in California—Biltmore partners with growers from Monterey to Mendocino, which gives Fenchak the chance to blend grapes in creative ways. Or, she might be in the winery, especially if wines are fermenting. “Fermenting wines are like little children—you have to make sure they are behaving correctly,” she says matter-of-factly. “We will have at least one difficult wine during harvest.” Such a rascal, she says, might require a different kind of yeast, more nutrients, a temperature adjustment, or even simple aeration. “You can’t make great wine,” Fenchak stresses, “and be a lazy winemaker.”

Tending Trees 

The “big house” and nearby winery may be Biltmore’s most popular attractions, but the landscape is every bit as grand and historic. Vanderbilt commissioned the country’s preeminent landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York City’s Central Park, to turn his once overfarmed, overlogged expanse into a majestic outdoor showpiece. Gardens, fountains, and a bass pond, an architectural feat for its time, adorn the grounds. But Olmsted also directed the planting of the white pines, red oaks, tulip poplars, and other native trees that now tower above the winding road leading to the house as well as the hillsides surrounding it. 

“Today, we are living in what Olmsted envisioned more than 100 years ago,” says Bill Hascher (’93 Landscape Contracting), manager of Biltmore’s arborist department, standing on one of the house’s outdoor terraces. “That also presents major challenges.” As if to underscore the point, Hascher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape contracting at Penn State and a master’s degree in forest resources at Clemson University, lasers in on a leafless oak tucked away in an otherwise thriving grove. 

Trees, like people, have natural lifespans, he emphasizes. Many of the saplings planted in Olmsted’s day are now reaching the end of theirs. “We try to preserve what we can, but sometimes trees need to come down,” he says. “That is a decision that should never, ever be taken lightly.” The word “painful” is how Hascher characterizes the decision to replace the original tulip poplars lining the esplanade leading up to the house—14 of the original 52 trees had died and many of the remaining 38 were in decline. But the young replacement trees are flourishing and Olmsted’s original vision is back on track. 

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Bill Hascher poses with one of the thousands of trees he's responsible for.
PHOTO: CHIP SIMONE

For Hascher, 42, who likes to race mountain bikes and spend time with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in his off time, the job at Biltmore combines his love of physics and biology with athletics. “To work with trees, you often have to climb into the canopy,” he says. “There is a real sense of adventure, adrenaline, and strong team building.” 

Hascher and his team are responsible for an untold number of trees on the estate—some 4,000 have been inventoried, but that is a small fraction of the actual number. The arborists concentrate most of their time around the guest areas looking for problem trees—and there are plenty to be found. The hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny exotic pest, is killing the trees they are named after, and drought has stressed many trees as well. 

With a trained ear, Hascher checks for soundness by tapping on the trunks of suspect trees with a mallet. “In a lot of cases, the best thing for a mature tree is to leave it alone and let it live out its life naturally,” he says. “But when that tree is next to the road, it requires regular inspection and maintenance.” Arborists are a little bit like unsung heroes, he adds. “Say there is a large cracked limb over a roadway. If you remove the limb before it falls and hurts someone, nobody knows that the limb—or you—were even there.” 

Some jobs are not so involved. Back at the big house, Hascher notices a broken branch hanging from a notable smooth-leafed elm under which visitors are seeking out shade. Hascher, in full view of guests, takes a Michael Jordan leap and snatches the broken branch. “That’s what you call special arborist work,” he quips. 

Joking aside, Hascher and his team use sophisticated tools and techniques to preserve and maintain Biltmore’s trees. For example, he and his team install copper cable systems that protect against lightning strikes. They also work to mitigate the impact that any development at Biltmore will have on trees. In one recent case, they consulted with planners to ensure that a new parking lot would not shift the pattern of rainfall that an adjacent 100-plus-year-old thriving red oak would need to survive. “That tree has been here much longer than we have, maybe longer than our grandparents,” Hascher says, remarking with pride on how great the oak looks. 

Pride in his work is something Hascher shares with his Biltmore colleagues Fenchak and Katsigianis. Whether by maintaining the estate’s majestic trees, perfecting its award-winning wines, or overseeing its diverse livestock, all three Penn State graduates relish the daily challenges of their jobs and of applying their expertise to help continue the legacy of a beloved national treasure.