The next time you find yourself at a special Drexel University event with an open bar, keep an eye out for a bottle of wine — a 2015 zinfandel, to be exact — with a Drexel label on it (featuring a dragon, naturally). This private label wine was created by Vice President of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Thomas DeChiaro, who owns and runs a winery when he isn’t overseeing the department that supplies and supports the technology behind the University’s academic and administrative enterprise.
DeChiaro owns The Winery at St. George, a restaurant and lounge in New York’s Hudson Valley. Since opening the winery in 2012, DeChiaro has been producing 150–200 cases of high-quality wines almost every year that he blends and tastes, and then sells at his bar or through private partnerships. But his passion for winemaking and wine culture dates back decades.
Growing up in an Italian family, DeChiaro was raised around people who loved to taste and talk about wine. He developed his own passion for wine when he moved to the West Coast to work for Bank of America and spent weekends with his wife in the nearby Napa Valley, where he learned more about wine through tastings and talking to winemakers about their craft. But it wasn’t until he moved back to the East Coast, started a family and was transitioning from working at IBM, where he had been employed for about 13 years, to a small defense contractor that he found the perfect opportunity to enter the wine business himself.
And it was all because he took a drive that changed his life.
“There was this old abandoned stone church, vacant and decaying for decades and was located only a 10-minute drive from my house, where I had lived for about 15 years,” DeChiaro said. “One day, I’m driving by and saw a for-sale sign. I pulled over, saw the door was open, went inside and met the guy who owned building, and got to look around. And I just thought, ‘This is it. This could be a wine bar and a winery.’ I shook the guy’s hand and made a deal right there.”
The logo for The Winery at St. George.
Turning an almost century-old Norman-style church into a winery wasn’t as easy. There was the building restoration, which involved keeping as much of the original architecture as possible but doing so in a tasteful, respective way.
“I wanted it to feel like wine was a natural thing that should be served there and that people wouldn’t feel creepy drinking wine in a former church,” said DeChiaro.
Next, there was the long, involved process of obtaining permits and licenses. Then, and only then, could DeChiaro go about building his business, taking an 18-month break from working in the corporate world to open The Winery at St. George.
“When I get my mind set on something, I don’t like failure,” he said. “So it was a great sense of accomplishment when I was able to finish a project as large as that. Mission accomplished.”
The winery opened in 2012, exactly 100 years after it had been built as a Catholic church by the sister of prominent painter and stained glass designer John La Farge, who designed some of the church’s stained glass windows. Also in 2012, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. And shortly after the business’s opening, DeChiaro took a job as the CIO at Western Connecticut State University, installing his brother John in charge of the winery’s day-to-day operations and live events and music programming.
Now that he’s been working at Drexel since 2016, DeChiaro has been living in Philly during the week and making the 2.5-hour drive to his “home base” in New York on the weekends. He’ll stop in and visit the customers and catch an exciting show or event at the venue — like when Amy Winehouse’s father performed a tribute concert or when all the actresses who played “Annie” on Broadway (including Sarah Jessica Parker) gathered there for a CBS Sunday Morning segment in honor of the play’s 40th anniversary.
Though the vineyard can grow grapes, it isn’t capable of producing the quantity and high-quality of wine that DeChiaro wanted to make. Ever year, he travels to Napa Valley to make his own wine. He outsources the grape harvesting and operations to a partner in California, but he does everything else on site.
The logo of the Drexel wine produced by Thomas DeChiaro.
“The wine-making component is on me, but that isn’t that onerous of a task,” he said, adding that he chooses the grapes and tastes and blends the wine by himself. Some of his wines include the aforementioned 2015 zinfandel, a 2016 cabernet sauvignon, a 2017 port (California wildfires that year rendered the grapes too smoky for anything else) and a 2018 harvest that he won’t begin tasting until 2020.
The Winery at St. George wines can be tasted and purchased at the winery, and he also makes special private-label wine for companies (as he did with the University). If you’re lucky enough to meet DeChiaro, you might get a private tasting and lesson.
“Some of the people that deal with me regularly here, like the senior leadership, have tasted the wine,” he said. “One time I did a compressed version of a wine-tasting course with some of the deans.” Oh, and Howie Long, former NFL player and current sports analyst (and father of retired Eagle Chris Long) is also a fan, having ordered a case of DeChiaro’s wine after trying it.
At Drexel, DeChiaro manages over 150 people involved in everything with technology that supports the entire University, including academics (registration and recruit systems and the learning management system where courses are stored, for examples) and administration (payroll, HR systems, procurement, finance systems), as well as the Wi-Fi networks and data storage for people on campus.
“It’s pretty broad, but if you think of how we all take technology for grated today, i.e., everyone expects a WiFi connection with the same mindset as water coming out of the faucet. It’s expected to always be on! At Drexel, that process and these systems are managed through my organization,” he said.
The interior of The Winery at St. George.
His work at Drexel requires careful planning, management and oversight — which comes in handy with the work that DeChiaro does with his winery.
And in a preordained twist of fate or strange coincidence, the name and visuals associated with The Winery at St. George kind of relates to Drexel. Spoiler alert: it involves a dragon.
Saint George, who is venerated by Christians and Muslims as a saint and a prophet, is known in legend to have slayed a dragon (thus saving the villagers who had been offering human sacrifices and inspiring them to convert to Christianity). La Farge depicted this myth in two of the original stained-glass windows from the church, which DeChiaro had replicated in an oil painting of the window. The winery’s logo also features the saint slaying the dragon.
Now, Drexel doesn’t condone the slaying of dragons. However, it also doesn’t mind boasting a Drexel Dragon who created a winery with a dragon in its logo — and built it in a 100-year-old church named in honor of a saint known for killing that beast, all before working at a university with a dragon mascot — as its own.
This story was published in the summer 2019 issue of Drexel Quarterly.