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The Taste of Dirt

Faculty and Staff are at the heart of a student's experience at Prep. You cannot be in the midst of Prep alumni for more than 10 minutes before conversations about their favorite teachers and most memorable classroom moments arise. Whether they are in their early teaching years or on the other end of being a seasoned educator, there is a deep commitment to their students and their educational journey.

Here are a few faculty and staff to know better.

The Taste of Dirt

It was bound to happen. 

After years of traveling to esteemed wine destinations around the world, Prep teacher and counselor Jim Johnston decided to try his hand at winemaking. 

It was after an accidental meeting with Kerloo Cellars’ winemaker, Ryan Crane, that a romantic possibility became a reality. Johnston says, “I met Ryan down in SODO Seattle at his tasting room. I love his wines. We hit it off and got to talking. He offered to help me make my wine. I thought, ‘that’s nice but I can’t do that.’” Fast forward to their next meeting. Same conversation but this time he didn’t say no. 

In 2016 Johnston had access to a half ton of grapes (that translates into a 60-gallon barrel of wine). Johnston managed to bottle his first vintage that fall, 100% cabernet. “Ryan was instrumental in taking me under his wing and teaching me,” Johnston says. I helped him with the harvest. He helped me make the wine.” 

Since then, Johnston has made 5 more vintages, even one during COVID. He averages 2-3 barrels a year, the equivalent of 50-75 cases. The grapes may come from some of the most established vineyards in Eastern Washington, but Johnston is quick to debunk any airs. He says, “Wine has the distinction of being snotty. I pour at Kerloo Cellars sometimes and I say to people either you like it or not. I don’t think they should be intimidated. Make it fun. Every exploration starts with the willingness to try something different. That’s what makes wine exciting.”  

Johnston’s passion for wine started in college when he traveled through the acclaimed wine regions in Chile and Argentina. Then came Bordeux, Burgundy, the Willamette Valley, Napa, Sonoma, Walla Walla. Most recently he took a trip to New Zealand in pursuit of affordable Pinots in the northern part of the island and crisp white wines in the south. But he is far from done. Next stop is Italy’s Piedmont district. “I think the Nebiollo is a real special grape. It’s a bit out of my price range to regularly imbibe but oh man, those bold Barolos are something. They rip your teeth out!”  

Johnston compares wine making to the perfect biology experiment. “You go from fruit to a bottle of wine. Along the way you have a fermentation process where you convert sugar into alcohol and then you need to rely upon chemistry to regulate the pH and acidity. It is a real-world practicum. A perfect marriage. What’s so cool is that wine starts with the soil. It’s what the earth gives you. Then you add in the farming techniques, chemistry and the enology. There is so much to learn because there are so many variables involved in the process.” 


Johnston has been involved with every stage of winemaking and he knows this romantic endeavor is a ton of work. “A lot of these winemakers turn into wannabe celebrities (similar to what you see with chefs). But you realize it’s not really that glamorous, especially on the viticulture side. They are essentially farmers. There is not a ton of money to be made in wine, unless you are a large producer, or you have a cult following.”  

Although he has learned a lot Johnston plans on keeping his day job. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he says. “It’s been fun, but there is a lot to it. I keep it small and sell mostly to friends and family. I’m not looking for the pressure of a big production.” 

Johnston’s inspiration for his label’s name is rooted in his experience as a biology major. “Common Descent is a Darwinian reference,” he says. “It’s the idea that all living things descend from a common ancestor. I like this idea that we are all connected. And that connection is to something that has been going on for thousands of years.”  

“There is this adage in the wine world that the best grapes come from vines that struggle. I like thinking about that. It makes sense because they have to dig down into the soil to try and tap into water and minerals. If water was handed to them at the surface, they wouldn’t have the same depth and wouldn’t produce the same type of grapes.” 

It also about time—something Johnston understands in his role as teacher and counselor. “Wine is a waiting game,” he says. “When I make a wine in 2016 it doesn’t get released until the fall of 2018. It sits for 23 months in an oak barrel. It is a pure act of delayed gratification.” 

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Prep teacher Andy McCarthy was well into his sabbatical year when the pandemic forced him to change his travel plans and head back to Seattle. Faced with a long quarantine Andy made a spontaneous decision.

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The Taste of Dirt

After years of traveling to esteemed wine destinations around the world, Prep teacher and counselor Jim Johnston decided to try his hand at winemaking. It was after an accidental meeting with Kerloo Cellars’ winemaker, Ryan Crane, that a romantic possibility became a reality.

Learn More about The Taste of Dirt