John Tracy '65

Entrepreneur’s focus evolves from semiconductor lasers to wine

John Tracy ‘65 stands on a hilltop on Ireland’s west coast, sizing up a bull who eyes him from several yards away. “If I have to make a run for it, we’ll finish our conversation later,” he tells a cell-phone caller from the MIT Alumni Association.

John Tracy and his wife, Deborah

Tracy, president of Owl Ridge Wines in Sebastopol, CA, is vacationing with his wife, Deborah. They needed to unwind after their latest successful venture in the wine industry–turning a custom wine-making company around.

Unlike Tracy’s earlier entrepreneurial endeavors, the wine-making business, which he entered in 2001, took him by surprise. “We bought a home site in West Sonoma County, which incidentally had a vineyard on it,” he says. Tracy then partnered with wine maker Joe Otos to form their Willowbrook Cellars label “as an excuse to do something with the grapes.”

Tracy and Deborah started Owl Ridge Wines in 2002. While Willowbrook focuses on pinot noir, Owl Ridge makes cabernet sauvignon. The companies’ creations have garnered more than 30 gold medals at major competitions since 2005, including several Best of Class awards.

After majoring in physics at MIT, Tracy earned a PhD at the University of Washington in 1970. For the next 10 years, he developed optical devices at Rockwell International. Seeking a smaller corporate environment, Tracy moved to Applied Solar Energy in 1985 and started a division devoted to semi­conductor laser technology.

When he saw an opportunity to acquire Applied Solar’s laser business, Tracy found backing from Spectra Physics and formed Opto Power in 1992. Sales of Opto’s high-power semiconductor lasers soared to $38 million within five years. “We figured out how to make them inexpensively,” explains Tracy. This innovation introduced lasers into applications including surgical devices and direct-to-press printing. Tracy sold his interest in 1997 and left the company in 1999.

Tracy attributes a large part of his success to his experience at MIT. “While I wasn’t the best student at MIT,” he says, “problem-solving skills just developed naturally through my immersion in the environment there.”

As for his bull problem on the Irish hilltop, Tracy relaxes after several cows show up. “I think they’re hoping I’ll feed them,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I should consider raising cattle.”

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.