Alumni Spotlight Series: Laura Willits Evans '75 - Designer, Host, and Organic Farmer

There are a few key tenets that Gill St. Bernard’s has always taught—taking risks, creative problem solving, and believing in your vision—just to name a few. For Laura Willits Evans '75, these foundational principles led her to a successful career as an American Folk Art Specialist at Sotheby's. The art relationship and fast-paced New York metropolitan lifestyle lasted over fifteen years.

And then she bought a pile of rocks.

“My father was horrified when I showed him the villa I’d purchased,” Laura admitted.

The 18th century farmhouse was in such bad shape; it could hardly be called a ruin. It was, simply put, a 300-year-old pile of Italian rocks set upon a picturesque rise in Umbria.

What others saw as a disaster, Laura viewed as possessing great potential. She’d lived abroad as part of GSB’s Experiment in International Living programs, first in Quebec with a Quebecois family for three weeks and then in Perpignan, France, with a French family for a month. Her early exposure to total immersion into cultures different from her own had led her to develop a lifelong passion for travel. She’d visited central Italy several times over the years since graduation, and she had fallen in love with the people and the lifestyle—and the land.

“This particular property was stunning,” Laura remembers fondly. “The hillside around the house just spoke of a vineyard to me. I knew I wanted to take it on as a project.”

Her father wasn’t so sure.

The farmhouse had been abandoned since the 1930’s, well over a half-century, and was completely devoid of any modern updates. In addition, Umbrian farmhouses from the 1700’s were built to be all-inclusive: they included a barn on the first floor and living quarters for two or three families collectively on the second floor. In this way, families did not have to travel far to tend to their livestock. The kitchen was on the second floor, where the human inhabitants dwelled, instead of the first, and the homes didn’t even include an internal staircase. Laura’s villa followed this exact format, except for the external staircase. It was missing because it had rotted away.

“I’d always had an interest in renovation and design,” Laura said. “I couldn’t say no.”

It wasn’t the first time the former Knight had been challenged to go beyond her comfort zone. During her time at GSB, she had been involved in Outward Bound, a program which Gill selected to develop self-confidence, leadership skills, and environmental and social responsibility in its students. Little did she know at the time, but the lessons Laura learned from these experiences influenced her approach to problem solving throughout her life. When faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles like the villa’s compromised roof and decades of water damage, issues that would have stalled most renovators, she chose not to stop. She adopted the Italian phrase “sempre avanti” which means “always forward” instead, and putting her father’s fears aside, she threw herself into the project.

Laura had a clear vision to convert the villa into a boutique rental property, somewhat like a private hotel, and to cultivate the land into a working farm complete with a vineyard, olive trees, and other organic products. While ambitious, her plan was to provide the signature Umbrian vacation experience to guests while growing products that could be sold to local restaurants and markets. To do so, she needed help.

“I had friends who had purchased the villa above me and who had gone through the same renovation process. In fact, they were the ones who notified me when my pile of rocks first came up for sale. One of them was an architect, and with his help, we transformed my ruin into the bespoke home it is today,” Laura explained.

Because of the villa’s deteriorated condition, that transformation into an exclusive five bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom getaway took nearly five years. Through all the ups and downs of renovation, Laura stayed focused on the end result—a working estate—and when the home was finally ready, she introduced it to the world as Podere Calzone. The name was a symbolic nod to the home’s heritage: podere is the local Umbrian word for ranch or small farm, and Calzone was the name of the original family who lived on the property in the 1700’s.

With the home in good standing, Laura turned all her attention to the grounds. In 2003, merlot and sangiovese seedlings were planted. 300 olive trees were cultivated, and the olives pressed into oil each year. 300 pomegranate trees were tended, and the products sold to local merchants. More land was purchased. An organic garden was established, and wheat was harvested. Time passed.

“Five years after planting the seedlings and ten years after purchasing the estate, I harvested my first significant grape harvest,” Laura said. “And with the help of a local, third-generation winemaker, I produced my first vintage.” 

The vintage was a huge accomplishment and grounds for much celebration, but Laura’s journey to certified wine maker was far from over. Wine making is a highly regulated business, and before she could sell the wine commercially, she had to get properly licensed, a process that can take years.

More time passed.

While waiting to become an official wine producer, Laura kept chipping away at the estate. She added a pool, outdoor wood burning pizza oven, and abbreviated golf course onto the grounds to provide more amenities for guests. To expand the business, she designed a guesthouse, bringing the estate’s lodging up to six bedrooms and five-and-a-half baths.

Laura asked an American artist living in Rome to create the wine label’s artwork, which features a wild boar or “cinghiale,” an animal synonymous with Umbria, and she branded the wine e420. Each vintage released included the numerical insignia e420 to honor Podere Calzone’s elevation above sea level (420 meters), the number of bottles in a shipping pallet (420), and the address of Laura and her husband, Jim Diack’s, first apartment together.

As it is with most small family businesses, Jim became immersed in the process as well. He leveraged his business experience to launch a distribution company, named Wild Bore Importers, to help with the wine’s distribution outside of the immediate region, and he began to set up relationships with wine sellers in Florida, New Jersey, and New York.

More time passed—almost another five years, in fact.

“At some point, I wondered if my father was right,” Laura admitted. “Creating a vineyard out of bare land is a huge undertaking. But I loved preserving the house and the grounds. At some point, Podere Calzone became more than a project—it became my home. I couldn’t let it go.”

In 2012, fifteen years after Laura first put eyes on the estate, Podere Calzone’s Rosso e420 was finally approved and released for public consumption. The well-balanced red, blended from 85% sangiovese and 15% merlot, received immediate praise from consumers and was soon followed by e420 Rosé, a 100% sangiovese sparkling rosé. Laura’s vision had come to fruition—almost.

Friends and family, including Laura’s sister and current GSB Board Member Caroline Evans Jones ’78, assumed that Laura would take time to enjoy the success of her first commercial vintage. However, the small business owner had a few more items on her to-do list before relaxing on the terrace with a glass of her chilled rosé in hand. In what she claimed to be her last big expansion, Laura added an award-winning tasting room onto the estate, completed in 2021 so that the wine could be properly displayed, and a barn.

“I’m ready to enjoy the property now,” Laura claimed. “I’m past the acquisition and growth stage, and I simply want to embrace living and working on the farm.”

What had started as an opportunity to live abroad in high school had turned into her life’s journey. The former New Jersey native now spends a majority of her time at Podere Calzone, running her wine, farm, and hospitality businesses and, after twenty-five years of hard work, realizing her dream.  She engraved “sempre avanti,” the phrase which had become her life’s mantra, on the back of St. Christopher medallions and handed them out to family and friends as a reminder of what they could achieve if they didn’t give up.

“We’re so blessed to have extended family and friends who can enjoy the estate with us, and we love hosting guests and introducing them to this amazing lifestyle,” Laura said. “It’s best when it’s enjoyed together.”

The successful launch of the business and the perseverance to see it through have brought joy to others outside of Laura's immediate circle. Podere Calzone e420 Rosso and Podere Calzone e420 Rosé can now be special ordered through wine stores in Florida, New Jersey, and New York, and as the bottle's label suggests, it should be paired with someone you love.

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