Last year, Nick Papadopoulos was reading the morning news on his computer when a peculiar headline caught his eye: "Burning hawk starts vineyard fire." Papadopoulos was oddly intrigued by the story of a hawk that had fallen flaming to the ground beside a Sonoma County, Calif., vineyard after being electrocuted on a power line, charring a couple of acres. Even more intriguing — and disheartening — were the reader comments, mostly poking fun at the hawk's fiery fate.

"Granted, it was a unique story," Papadopoulos says, "but I tried to look a little deeper." What he found shocked him: Some 174 million hawks, eagles, owls and other migratory birds in the U.S. alone die annually through power line collisions and electrocutions, resulting in decimated bird populations and costly power outages (up to 25 percent just in California).

Maybe it was the incident's obvious mythic overtones (picture the phoenix rising from the ashes — symbol of immortality, hope and transformation) or the right idea at the right time, but Papadopoulos was inspired. Within nine weeks — energized by grassroots support from a motley pack of equally inspired conservation groups, CEOs, bird watchers and energy utilities — Burning Hawk wines was born, rising from the ashes of a hapless hawk to spotlight the issue of "avian power line interaction" and offer hope to countless birds worldwide.

"It's still a very technical and scientifically wonky issue — one with a wildlife impact, energy impact and financial impact," explains Papadopoulos, whose background is in conflict resolution and business consulting. "You need to get beyond acronyms and use language that's understandable and shows people — bird lover or not — that it affects them. People now enjoy our wines knowing their purchase makes an impact and raises awareness worldwide."

Adorned with its trademark phoenix-rising-from-the-vineyard label and priced at $30 a bottle, Burning Hawk pledges 10 percent of sales to bird protection efforts. It currently offers two varieties — Napa Valley Red and Alexander Valley Chardonnay — which are produced by Windsor Vineyards and are only available online. In March, proceeds went to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program and this month they're slated for the Hungry Owl Project.

These days, Papadopoulos is busy scouting out other bird conservation projects. His latest passion: helping launch the Mongolian Saker Falcon Project, which will research ways to retrofit power lines in the Mongolian Steppe region to prevent electrocutions of endangered raptors. Possible bird-friendly solutions (PDF) include installing perch discouragers on power poles and creating alternative nesting platforms on existing poles or on nearby nonelectrified poles.

Incidentally, Papadopoulos' career recently got another lift of its own. Windsor CEO Patrick Roney, no stranger to philanthropic wines himself, was so excited by the idea of Burning Hawk that he put Papadopoulos in charge of a new division called Resolution Wines (now home to the company's burgeoning stable of do-good wines, including its Fire Station Red that raises funds for fire stations nationwide).

In addition to dreaming up novel ways to expand and engage Windsor's growing cadre of philanthropic wine "caustomers," Papadopoulos also now spearheads its sustainability program. Among the company's many initiatives: cultivation of vineyards using organic, biodynamic or other sustainable practices; a bilingual recycling program to reach as many employees as possible; a pilot project to reduce shrink wrap use; and a program to encourage more birds of prey in vineyards to help control rodent populations naturally.

One of Papadopoulos' favorite eco-ventures is the Green My Vino Facebook application, which Burning Hawk co-founded with Village Green Energy to encourage renewable energy use in California's wine industry. Facebook users give each other free gifts representing 1 minute, 5 minutes and 10 minutes worth of renewable energy. Village Green then purchases that amount of wind or solar energy on their behalf. In turn, participating wineries agree to power their facilities with that amount of green energy. "There have been 3 million trades so far — one of the most successful viral apps on Facebook," Papadopoulos says.

Phoenix metaphors aside, Papadopoulos still marvels at Burning Hawk's swift rise from inspired idea to reality. "Literally, I read the article, got an idea and e-mailed some people," he recalls. "The next morning I traced a picture of a hawk and found a recycled wine bottle to create a mockup and within three days I had 10 wine preorders. Within five days I'd connected with Windsor and everything took off. We call it bird of mouth — and it really happened."

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MNN homepage photo: cjc27/iStockPhoto

Bird on a wire
Inspired by one hawk's fiery death, Burning Hawk Winery takes flight with a mission that's for the birds.