Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Q&A with Chris Phelps, Winemaker, Ad Vivum Cellars

When we started this blog, we had no idea how much pleasure we would get from meeting those people behind the scenes who toil over the grapes to produce the wine we regularly enjoy. We still consider ourselves amateurs, and yet have always been treated with respect by small and large producers alike. They take us seriously. And, nothing compares to speaking directly with winemakers when it comes to growing our wine knowledge.

A few weeks ago, we were asked by a small but very prestigious Napa Valley winery if we would sample their most recent vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon - the only wine produced by the winery each year. In terms of a wine adventures ... boy, did we have one! Josh Phelps, son of Ad Vivum Cellars winemaker Chris Phelps, was coming to New York and invited us to meet over a glass of wine. Timing didn't seem to be great -- Chris with a packed schedule and us with a new baby -- but after a flurry of emails, Chris ended up meeting Nathan at his office to drop off the wine, shake hands, and make a new friend. This Q&A with his father followed. And this is why we do what we do. Wine should be fun, not intimidating, and this winemaker reminds us of that!

1. How did you get into the wine business?
I grew up in the Livermore Valley, East of San Francisco. Some of my family's first friends were the Concannon family, owners at the time of Concannon Vineyards, so I was in a winery environment, knocking on the big redwood tanks, as soon as I could walk. Then my folks started making Cabernet and Zin[fandel] at the house with friends: I even hand-dug a wine cellar for them while I was in high school. I grew up in a family where local wines were always on the table.

2. What are your inspirations for your wine?
Even after 30 years of winemaking, it's still fun to discover new sources of inspiration: they are easy to find if you keep an open mind. It's easy to just say, "hey, I've got this whole thing figured out, my wine is the best, what could I possibly do to improve what I do?" Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what is the best approach - to constantly search for ways to up your game. A wine in the bottle is the culmination of hundreds, even thousands, of decisions, most of which might seem trivial in and of themselves. Choice of variety, appellation, hillside vs. valley floor, when to harvest, these are examples of big decisions. But, how do you prepare a new barrel for use, with steam or water, or at all? How often should barrels be topped? When you add up all of these choices, the sum total is the wine in your glass. We have a lot of options as winemakers, and a lot of them are not high-tech or even that interesting to the consumer. I am inspired by the day-to-day challenge of this work, and it is work. A lot of the younger Millennial winemakers are inspiring to me - they are pretty quick to think outside the box, and look at varieties and blends that are new and untried. I get really inspired whenever I set foot in French wine country, especially the Right Bank of Bordeaux, where I have lived and spend a lot of time. The blend of "new world" and "old world" approaches - and there is definitely room for both - to winemaking inspires me constantly.

3. In your opinion, does pleasure come from the discovery of new wines or in returning to your favorites time and again?
Both! There is a French expression that translates as, "everyone has his or her own taste". I believe the pleasure of a wine is an entirely personal experience. No one should have the power to tell you what you should like or not like, it is solitary pursuit. However, it sure is nice to share the mutual pleasure of a wine with a close friend. There is always time to come back to personal favorites that you discovered as 'new' finds at some point. There are thousands of wines to discover, and there will never be enough time to experience them all. It's so nice to stumble across a new 'favorite', and then share it with someone else. So many wines, so little time!

4. If you were stranded on an island that had a vineyard (and winemaking facilities), but could only grow one type of grape, which grape would it have to be to keep you satisfied?
Impossible to say without more information! Let's hope for a Mediterranean climate. Give me some climate data, maybe a little information about the soil, and I will try to answer. This is a super-critical question, and I would want to be deliberate in my response!

5. You source your grapes from a vineyard in Napa. What are the advantages and disadvantages to doing it this way, rather than growing and producing the wine yourself?
I've been a Napa Valley winemaker for 30 years - 12 as founding winemaker at Dominus Estate, 8 at Caymus, and 10 at Swanson. For the first 25 years, I resisted strongly having my own brand, which is a huge amount of work. Everything changed in a heartbeat when I was completely and irrevocably seduced by the Clone 191 Cabernet Sauvignon grown at the top of Sleeping Lady Vineyard in Yountville against the flank of the Mayacamas Mountain range on the eastern edge of the Yountville appellation, 1 km south of Dominus. The fruit is remarkable - super-premium Napa Valley Cab, but with a very unique aromatic and flavor profile. I do not have the means to buy a vineyard like this. A very good friend, Larry Bettinelli, is an extremely meticulous 5th-generation farmer, and is the force behind Sleeping Lady. I do have the privilege of producing the wine itself entirely on my own.

6. People in the wine industry debate the elements that produce the best grape – terroir, climate, age of vines, etc. In terms of the production side, where do you focus your energy and resources to ensure you produce the highest quality wine?
The single most important decision I make every year is when to harvest the fruit. Then it's on to the thousands of other day-to-day decisions I mentioned earlier - none of the little steps along the way to getting the wine into a bottle can be neglected. You have to be willing to make the tough calls, too. In a recent vintage, I pulled out an entire barrel out of the program, because the wine simply didn't taste as good as the others. This is a difficult decision, trust me, when you only make 10 barrels of wine!! Scrupulous attention to detail is the key. I am a maniac of details.

7. What sets your 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon apart others produced in Napa?
There are many top-flight 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. The 2010 Ad Vivum has an aromatic and flavor profile that NO other Napa Valley wine has, and I stand behind this. While the wine clearly shows its Napa pedigree, it is very unique. I could write an entire page to elaborate on this point, but the most efficient way to understand what I am saying is the try the wine! If a picture is worth 1,000 words, in this case, a taste is worth 1,000,000! This unique quality is what truly differentiates Ad Vivum from all other Napa Valley Cabernets, as audacious as this may sound.

8. Are there any other grapes you would be interested in exploring?
ALL grape varieties are worth exploring, if they are cultivated in a "terroir" that is suited to them. ALL grape varieties can be shaped into something great if the conditions are optimum.

9. What are your long term goals as a winemaker and owner of Ad Vivum?
I constantly seek to refine how I approach everything to do with Ad Vivum - from my interactions with Larry at Sleeping Lady, to my choice of barrels, to how we market the wine. The wine sells easily in just a few markets, but we would like to reach a wider audience, so this is one of our current goals. We'll consider expanding production at some point, but 3,000 bottles is just about right at the moment, and allows absolute focus on what we are doing.

10. What, if anything, is the one thing you wish people knew about Ad Vivum?
We would like EVERYONE to have a chance to try the wine! Visit our website, give us a call, come and see us. Who knows, Ad Vivum could become one of your favorite wines - you wouldn't be the first person to have such an epiphany!

Winemaker Chris Phelps
photo courtesy Ad Vivum Cellars

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