Weekly Interview: Chris Phelps

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 11-30-2012

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Chris Phelps, the owner and winemaker of Ad Vivum Cellars in St. Helena, California.

Chris grew up just east of San Francisco in a family that loved wine. In fact, his parents made a barrel or two most years, purchasing Zinfandel or Cabernet grapes to make wine for family and friends.

Like many winemakers, Chris attended UC Davis — but his original plan was to become a doctor. As he fell in love with wine, however, his plans changed, so he instead studied enology and viticulture and started interning at Louis M. Martini.

Upon graduation, Chris headed to France to study at Bordeaux University’s Institute of Oenology. While there, he met Christian Moueix, who asked him to stick around and manage the 1982 harvest at Château des Laurets.

During this harvest, Chris met legendary vintner Jean-Claude Berrouet, who served as the winemaker at Chateau Pétrus for 44 years. Berrouet quickly became a mentor to Chris, and would continue to advise him for years.

Chris soon returned to Napa Valley, where he worked as the winemaker at Dominus Estate for 12 years. He then headed to Caymus Vineyards, where he spent seven years. Ten years ago, Chris joined the team at Swanson Vineyards, where he still works.

Check out our interview with Chris below the fold.


What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I always have this sense that I am channeling the vineyard. When I follow a block of vines during the growing season, I sort of develop a relationship with it. It may sound weird, but I feel like I really know what the vines, and especially the mature fruit want to become once they reach the winery. My philosophy? Listen to the grapes!

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

I have two bottles open tonight. The first one is an experimental wine from a block at the Sleeping Lady Vineyard (the same vineyard from which Ad Vivum originates) in Yountville. I made the wine for my friend Larry Bettinelli, who farms the grapes at Sleeping Lady. It’s a blend of 3 clones, and has fascinating layers of depth and texture.

The second wine is a nearly-drained bottle of 1995 L’Ermita from Alvaro Palacios in Priorat. This is an amazing blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon that is phenomenal. Note to self: save the 1994 for a really important occasion.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

Almost anyone who knew André Tchelistcheff knows that, during the time he was active in Napa Valley – 1938 until his death in 1994 – he was enormously influential in the development of Cabernet Sauvignon as the premier grape of Napa Valley. I only knew him during the last decade of his life; we always spoke French, and he was very open when talking about wine.

The biggest mentor in my winemaking career has been Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker at Pétrus and a dozen other properties for Ets. J-P Moueix on the Right Bank of Bordeaux. I interned with him in Pomerol/St. Emilion in 1982, and have maintained a close relationship with him ever since.

Paul Draper, the winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 1969, is one of the most passionate winemakers in California, if not the world. I have endless respect for Paul, who continues to push his own limits and create Cabernets that are epic.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I guess winemakers who are younger than I am qualify?

Mark Porembski and his wife, Jennifer Williams, are creating wonderful wines through the Zeitgeist portal. Watch these guys, the wines are going to continue to evolve and, alas, probably become more expensive.

I also expect increasingly great things from Frederic Delivert, Tamber Bey and Clark-Claudon winemaker, who has a very keen touch with both red and white wines.

How do you spend your days off?

I love being out in the woods, hiking, running, backpacking. Firewood is a big hobby. Any excuse for being in the big outdoors.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

I am sorry to keep coming back to Pétrus, but I got to drink a 1961 from magnum with another mentor of mine, the larger-than-life Christian Moueix. My wife and I lived at Pétrus for the winter of 1984-1985, and had dinner with Christian and his family every Wednesday. There are no words to describe how balanced and ethereal this wine was, you just need to take my word for it.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

I have a partial bottle of 1957 Cognac Chuck Wagner (Caymus) bought be when we were in France together one time. It is the finest, most nuanced eau de vie in my possession, and the oldest bottle.

I’m sure the most expensive in the single bottle of 1982 Pétrus – which is in impeccable condition, I might add.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

Red: I would try to persuade the Thienpont family, which owns and operates Vieux Château Certan, which abuts Pétrus in Pomerol, to bottle a barrel of pure Cabernet Franc for my personal consumption. I am sure they would not do this, but it would still be worth the effort. Their Cab Franc is sublime, with a texture and integrity that is beyond belief. And this from a producer that is next door to a super-famous 100% Merlot – go figure.

White: Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Ruchottes. OK, I’ve only had it twice, but it was mind-blowing, succulent, fleshy, perfect.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

I think the greatest risk for winemakers is to sit still. There is always a way to improve your approach to making wine, to upping your game, so do it. Too many winemakers settle on a certain style and – especially when they have achieved a certain level of success – can get stuck there. Chuck Wagner once told me that you don’t make wine for yourself, but rather for everyone. Keep an open mind and continue to evolve, it is critical. This is my biggest personal challenge.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

Priorat – for reds, and Alsace, for whites. If I was younger and more mobile, I would figure out a way to spend time in both regions every year. The wines are profound, especially when they are simple; in both cases, the local cuisine is so uniquely adapted to the wine.

Is beer ever better than wine?

At the end of a long day during harvest at the winery? You betcha!

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I’ve been playing guitar at church for over 30 years.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

Only in my fantasy world, I would be the lead guitarist in a rock band. In reality, this would be impossible, I don’t have the talent.

How do you define success?

Success is being happy where you are at any point in time. It is the incredible gift of having close friends and family with whom to enjoy a good glass of wine.

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