Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring Greg Adams, the winemaker at Gregory James Wines.
Greg had a prolific winemaking career when he decided to become his own boss, thirteen years ago. A California native, Greg’s career took him to Argentina for six years, and then back to California to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and then to Flowers Vineyard and Winery — when Greg and his friend Jim teamed up to start the eponymous Gregory James Wines. But Greg’s winemaking positions represent just a tiny fraction of his wide-ranging travels. Ever restless, Greg has traveled to Champagne, to Rhone, to Burgundy, and more. One gets the sense that Greg has visited just about every great winemaking region. One also gets the sense that, from every place, Greg has absorbed a bit of the winemaking pathos of the place. And finally, one gets the sense that Greg is far from done.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Francisco and moved with my parents to Sonoma County in 1977. Since I’ve been here nearly 40 years, I generally tell people that I’m from Sonoma County. Relocating here at the age of 14, I definitely felt like a city kid moving to the country. I found it hard to fit in at first and struggled with my transition to a new high school, but I eventually found the teaching methods and course offerings at our local Junior College extremely refreshing. As soon as I could drive, I started to explore the back roads of West Sonoma County and our incredible coastline. I’ve traveled to many parts of the world, but I’ve yet to find a more complete living experience as the one we enjoy in Sonoma County.
When and how did you get into wine?
35 years ago, while flipping steaks for spending cash during college, I connected with a group of people that are still to this day among my closest friends. Two of the older and “cooler” guys in this group were generous and seasoned wine collectors with an encyclopedic knowledge of the great vintages from the old world producers. I credit these two friends for inspiring my first trip to Europe. In 1985, I embarked on an epic three-month, wine-and-food adventure by bicycle through France, Italy, and Greece. That trip was a life changer.
Besides peddling my way through beautiful countryside and feasting on local delicacies, I had the opportunity to drink wines from local producers in their small estates and in village cafés. This bicycle journey was my first introduction to the concept of grower-produced wines. My wine mentors back in California introduced me to many amazing wine regions and producers, but prior to this trip, I never really saw those wines as the people who grew and made them; I thought of them as companies.
Once I started putting faces to the bottles, I realized that there was a farmer at the core of these wines. 1985 was the year that I truly started to understand and appreciate wine as more than just a product, but rather as a story that I wanted to be part of.
What has been your career path to where you are?
I was a motor-head at an early age. I have always been fascinated by cars, motorcycles, boats, planes, you name it. If it had a motor, it had my complete attention growing up. So in 1982, when our local Junior College inaugurated its Automotive and Diesel Technology department, I naturally enrolled.
I am the first person in my family to obtain a higher education, so there were no early aspirations to attend a university. But a pivotal instructor at the Santa Rosa Junior College suggested that I apply to the Agricultural Engineering Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. That same instructor also helped me get my first job in agriculture, cutting hay, which eventually had me working with a local custom tractor service and began my career in Agriculture. After I returned from Europe, I initiated my studies at Cal Poly and began working my way through college as a tractor operator on the campus farm. After only a year of Ag studies, I was asked to use my newly gained engineering knowledge to help our crew install a university vineyard in a cow pasture called Baker’s Acre’s. Looking back, I clearly remember one particularly warm August afternoon in 1986, while helping to install this university vineyard, that I made my decision to combine my newly acquired knowledge of agriculture with my growing love of wine.
After graduating from Cal Poly, I completed my M.S. studies at UC Davis in Viticulture and Enology under the guidance of Dr. M. W. Kliewer, an early pioneer of the research on Canopy Management and its influence on must and wine. Many years prior to Davis’ joint Viticulture & Enology degree opportunity, I concurrently enrolled in nearly every enology course available to help round out my graduate level training. Upon graduating from UC Davis, it was my close friendship with an Argentinean lab mate that prompted a six-year career decision to assist nearly 40 producers & wineries in the Province of Mendoza. While in Argentina, I consulted on new vineyard projects, and introduced methods to improve grape and wine quality through Improved Canopy Management, Irrigation and Fertilization practices.
After returning to California in 1998 for an opportunity to work alongside Michael Silacci of Napa’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (now director of viticulture and enology for Opus One) tending their heritage blocks of Cabernet, developing new vineyards and assisting with viticultural and winemaking efforts in Chile, I was invited by Greg Lafollette to join him at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the “extreme California coast”. Spending the next 5 seasons developing vineyards in this rugged terrain and working closely with winemakers Greg, and later Hugh Chappelle, I decided that I had enough of the isolated existence of the coastal lifestyle and headed inland to try my hand at working independently. Thirteen years after first offering my services as a vineyard and winemaking consultant, managing and developing vineyards for numerous wineries in West Sonoma County, and serving as viticulturist and winemaker for cool climate Syrah focused Baker Lane Vineyards, partner Jim Demuth and I launched Gregory James Wines. Starting my own wine label allowed me to bring my career full circle by producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines from the West Sonoma Coast Vineyards that I manage.
Beginning to work for myself 13 years ago happened very organically, but it has turned out to be the best career move I’ve ever made. When I look back on my portfolio of past and present vineyard and winery clients, I have to pinch myself. I’ve had the opportunity to consult for dozens of talented winegrowers and an incredible list of wineries, including Catena, Trapiche, Toso, and KJ in Argentina, and Napa & Sonoma Coast wineries including: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Flowers, Lynmar, Patz & Hall, Red Car, Alma Fria, Freeman, Baker Lane and now Gregory James Wines. I raise my glass in thanks for the career path I’ve chosen, every opportunity that I can.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
Extreme viticulture is the term we use in the farming of our vineyards. Located above the Freestone Valley in West Sonoma County, our estate vineyard at Barnett Valley Ranch, which is the anchor of our Patchy Fog Pinot noir, and the Hawk Hill vineyard are exposed to such intense maritime weather conditions that harvesting fruit from these vineyards is never guaranteed. From the gusty southwesterly winds of our springtime, to the saturating and dense fog of our summers that accumulate measureable precipitation; cultivating Pinot Noir in this climate is not for the faint of heart or short of experience. These are the most difficult farming conditions I have ever encountered. The result of growing the world’s most notoriously difficult grape variety in this extreme environment are diminutive yields with intensity and varietal character that show the subtle presence of its conifer and saline fog atmosphere. This is why I say that to drink our wine is to share in the hard won results of farming in this extreme coastal environment.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
As a grower first, and winemaker second, my goal is to capture the essence of what I experience in the vineyard in every bottle of wine I produce. Over-ripeness, over-extraction and over-oaking create wines that lose their sense of place and lack a natural balance. In the vineyard, I’m tracking the nuanced flavors and aromas that develop in each vineyard location from the earliest appearance of sweetness, until it reaches its purest point of fruit expression. In the winery I handle the fruit very gently; I extend my cold soaking period for greater aqueous extraction, maintain peak fermentation temperatures relatively low and I use new oak very judiciously or not at all. By continuously tasting fruit as I inspect and work with my vines, I’ve determined that what I perceive as “optimal” maturity in the vineyard will commonly result in a loss of the subtle flavors and aromatics I’m attempting to capture in my finished wine. Although each site and vintage will differ, I’ve focused my intentions on selecting the moment to harvest just prior to experiencing optimal fruit expression, thus allowing the fruit to finish its last stride toward ripeness while cold soaking. By staying true to this intention, I am confident that I am creating balanced wines with length rather than power that demonstrate site specificity in its purest form.
Knowledge. Although I am confident in my skills and intuition as a winemaker, I am plagued by my desire for knowledge. A self-admitted perfectionist, I challenge myself with exploration and experimentation. Through a process of observing, acknowledging and improving upon my own imperfections as a winemaker, I’m constantly seeking to gain knowledge of my unknown.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
By far, my travels to Burgundy and the Northern Rhone have forged my deepest impressions of how humans have successfully captured the essence of their vineyard’s in a bottle of wine. I’m especially inspired by Thierry Allemand’s superbly varietal focused wines and pioneering spirit. I know of very few winemakers who have started from scratch in such a prestigious growing region where multi-generational domains predominate. Tasting through several of his vintages while sharing winemaking practices, then walking his Les Chaillots and Reynard vineyards as we exchanged viticultural philosophies was a dream realized. If I had to name my favorite winemaking family from Burgundy, I would have to choose the father and son team of Michel and Frederick Lafarge. This bio-dynamic duo helped me develop an even greater appreciation for the connection between soil and wine.
Back in California: early in my career during the 1980s, I was influenced by the vineyard focused and hands off winemaking style of Ridge Vineyards winemaker Paul Draper and his incredible Zinfandels. During the 1990s while I was in Argentina, I had the opportunity to work alongside Angel Mendoza, one of the most creative and technically proficient winemakers I met there who effortlessly managed one of the largest wineries in the world. Another memorable experience in Argentina was a vineyard walk with the controversial Michel Rolland, who shared techniques for evaluating grape skin ripeness that I continue to use in my daily work.
Upon returning back to California, my time working with Michael Silacci at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa will always remain a highlight of my career and he is my most admired mentor. Michael possesses a mastery of viticulture and winemaking that I can only hope to approach, and he does it with such genuine humility. Then there’s Greg LaFollette, a consummately skilled winemaker and tireless winegrower who’s as close to a mad scientist that I’ve had the honor to work with. Greg’s my esteemed Davis classmate who I owe so much for seeking me out and bringing me back to the Sonoma Coast. During my tenure at Flowers, my interactions with Steve Kistler taught me how much impact a wine made in a reserved style from a spectacular vineyard could have. Then there’s the complete winemaker, James Hall, who I learned so much during 7 years of observing his astute business sense, technical expertise, crisp decision making ability, and total trust in his intuitions. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my good friend and winemaker extraordinaire, Hugh Chappelle. From the senior commons of Davis, to the wineries we’ve worked together at in Sonoma County, Hugh has been my extremely supportive friend and winemaking mentor.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
I am constantly meeting new and young winemakers that inspire and excite me with their fresh perspectives and youthful enthusiasm. Here at home, John Raytek of Ceritas is crushing it with his vineyard focused wines. Occasionally, I jokingly remind him that he was once my vineyard intern, and now, I want to be his winery intern! On a recent trip to NYC, I met Brianne Day out of Oregon, who shared her wines during an incredible meal at King Bee in the East Village. Brianne, as I later found out, is a leader in the domestic natural wine movement. Her finished wines reminded me of the vibrant and youthful grape character that I love to taste when wines are just finished their primary fermentation. It’s winemakers like these that inspire me to stay the course and not fall victim to making wine purely for points.
Although I would have never guessed it a few years ago, no other wine region has left me with more wonder and desire to return than my recent trip to Champagne. The geological and geographical variety, as well as the shear immensity of the region, left me in complete awe. The small grower produced wines show so much more stylistic diversity than I could ever have imagined. I thought for certain that my palate would be saturated after only a few days, but I found quite the contrary was true; I couldn’t get enough! I am definitely going back to explore the many sub-regions of Champagne again soon. By the way, I have to admit that I’m glad you forced me to avoid choosing my own region, because even with all the travelling I’ve done, I thoroughly enjoy coming home to my little corner of the winegrowing world.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
As a category, the best wines I’ve ever tasted are aged white Burgundies, and one that stands out in my mind from recent memory would be a 2000 Raveneau, Monte de Tennerre, Chablis 1er Cru. I distinctly remember its precise minerality, crisp acidity and ultra long finish. It was truly a beautiful wine. One of the most interesting wines that I remember tasting recently was an Orange Wine from Slovenia from a producer called Ana. I believe it was a 2009 and prior to tasting it I recall reading an article a few years back in the NY Times describing this country’s wine region and telling myself that I need to check Slovenia out.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
Most of my collector wines are from the last 10 to 15 years, so I know that my oldest bottle is likely my last bottle of 1995 Stag’s Wine Cellar’s FAY Cabernet Sauvignon. I bought a case of it with my employee discount back in 1998. I don’t own very many wines that cost over a hundred and fifty bucks. I generally leave the extreme wine buying to my friends with better financial means than myself. But I do know that I have a few valuable wines from Jean-Louis Chave, including a 2005 Hermitage Blanc that I’m looking forward to trying in another year or two.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
I’m constantly bringing sample bottles home from the winery. Right now, there are multiple sample bottles of our 2015 Barrel fermented Rosé of Syrah that I recently extracted from barrel to run a cold stability test on. We produced a whopping 2 barrels of this; one for our distributor in NYC and one for my friends here in California.
Removing my own wines from this list, and assuming that I would have to purchase these wines myself, I would select consistently good producers that wouldn’t require a second mortgage to obtain a couple of cases to get me through the month. My red wine of choice would definitely be J. L. Chave’s Cote-du-Rhone Mon Coeur, which are consistently excellent. For my white wine selection, I would choose a J.M Brocard Chablis, Vielles Vignes for their unwavering varietal expression and lean style. Now if money were no object…
Is beer ever better than wine?
I love wine, but when I’ve been walking vineyards in the heat of the day, tasting through barrels all afternoon, or pouring wine at a tasting event, a cold beer can genuinely be more refreshing than a glass of wine.
How do you spend your days off?
Travelling is my recreational passion. Whenever I can escape for a few days or a couple of weeks, I will take a food and/or wine focused journey and enjoy the hard work and creativity of other artisans. I especially enjoy searching out new and unique restaurants. San Francisco is especially rich with discovery, and I always find something new to enjoy there. If travel isn’t an option, I can pass the entire day happily tinkering in my garage on my many mechanical projects.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Probably that I have a need for speed. I’ve been racing ever since I sat on my first Mattel™ Big Wheel at the age of 9. I still own my first car, a 1968 Camaro that I am restoring to race specifications for the 2nd time. With it, I joined the Sonoma County Sports Car Club just so I could race against the clock around a closed circuit at our local airport. I eventually graduated to driving a race-prepared Mazda Miata with the Sports Car Club of America. And just last weekend, I took my new Mini Cooper to the race track with another 150 Mini enthusiasts, just to see how fast we could go. Having recently sold my Miata, I now have my eye on a race prepared Mini Cooper. Definitely not the most eco friendly pastime, but like I said earlier, I’m a motorhead.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
25 years ago I thought of starting a food and wine focused adventure tourism business so I could travel the world, meet new people, eat and drink well, and have a way to keep fit while doing it. Today, I would be more inclined to find someone who is already doing a version of this and partner with them. Whatever I ended up doing, I know travel, food and wine would be part of it.
How do you define success?
As cliché as it may sound, waking up each morning with a desire to get out of bed because I’m looking forward to my day, whatever it may hold. This pretty much describes my life right now, so I guess I get to say I’ve achieved success in this lifetime.