Weekly Interview: Stuart Spencer

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 11-23-2012

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Stuart Spencer, the owner and winemaker of St. Amant Winery in Lodi, California.

St. Amant Winery was launched by Stuart parents, Tim and Barbara, in 1979.

They had started planting grapes seven years earlier in Amador County, and when they launched the winery, they decided to go with Barbara’s maiden name – as “St. Amant” sounded better than “Spencer.”

They moved the winery to Lodi in 1996, where Tim quickly became known as an advocate for winegrowing in the area. Stuart soon began taking a more active role in his family’s winery, formally taking over the operations when his father passed away in 2006. In addition to his work at St. Amant, Stuart is the program manager for the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

Check out our interview with Stuart below the fold.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

For me, it’s simply about making honest original wines of character. It’s about letting the personality of the wine shine through and allowing the inherent qualities of the vineyard and vintage to determine the ultimate character of the wine. As winemakers, we have an endless stream of tools to tweak, adjust, manipulate and otherwise gussy up our wines. At times, it’s necessary, but too often it’s just bad makeup. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And ultimately, whether it’s your children or your wines, knowing when to do nothing is the biggest challenge.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

It’s actually a beer — Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing Company. My good friend is turning 40, and he is fanatical about this beer. I was passing through Santa Rosa last weekend and grabbed four cases for his birthday party. The brewery would only sell us two cases so I had to have my wife “shoulder tap” some rosy-cheeked fellow to get the other two. I obviously had to keep a few for myself.

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

Honestly, it’s my dad. We worked side-by-side for many years in the vineyard and winery. He had an intuitive sense about winemaking, and taught me that balance is the key both in the vineyard and the winery. He was always trying to make better wines.

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

It’s a very exciting time to be a winery in Lodi. There are so many new and passionate winemakers committed to working together to raise the profile and quality of Lodi wines. Two I would single out are Layne Montgomery of M2 Wines and Mike McCay of McCay Cellars. Both have the passion, persistence, and attention to detail necessary to make great wines. Their success will elevate all of us in Lodi.

How do you spend your days off? 

Mostly chasing my kids (two girls 12 and 9) from one activity to another. Lately, it’s helping my oldest with her algebra homework — quite painful. Ideally, I’m on the beach or in the ocean.

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

For me, the most important thing is if the wine and experience is memorable. The first is a 1966 or 1967 Chateau d’Yquem. I was 8 years old, and kept stealing sips from my mom’s glass. It tasted like liquid gold — it’s still a very vivid experience. The second is a 1963 Cockburn Vintage Port I had on my 19th or 20th birthday. A delicious and lively wine that I can still recall the taste.

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

I have no idea. I’m not very good about keeping track of wines in my cellar. Most are stored at the winery and tend to get buried behind other things. The oldest wine I ever tasted was a 1795 Terrantez Madeira, that too was a memorable experience, not just because of the wine, but the people I had the fortune to share it with.

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

Riesling and Zinfandel for their sheer versatility.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker? 

I think the biggest challenge, and probably one of the most important things, is being consistent from year to year. This is particularly challenging when crafting single vineyard wines, which can vary from year to year.

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

Other than Lodi, it’s the Douro Valley of Portugal – remarkable region and delicious wines.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Absolutely! Sometimes a cold beer at the end of the day just hits the spot. We celebrated the end of crush with a Big Sky IPA last Friday.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I was year-round competitive swimmer from the age of seven all the way through college. It prepared me well for the physical demands of harvest.

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

I would probably be a swim coach. I did it for four years after college.

How do you define success?

We started our winery making wines from obscure varieties in an unknown region. We believed in the quality of the wines and have built a sustainable business that has stood the test of time. I hope to see our winery continue to prosper and be around in another 30 years. For me, that will be success.

Comments (2)

  1. Enjoyed reading. We recently received a club shipment and really think St. Amant has been a delightful discovery for us, thanks to our visit to Lodi on our anniversary last April.

  2. I’ve been fortunate to taste most of the St. Amant wines over the past 20 years, first those made by Tim Spencer and, since Tim’s passing,” the wines that Stuart and Barbara are releasing. Every wine listed on their website right now (11/30/12) is wonderful (I haven’t tasted the new :Speakeasy Red” release, but I assume that it will be as good as everything else….).