Winemaker James MacPhail of Sangiacomo Wines Interview
Was there a moment that you remember when you knew that you wanted to be a winemaker?
Not one exact moment. ‘Becoming’ a winemaker happened kinda’ happenstance. I was working for Merry Edwards, and I asked her if I could make a couple of barrels of Pinot myself, on the side (had to get her ‘blessing’). She said ‘yes.’ So of course I got excited, sourced my first fruit (RRV and Anderson Valley), and made the wines (6 total barrels). The wines turned out pretty good, and so one thing led to another – I created a website, sent out an announcement letter to friends and family, sent the wine to press, etc. It wasn’t until I received my first press scores, and sold out of my first vintage in about 2 hours, that I realized – maybe I could do this? But I wouldn’t call myself a winemaker until a few years later, when I quit my day job, and MacPhail Family Wines really took off (2004-2005). I was officially off on my own.
What was your first wine job?
I started my career as a harvest intern, at Quivira Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, in 1994.
Can you share more stylistically about Sangiacomo Wines?
I am a big fan of white French Burgundies. So stylistically, I do lean more towards Chardonnay’s that are a balance of fruit and earth, have less oak impact, no residual sugar, no Diacetyl acid. Wines that if you were to put into a lineup with white French Burgundies, you couldn’t tell they were New World Chardonnays. And the Sangiacomo’s vineyards naturally lend themselves to this style – as they are mostly situated in cooler climates, good soil profiles. For the Pinots, it is a similar philosophy. I am not aiming more towards a style, rather focusing on making a balanced, well-crafted, mouth-watering, and exciting Pinot Noir from their myriad of sites. Same as Chardonnay, the Sangiacomo’s have excellent Pinot Noir vineyards, so the goal is to respect the sites, and make honest, elegant, beautiful expressions of Pinot. Old World Winemaking with New World Fruit is what I like to say…ends up striking a nice balance.
What is something you’d like to share about Sonoma’s Wine Country that many consumers may not know?
That the quality of wines are just as good, if not better in some categories, as you will find in the other appellations that carry more ‘caché’ – i.e. Napa. I find Sonoma County to be more diverse in varietal selection, and more agriculturally focused. The wines come from a ‘Sense of Place.’ More ‘family-owned.’ It’s hard to compare, as the varietals that excel in Napa and Sonoma are not the same, but in Sonoma, the quality of wines are just as good.
As a winemaker, you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you LOVE it so much?
Well, since I focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, those are always hard to spit out, as they are my two favorite varietals. I do well spitting during the day, but come 4’ish / 5’ish, well, I stop! Really though, it is all about something ‘special.’ If I taste something special, that’s always the hardest wine to spit out.
What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?
Thank goodness there have been no big mistakes in winemaking! I have certainly made some mistakes on the business side. Taking risks that may be more suited to a normal business, but not in the wine industry, when you’re dealing with Mother Nature. Probably the biggest mistake, which is the one everyone says I should write a book about, was building a winery. The MacPhail brand was doing really well, and I had the land at my home in Healdsburg, so I went for it. What I did not take into account was having deeper pockets, a rainy day fund so to say, for the unexpected. And that unexpected all hit the same year I opened the winery – I lost 80% of my production to smoke taint (2008 fires in Anderson Valley), had a new winery mortgage to pay, and then 4 weeks later was the start of the Recession – the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Needless to say, 2009 through 2011 was tough!
Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?
What is your favorite after-work drink?
Tough one if I’m only getting to choose one, as I am a seasonal drinker. But, how about this – Spring = Rosé / Chardonnay. Early Summer = Aperol Spritz. Late Summer = Beer. Fall = Gin & Tonic. Winter = Old Fashioned.
What is your favorite local spot in Sonoma County?
I live in Healdsburg, about an hour’s drive from the town of Sonoma, so I don’t really know that town very well. In Healdsburg, we love Baci, and the great local bar is Elephant in the Room.
Tell us something that would surprise people about you?
The two things that most people don’t know about me would be
1). Youngest swimmer to cross the Golden Gate (17 yrs. old), and
2). Played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes for the Queen of England, on stage in Davies Symphony Hall in SF (1982)…..you choose!