I first met James MacPhail in February of 2011 in his small yet well designed winery located behind his home, near Healdsburg in Sonoma. Others had told me of these beautiful Pinots, but I remained skeptical of the accolades. That skepticism was blown away in about 10 minutes. Predominately a producer of single vineyard Pinot Noir, James and I sat for over two hours sampling the wines and discussing the nuances of each. More than just being a great winemaker, James is smart and fun to hang with. I became more than a fan that day…maybe a devotee.
At that time James split his time between making his own wines under the MacPhail label and working as the winemaker for Hess Collection’s single vineyard Pinot Noir label, Sequana. James told me he enjoyed the freedom Hess allowed him to create artful wines with the same attention to detail as his own. The relationship must have remained strong, since Hess acquired the MacPhail label later in the year. James continues as winemaker for both.
James’s offerings from the 2009 vintage are as strong as those of 2007. What about 2008 you ask? Well, it seems that many of his vineyards were close enough to the raging fires of that summer to absorbed the smoke flavors (smoke taint) thus producing inferior wines. James refused to bottle that year at significant cost to his small winery. That shows however, his strong commitment to quality.
MacPhail Family Wines is open Monday-Saturday by appointment. We have sent a number of friends by, and everyone leaves a believer. We strongly urge you to jump on the Macphail and Sequana sites and fall in love with these beautiful Single Vineyard Pinots.
JM: My mom’s family were third generation dairy farmers in Petaluma, the rugged west coast of Sonoma County, so I received an early education in farming, agriculture and quickly absorbed their love of the land. On my father’s side, I grew up in the family business, MacPhail’s, which has been a part of the local business community in a variety of ways in Marin and Sonoma counties dating back to 1884. With such a long history in northern California, it was hard not to be interested in wine, which combined many elements I found fascinating — farming, the need to be stewards of the land for future generations, and the ability to share the fruits of your labor and really become part of so many wonderful life experiences. There aren’t many ways to combine work and pleasure with such certainty.
Growing up, wine was typically on our dinner table, and I feel as though it was in my blood. From early on, I was always very fascinated with the many different aspects of the wine industry, from the history of wine dating back to biblical times, the history of Burgundy and Bordeaux, to the farming and crafting of something unique and wonderful from the earth. I always thought it was cool to make something from the earth that gave so much pleasure to people. It wasn’t until I was immersed in the wine world, working as a cellar rat and absorbing everything I could about winemaking techniques that I narrowed my wine interest specifically to pinot noir.
B&B Wine Blog: Why did you choose to focus on Pinot Noir?
JM: Because she’s the greatest winemaking challenge to perfect. I should have my head examined! But, I found my niche working with her, and although she gives me grief, she also gives me the most joy. Since I am a minimalist and purist by nature, Pinot noir goes perfectly with my character.
B&B Wine Blog: Give us an idea of your winemaking philosophy and why it is important to you.
JM:The most important thing that I’ve come to learn and appreciate is to let the wine “speak” for itself – let her show off her terroir (I know this may sound like a cliché, but any honest winemaker will tell you this). I believe in as little intervention as possible – and ‘all-natural’ winemaking (no enzymes, additives, minimal manipulation at any stage of the winemaking process).
B&B Wine Blog: What do you find the most satisfying about being a winemaker?
JM: Really, our customers. Hearing from them how much they enjoyed a bottle of MacPhail or Sequana, or knowing that they “brought” us along to a family dinner or party – satisfying to say the least. Sitting with our customers at tastings and hearing their stories around MacPhail or Sequana brings real moments of joy.
B&B Wine Blog: What has been the most surprising part of your life as a winemaker?
JM: That I can get up every day and do what I love. The days fly by and I never tire of it.
B&B Wine Blog: Why did you choose the Radio Flyer wagon as your logo?
JM: When I was going through the creative process thinking about what the label should be, I literally experienced an epiphany one morning watching my two daughters play with my childhood wagon from the ’60’s. So I gave it some more thought, and felt that it evoked the small, family-owned, hand-crafted artisan approach I was trying to do; it had all the elements that I was looking for in a design. So I gave the idea of the wagon to a friend of mine, gave her carte blanche to design something fun, not-too-serious, colorful and youthful. Voila!
B&B Wine Blog: Most of your Pinot Noir offerings are from single vineyards. What makes a vineyard “right” for MacPhail wines?
1. Pinot is very specific to site, so before I even go out and visit the vineyard, I take into consideration the soil, climate and terroir of its location (I usually know of the vineyard already and its pedigree).
2. Clonal selection — what clones are planted, and on what rootstock. If I feel the site has single-vineyard potential, there must be at least a few if not more different clones planted.
3. Quality of farming. Vineyard Manager / Farmer or winegrower is very important. Who is it? How long have they been farming? Is their evidence they know and appreciate Pinot Noir with the same passion I do?
4. Relationship with the grower. Equally as important as every other factor. I would only partner with a grower who is committed to quality, and who ‘gets’ Pinot. Plus, the ability to sit down together and have a beer is important too!
B&B Wine Blog: As winemaker for both MacPhail Family Wines and Sequana, how do you split your time and energy?
JM: It is not as difficult as it sounds. Of course crunch time is September to November when the wine is crafted, and I make 3 times as much Sequana as I do MacPhail. The folks who run the custom crush facility where I make Sequana are amazing, and I have learned to trust them when I can’t be there. But, I don’t see the projects differently – they both require the same attention to detail, time spent traveling from vineyard to vineyard, focus in the cellar, etc.
JM: The only difference is that I lightly filter our Sequana wines. Since Sequana stands on the global stage, and is also served at 36,000 feet (British Airways), the wine needs to be a bit more ‘stable.’ My MacPhail wines find a bit more of the ‘geeky’ customer, those who appreciate and understand a wine that may be turbid and unfiltered with wine debris at the bottom of the bottle. The British Airways customer in First Class may not appreciate it so much, although there are plenty of connoisseurs who fly BA First Class.
B&B Wine Blog: How have your roles changed since MacPhail was acquired by the Hess Collection (Sequana)?
JM: The only roles that have changed are more time with my family at 5 pm. Well, that and getting to spend more time with the great folks up at the Hess Winery. We have really become a great big family.
Give us an idea of your life in Healdsburg, away from the winery.
JM: Since I am so entrenched in all aspects of MacPhail Pinot Noir, this IS my life. And, up until I became a member of the Hess family, there was no “away from the winery”. When I’m able to get in some “in between tastings” time with my family, we jump on our bikes and peddle away. Also, travelling is important to me, so I am always planning vacations with the family as soon as the girls are out of school.
B&B Wine Blog: We read that you are an accomplished pianist, swimmer and of course…bagpiper. Do you still pursue these hobbies?
JM: I still try and find time to swim – keeps my mind turned on and the cobwebs off. Swimming also allows me to keep eating and drinking when I’m out and about – an occupational hazard of sorts. I have a baby grand piano in my home, but only play when my family begs. The bagpipes have unfortunately gathered dust – though I think about picking them up again…
B&B Wine Blog: James, Is there anything new on the horizon for MacPhail Family Wines?
JM: Since I am wearing fewer hats now, I have more time to scout new vineyards — which is something I’ve always wanted to do. For 2011, we partnered with two great vineyards, one in the Eola Amity-Hills AVA of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and one in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County. I am very excited about both.