WINERY SPOTLIGHT MacPhail Family Wines, Healdsburg, California
The Sommelier Journal
August 31 2012 Catherine Fallis, MS
James MacPhail combines a sense of place with family values.
With a background in hotel management yet a love of the great outdoors, James MacPhail decided in 1995 to trade the city lights for quiet nights. Now, it’s not VIP guests but single-lot Pinots that he ensures are resting comfortably in the winery adjacent to his modest Healdsburg home. MacPhail has a passion for restrained, higher-end, single-vineyard wines; specializing in Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast, he works exclusively with the small growers who tend the Ferrington, Frattey Shams, Raye’s Hill, Toulouse, and Wightman House vineyards in the former region and the Pratt, Sangiacomo, and Wildcat vineyards in the latter.
MacPhail Pinot Noirs are first and foremost site specific—but they are also varietally true. "I combine Old and New world techniques to create a style that is in balance, honest, and 100% real," he maintains.
Inspired by none other than the "Queen of Pinot Noir," Merry Edwards—with whom he worked at Sonoma’s Pellegrini Winery before she opened her own establishment in 1997—MacPhail began to pursue the dream of making Pinot Noir in a small winery and selling it direct to consumers. That dream was realized when he launched MacPhail Family Wines in 2002: more than half of his annual production now sells out quickly to his mailing list. And his reputation as a Pinot Noir specialist is stellar enough that, in 2007, he was asked to make The Hess Collection’s Sequana line. Like his own wines, these are terroir driven and produced in small lots, from vineyards in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands and the Russian River Valley’s Green Valley.
"Working with Hess has been great," says MacPhail. "We share the same philosophy." Indeed, the bond was so strong that about two years ago, when his workload grew overwhelming, he suggested a partnership. As MacPhail recalls, "I am very proud of what I built, but when I took on Sequana and had to add more hats, it was too much." When Hess offered a buyout last summer, he found it an offer he couldn’t refuse. He calls the result "a marriage of two brands that between them have four appellations. No one else in my competitive set offers Pinot Noirs from four of California’s top growing regions." Furthermore, he says, because "Hess has huge distribution, now I have ‘people.’ Even though MacPhail was a solid brand, being so small, it was hard to get the attention of the distributors. Now the Hess sales force stays on top of them for me, and this frees me up to get back to work as a winemaker. I can research, I can experiment. It is a nice shift."
Although Hess acquired the brand and its inventory, MacPhail still owns and operates the custom winemaking facility on his Healdsburg property. But he works out of Copain Wines, about 15 minutes away, for the Sequana bottlings. In 2011, Sequana turned out 11,000 cases, and his own label 5,200; with a permit for only 6,000 cases a year, there was no way he could make both in his own winery. But with a new marriage and two teenage daughters, Haley and Madison, from a previous marriage, MacPhail and his wife Kerry recently made a decision to "simplify our lives for quality purposes and find a house in town." They have put their property—including the winery—on the market. MacPhail emphasizes that the transition is personal, not professional: "With the winery right there 24/7, it takes away from family time. I love what I do, and I don’t want to start having a bitter taste in my mouth." So Hess will find or build a facility in a convenient location to accommodate both brands under one roof.
Anticipating a slightly larger production capacity, MacPhail recently forayed into new territory. He has purchased 3 tons each of three different Pinot Noir clones harvested in 2011 from Roserock Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills American Viticultural Area of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He also has 2011 grapes of three other clones coming from Rita’s Crown, which sits above the renowned Sea Smoke and Mount Carmel vineyards in Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Still, he insists there are no plans to expand further. "I want to stay small," he says. To that end, he has "a great partner" in Hess: "They are very hands off. I am like a kid in a candy store. I haven’t submitted a budget for Sequana for five years!"
The MacPhail portfolio—which includes the Sonoma Coast Rosé of Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay from Gap’s Crown Vineyard in Petaluma—retails for $40-60 a bottle, Sequana for $32-50. To sommeliers looking for pairing recommendations, MacPhail recommends smoked duck-breast strudel or rack of lamb in a dried-cherry reduction with his Sonoma Coast wines and wild-mushroom risotto for the fuller-bodied, earth-driven Anderson Valley bottlings. Either way, both the restaurant and the guests are bound to be happy.