James MacPhail followed an unconventional path to winemaking, growing up in Marin County in a family with roots dating to the 1880’s and broad-ranging interests in disparate business interests, including dairy farming near Tomales Bay as well as ventures in appliances, building materials and natural gas. His early experiences included travel, the arts and athletics. He became an accomplished classical pianist and bagpiper, most famously playing “Amazing Grace” solo in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Northern California in 1982. In 1983, he became the youngest swimmer to swim across the Golden Gate, and remains a nationally ranked Masters Class competitive swimmer.
After an early career in hospitality, he began apprenticing with notable Sonoma County winemakers, and quickly focused on Pinot Noir, and a passionate bond was formed. He still crafts other varietals into much appreciated wines, but Pinot Noir has become his signature.
IntoWine recently caught up with James MacPhail to discuss wine, the union of two companies and thoughts on current trends in the wine industry.
What prompted the union between MacPhail Family Wines and the Hess Collection, where you already have been making Sequana Pinot Noir?
There are many reasons, but the main one is that it just seemed “right”. I mean, we were always together on one project or another, we share the same ideals and visions, and the thought of sharing resources was just very exciting.
What does this mean for the MacPhail brand?
Well, for one – I finally get to focus solely on JUST winemaking. It’s almost a full-circle for me. I started out just making wine, then, as my brand grew, so did the many hats I wore! Now, my challenge is to seek out new vineyards and appellations; I get to learn more about viticulture and become an even more hands-on winemaker. I get to be out from behind my desk and be in front of my peers more.
The second most exciting thing is that MacPhail will be better represented in our country. The Hess team has a great presence, and I am looking forward to being at more people’s tables.
What are your goals going forward now that MacPhail has joined the Hess Collection?
I have lofty goals indeed. I would first and foremost like to slow down - pay attention to the details more, find softer, rounder and unique blends for my Pinots. This takes time. Every vintage has surprised me with a different and special characteristic. Another goal is to be in more states than I am currently. We have so many fans from all over that would like to see MacPhail in their local stores and restaurants. Like I said – THC has such a powerful presence – and each time I travel for them, I meet more and more folks that would like to see my brand alongside Sequana. It’s a nice pair of Pinot Noirs, with distinct focus!
Tell us about your wines:
Well, I prefer to have them all speak for themselves since they’re all so different. I make about nine Pinots a year from two different appellations: Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. Each of these Pinots is unique to their vineyard. We truly have a Pinot Noir for every taste out there. They are all small lots – which means I make about 150 – 400 cases from each vineyard. I am a stickler about letting the terroir come through each bottle, so you really have a distinction from one vineyard to the next. Sequana, on the other hand, focuses on the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Russian River Valley, with a particular focus on Green Valley.
Describe your winemaking philosophy:
My philosophy is basic and true: do as little intervention as possible and let the grapes do most of the work. I prefer quality over quantity. My hands are in everything. I choose barrels that complement the juice – from 14 different cooperages. This, I believe, is a key component to a quality product: choose quality accoutrements and guide rather than force.
What are you most proud of so far in your winemaking experience?
I don’t know if I would use the word “pride”. I am more “humbled” than proud. When I get a phone call from someone in Cape Cod who is drinking a bottle of MacPhail or Sequana and tells me how great it is, I am happy. When a visitor from New York comes back every year to say hello, I am happy. And when someone sends me a picture of a bottle of my Pinot Noir on their dinner table, I am happy. This is the reason I do what I do. Heck, if no one liked it – or I didn’t get any positive feedback, I’d have to go back to my desk job!
In what way have your experiences in travel, the arts, and athletics influenced you as a winemaker?
Ahhh. It has opened up a whole new world of ideas and conversations that enable my creative process to thrive! I learn so much from other wineries and winemakers in other parts of the world. Athletics teach you one thing that you can take with you through life – and that is discipline. This has pushed me through some of the toughest times in this business.
When it comes to winemaking, what's one thing you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
This was a tough question! I would have to say I would have loved to have known just how unique each vineyard/appellation really is. Through the whole trial and error process (which can sometimes break you), the quirks of the terroir and how they affect the wines can be a source of frustration!
What are your thoughts on the 100 point scoring system?
I do not like it. Period.
How has the 100 point system impacted you as a winemaker/producer?
Well, it gets me noticed one year, and the next – not so much. I think it puts too much pressure on winemakers to please the wine reviewers and commentators rather than please our customers. You have a very subjective product, and you can only hope the public doesn’t rely too much on the scores garnered by the press. I understand the whys and whats, and of course 90 + scores help drive sales – it’s wonderful when that happens – but there are some really good wines out there that haven’t scored above a 90 that warrant kudos.
Rising wine alcohol levels are also a hot topic these days in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I think it’s a bigger issue than it needs to be. I believe you can make a balanced wine at 14% (+) alcohol. And, what is considered high alcohol, anyway?
Lastly, where can your wines be purchased?
MacPhail is distributed in AZ, CA, CO, TX, IL and NJ. We’re in retail shops as well as restaurants. You can find us on the web at www.macphailwine.com Sequana is more widely distributed, and represented in fine retail shops and restaurants as well. Find my alter ego on the web at www.sequanavineyards.com