Chris Phelps is the founder and winemaker of Ad Vivum, a top cabernet producer in the Napa Valley. He studied viticulture and enology at the university of Bordeaux as well as the University of California at Davis. During the famous 1982 vintage, he lived and worked at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux. In 1984 he became the founding winemaker at Dominus Estate in the Napa Valley, owned by the Moueix Family which owns Château Pétrus. Chris joined Caymus Vineyards as their red winemaker in 1996, and later worked at Swanson Vineyards. In 2007, Chris started Ad Vivum, his own Napa Valley venture in collaboration with his son. Chris also consults for a number of wineries throughout the West Coast including Inglenook in the Napa Valley.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Chris Phelps for WineSpeed in August 2019.
Karen MacNeil: How old were you when you tasted your first wine and who gave it to you?
Chris Phelps: My parents gave me my first sips of wine once I was interested, probably at age 5 or 6. I grew up in the Livermore Valley, and they drank the local wines from Concannon and Wente, so those were my first wines. And I tasted the homemade zinfandels and cabernets my parents made, which actually tended to be pretty good.
KM: How did you come to study enology at the University of Bordeaux?
CP: After University of California, Davis, I wanted to spend a year in France. I had met Alain Bertrand, a University of Bordeaux research professor at the Institute of Enology in Bordeaux who was on sabbatical at Davis. He encouraged me to spend a year in Bordeaux, and the selling point was that “it would be free,” How could I turn that down? Alain was my initial contact in Bordeaux, and he provided a lot of personal guidance in my first months there.
KM: What was the toughest part of your early years?
CP: Honestly, I don’t think they were all that tough. I worked some pretty long hours for quite a few years, but in retrospect, the generous mentoring I received as an intern in Bordeaux, then at Dominus and Caymus really set me up for success. Also, my community of winemaking colleagues in Napa Valley has always been a great source of mutual support.
“There is a mystical element for me in the role wine plays in our lives.”
KM: You worked at Château Pétrus, owned by the Moueix Family. What was it like working with them?
CP: Everyone on the Moueix team, from vineyard worker to Christian Moueix himself, was super supportive and they always took time for me when I had questions or needed advice. It was the chance of a lifetime for me, but they made it feel like the most natural thing in the world. It was such a revelation to work at the beginning of my career with them, on the Right Bank and in Napa. They were technically brilliant, of course, but they modeled to me an approach to winemaking that was also based upon intuition and creativity.
KM: You also worked with Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook. What was that like?
CP: I still work with Francis and Eleanor Coppola and their team; 2019 will be my 4th vintage at Inglenook. They are one of the most iconic and creative families I have ever met, and their estate on the Rutherford Bench is exquisite. Napanook, in Yountville, was originally part of Inglenook, and is the home of Dominus, so in a way, working at Inglenook means I have come full circle.
KM: You are a consultant as well as having your own wine Ad Vivum. What does your average day look like?
CP: I enjoy the freedom of my day-to-day now, which involves much less routine than during the many years during which I worked for a single family-owned winery. I don’t have too many typical or average days anymore. While this did take a little getting used to, I love it now. That being said, I do settle into a harvest routine that involves many hours walking and tasting in beautiful vineyard blocks, as well as tasting fermentations and macerations. Fall is the one time of year when I happily slip into the natural rhythm of the most critical season of my life as a winemaker. Every day of my winemaking year is different, and it would take more than this page to list all the myriad ways in which I spend my time. This could easily constitute another interview!
KM: What does Ad Vivum mean?
CP: There is a mystical element for me in the role wine plays in our lives. Ad Vivum is an amalgam of the Latin “vivere” (to live) and “vinum” (wine), and is therefore, the intersection of wine and life. The Latin “Ad” implies intentional movement toward this intersection. Life is, of course, our most precious gift. Wine, when used in moderation, can truly enhance our lives.
KM: How often do you drink your own wine? Are you a hard critic of wines you’ve made?
CP: I drink Ad Vivum and other wines I am involved with all the time; I enjoy them immensely! I have always tried to make the best possible decisions for wines on which I have worked, and I don’t spend much time regretting any of those decisions later. I believe that if you trust your intuition and your experience, as well as the team around you, the wine is always as good as it can possibly be. And it is almost always a team effort, most of us who are winemakers aren’t operating on our own in a vacuum.
KM: Is it important for a winemaker to spend at least some time in an Old World winemaking area?
CP: Absolutely. I continue to be surprised by Napa owners and winemakers who have not explored Old World winegrowing areas. It’s not because I think we need to try to precisely emulate the growing or winemaking we can learn about there. There is a richness to the exchange of ideas and philosophies that is essential to the completion of an education in wine or winemaking. I mean, they’ve been making wine for centuries in the Old World, we can learn so much in Europe. In France, you don’t say, “I’m in the wine business,” you say, “I’m in wine.” Think about that for a minute. Wine is the most natural thing in the world in Europe, it is rarely looked at as just an affectation, or a lifestyle choice. I can’t say the same for California.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
CP: I don’t want to dismiss the entire category, but I am not a big fan of “natural” wines, and the whole idea of pét-nat wine escapes me entirely.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
CP: And thank you for referring to wine as a “beverage!” Wine should be refreshing and provide pleasure and enjoyment. Sometimes it seems to me that here in Napa, it’s made to impress, but not necessarily to give pleasure. I also enjoy drinking pure, cold water from mountain streams and a good Manhattan, like the house version at The Charter Oak restaurant in St. Helena.
KM: What one piece of advice would you give a young winemaker?
CP: Don’t lock yourself into one style, one approach to wine, early in your career. Try to absorb as much as you can from colleagues. Look for older, experienced mentors who are generous with their time and will share what they know and, more importantly, what they think and how they feel about grapes and wine. Pay a lot of attention to the vineyard, that is the key to making great wine.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
CP: My four children are my greatest achievement, certainly. Professionally, I can only hope I’ve been able to provide some help to the next generation of winemakers. I enjoy the success my oldest son, Josh, is having as a winemaker, that’s a pretty big deal for me. And, of course, I hope and trust that at least some of the wines I have helped produce over the years have brought pleasure to those who have enjoyed them.