A note from the Education Editor: To those of you who have wondered what a day in the life of a winemaker is like, I’d encourage you to check out our Harvest Boot Camps—a hands-on approach is about the best way you’ll find out. – Jonathan Cristaldi

Story by Joe Roberts

Winemaker Adam Lee is a bit of a troublemaker. All in the name of great wine, of course. The man who started the well-regarded Siduri brand, specializing in bold-but-beautiful Pinot Noir, made big waves in the wine media scene nearly a decade ago, when he surreptitiously swapped labels between bottles of 13% and 15% abv Pinots during an event discussion panel.

The point at the time was that the size of the mouthfeel doesn’t preclude a Pinot from being balanced and elegant, and he’s been driving that point home with his red wines ever since.

Recently, Lee sold his Siduri brand to Jackson Family Wines, but he hasn’t stayed idle. In the wake of the sale, he’s attempting to redefine direct wine sales, and has his hand in the creation of two new wine brands.

In this interview, we see what Lee has been up to since transitioning Siduri, what he’s drinking in his spare time, and what he thinks are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing California wine today.

Joe Roberts (JR): What have you been up to since the partnership with Jackson Family Wines? What’s different (and what remains the same) with the Siduri brand?
Adam Lee (AL): So, let’s start with Siduri. What’s remarkable is how much things have remained the same ever since I sold Siduri to Jackson Family Wines. The assumption that a lot of people have is that things change dramatically when a small producer like Siduri is purchased by a larger winery. In fact, very little has changed. Siduri continues to make Pinot Noir from Oregon all the way down to the Sta. Rita Hills. Many of the vineyards we dealt with before the sale we continue to deal with after the sale. The winery is still located in an industrial building in Santa Rosa. The biggest change is that we’ve focused more and increased production more in Oregon. Before the sale, Oregon made up about 16 percent of our production. It is now almost half of Siduri’s production.

The other change that is taking place is that I am no longer going to be the Siduri winemaker. I’ve stayed on for 5 years now, and will be fully passing the torch with the 2020 vintage. We’ve hired Matt Revelette—a really good friend with a truly impressive background—to be the new Siduri winemaker. He and I worked together on the 2019 harvest and will blend those wines together.

I am staying on at Jackson Family Wines as their Pinot Noir Advocate. That position will support Pinot Noir throughout the company and look for ways to leverage JFW’s substantial Pinot Noir assets. As part of this, I am working on a new Pinot Noir project called Root & Rubble. Root & Rubble takes certain Pinot Noir clones with thicker skins (828, Martini, 23), and ferments and ages them entirely in concrete.

Now, on top of all of that, I have two new wineries of my own. Clarice Wine Company is a winery I started with the 2017 vintage. Clarice is different in many ways. From a sales point of view, it is sold through a subscription model. From a winemaking POV, Clarice is different in that I am taking two disparate sections of vineyards (both at Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyards) and sampling them as one, and picking and fermenting them as one. It is like a purposeful field blend, combining more and less ripe grapes in hopes of making a more complex wine. The grapes are generally picked earlier, with a lot more stems, than at Siduri. They are designed to age.

I have also started a new winery with famed French vintner, Philippe Cambie. It is called Beau Marchais and is his first Pinot Noir. The wines come from the Soberanes Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the Clos Pepe Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. We will be blending that this Spring.

JR: You were long an advocate that bigger-bodied wines can also be beautiful and balanced. Do you think that consumers are on that same page now?
AL: I think the consumers have always been on that same page. If you look at the California Grape Crush Report, sugars at harvest dramatically increased beginning with the 2002-2004 vintages. Since that time, sugars at harvest haven’t seriously declined nor have they significantly increased. So far, almost two decades now these “bigger wines” have largely been what is in the market. That is despite the IPOB [In Pursuit of Balance] trend and a general thought that wines are somewhat more elegant now. I think we have plenty of data now, and examples of some of these bigger wines aging well. Not all of them, of course. But many of them have done well. So yes, I think there’s little doubt that a beautiful and balanced wine is both of those things without regard to its size.

JR: What are the biggest challenges facing winemakers in California?
AL: Well, the biggest challenge is that we haven’t grown new wine customers and wine consumption at a rate to keep up with wine production. California has fallen from 52nd in the world in per capita wine consumption to 55th over the past few years. For the first time in many years, wine consumption actually fell as a whole in the United States in 2019. This is a major issue, leaving wineries with excess wine and grapes, growers with excess grapes, and effectively the tail wagging the dog. Wineries are reacting to this oversupply rather than having a real plan going forward on what is best for them. It is very difficult.

JR: Are there developments in the wine world that excite you right now?
AL: Of course. In the Southern Rhône, as the climate is changing, wineries are planting Clairette—a wonderful white grape that really retains acidity. A few people are even making the wine as a stand-alone. I love those wines, but I really like that wineries are seeking a natural solution to how the changing climate is changing their wines.

A bottle mockup of Beau Marchais. Source: http://www.philippecambie.com/2019/05/beau-marchais-by-adam-lee-philippe-cambie/

JR: What are you drinking these days?
AL: A lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Working with Philippe Cambie on the Beau Marchais project has led me to drink a lot of the wines he consults on and makes, but also some fantastic Châteauneuf from other producers as well. Both 2016 and 2017 are stunning vintages there and I am enjoying trying to figure out which vintage I prefer.

JR: What advice would you give to people who are thinking about getting into winemaking (or the wine business in general)?
AL: Get a broad background of experiences. Work wholesale, work on the floor of a restaurant, get involved in a retail wine shop. Making great wine is vital—but if the wine isn’t sold, then you won’t have the opportunity to make many more vintages.