Ad Vivum is a boutique Napa project from Chris Phelps. Vinfolio’s Sophie Thorpe spoke to him about how twists of fate saw him go from aspiring doctor to star winemaker at the likes of Dominus, Caymus – and now his own label
Chris Phelps never really meant to start his own winery. But fate had other plans.
Wine had always been part of life, just in the background. Growing up in Livermore, east of San Francisco, Phelps’s parents would buy a ton of grapes from Napa or Sonoma, and make wine each year for themselves. Phelps even dug out a cellar by hand for them as a teenager. Nevertheless, when he set off for UC Davis, it wasn’t to study wine, but medicine. To pay for college, he took a job as a firefighter in Idaho (“kind of scary but super fun,” he tells me). By chance, he met a wine-geek friend, one who eventually convinced him to switch from pre-med to oenology.
At Davis, he happened upon Alain Bertrand – one of the first scientists to use gas chromatography to delineate the different aromatic compounds in wine. The Frenchman didn’t speak much English, and Phelps spoke French – so they ended up becoming friends. Bertrand suggested Phelps attend the University of Bordeaux for a year after graduation. There, Phelps tells me, everything “started to fall into place”. Until then, wine had been intellectually interesting – but, during his time in France, it became much more.
There, another professor pushed him to apply for an internship – just in time for the 1982 harvest, a vintage that would turn out to be legendary. He already had offers from both Château Simon (Barsac) and Château Beauregard, but then was given the opportunity to interview with JP Moueix (of Château Pétrus). Unusually Christian Moueix insisted on joining the interview himself, alongside winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet, and promptly gave him the job. The confident young American, however, said he’d think about it – and set off for a holiday in the south of France with his fiancée. Little did he know that Moueix had just bought a swathe of vineyard in Napa – and was planning for the future.
A few weeks later, Phelps was in Nice and bought three postcards from the Chagall museum – ready to make his decision about the three possible roads that lay ahead of him. He decided to take the position at Moueix, posted his rejections and acceptance, and carried on with his holiday. But, as harvesttime approached, Phelps hadn’t heard anything back. He called Berrouet – only to find out that the French postal service had let him down, and the job at Pétrus had been given to someone else. It seemed like his luck had run out, but Berrouet said he might have another idea and would call him back in a few days.
While Berrouet couldn’t offer him anything as prestigious as Pétrus, he found Phelps a job at Château des Laurets in Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion – but he wouldn’t just be an intern, he’d be running everything. It was, Phelps said, a “trial by fire”, especially given his only hands-on experience to date had been six months at Louis Martini. He worked non-stop with just one cellar hand to help during the day, and managed to make it through the season.
When the wines were safely in barrel, he went to dinner at Christian Moueix’s house – where, sipping Champagne in the library, Moueix told Phelps about his plans for his Napa project, Dominus – and asked if he’d be the winemaker. “Of course, I said no,” Phelps tells me – recalling how the Frenchman opposite visibly sputtered at the American’s cheek (again). Phelps said he needed more money to live in Napa (and support his bride-to-be) – and more experience. Amazingly, Moueix agreed to let him start from 1984, given the 1983 vintage was set to be just a handful of experimental barrels, and to a pay raise. Off Phelps went, working around California and wintering at Pétrus before returning to lead the team at Dominus.
“We figured it out as we went along,” Phelps says, looking back on the early days of what is now one of Napa’s most prestigious estates. Today they might have the iconic Herzog & De Meuron winery, but things were much more rustic at the beginning – with a small team and little infrastructure. Phelps eventually moved on, joining Caymus in 1996 – but it’s what started happening after-hours, around his day job, that is interesting.
In 1990, Phelps met Larry Bettinelli at a Christian men’s retreat, and hit it off. It was only when they met up for lunch later that they realized they were both in the wine business, with Bettinelli a fifth-generation farmer who was growing grapes. Bettinelli wanted his vineyards to be the best in the valley – but he needed feedback on the fruit so that he could adapt his viticulture. He and Phelps hatched a plan: each year, Bettinelli would give Phelps a ton of fruit, trialling different clones, rootstocks, vine spacing and trellising, harvest methods, and Phelps would make a wine with it. The project was purely intellectual, so the two families drunk the wine themselves, and it also started being used as the altar wine at Phelps’s church (a much higher-grade communion offering than most). For two decades, they kept making tiny batches of their first-class “homebrew”, and Bettinelli became one of the valley’s best growers, working with an increasing number of sites around Napa.
Destiny seemed to abandon all subtlety in 2005. Phelps was hiking through the Sierra Nevada, leading a Scouts expedition, when they were struck by lightning. Two of the group died and Phelps was knocked unconscious. Unsurprisingly, it shook Phelps to the core. “Life is our most precious gift,” he says, “and if we use wine appropriately, it can enhance our lives.”
Two years later, Phelps was on top of a tank that had just been filled with crushed fruit from a relatively new Bettinelli site – and the smell was intoxicating. Following pure impulse, Phelps asked if he could – rather unconventionally – buy the tank’s contents, and Bettinelli said yes. Ad Vivum – inspired by the Latin “vinum” for wine and “vivere” to live, combined with “ad” which translates as “to” or “towards” – was born.
The vineyard was Sleeping Lady (previously Reese), the southernmost vineyard in Yountville, at the foot of the Mayacamas and on the southern end of the valley’s famous bench. There’s a flow of underground water that feeds a creek, with sufficient clay under the gravel and sand to retain water during the dry summer – and has, in Phelps’s words, a “beautiful ability” to self-regulate. Various other producers work with the vineyard, but his two blocks (representing a mere 1.5 acres) are right at the top of the vineyard, below a steep slope that aids the flow of cool air through the site at night. For him there was something special about these plots – producing fruit and wine with what Phelps describes as a “grace note”; it’s a whisper of something that takes the wine to the next level.
In a good year, production for Ad Vivum is 450 cases – but Phelps isn’t looking to grow. He makes one wine, from one site – and that’s the way he wants it to be. The wine is undoubtedly informed by his Franco-American roots, with an elegance, freshness and savory structure that complements the plush Napa style. As he says, “I try to build wines that speak for themselves.”
Phelps’s – and Ad Vivum’s – story is one of happenstance. Or is it? With a man as devout as Phelps, it seems hard for anyone to believe it’s all an accident – and as Phelps himself says, looking back, it feels perhaps like it’s all part of a master plan.
– Sophie Thorpe