All bottle shots were taken in the Octagon suite of the historic 1804 Inn at Barboursville Winery in Virginia
“The way we are selling wine in this country is failing.” That’s how Adam Lee started the interview. For a guy who makes a lot of wine – he is the winemaker of four distinctly different projects – he would have some ideas about the state of the wine industry, and he should care.
We’re on the phone to discuss Clarice Wine Company, a new project for a guy who has been making pinot noir, primarily in California, for over two decades. Adam and I first met when he joined a potluck that my now wife and I hosted, and we’ve stayed in touch. A number months ago he sent me samples of the three pinot noirs made under his new Clarice label, which are demonstrably different from the pinots made under the Siduri label, a well-known winery he and his wife, Diana Novy, opened in 1994, and where he still makes the wine despite selling it to Jackson Family Wines.
The two companies, Clarice and Siduri, are demonstrably and fascinatingly different in business model as well. While Siduri is a more traditional winery (direct to customer, wine club and retail sales with international distribution), Clarice is unique – and I mean that in the definitional sense of the word: one of a kind.
Clarice H. Phears, Adam’s grandmother and namesake of Clarice Wine Company, whom he describes as “one of my closest friends growing up.”
The winery offers three wines that are only available to its club members, and sold once per year in a single case shipment comprised of four bottles each of the three wines. Despite the wine being very good, being a Clarice customer is about much more than the juice. The membership includes a number of unusual benefits all designed to achieve a goal Adam believes is critical to building a bigger and more profitable wine market in the United States: creating a robust combination of customer education and genuine relationship formation.
First, membership includes exclusive written content commissioned by Adam for his members. Adam solicits written pieces from experts in the wine industry and has a forum set up for members to interact with the authors and among themselves. “My members develop an interest in the complexities of the wine business as well [as the wine itself],” Adam told me. “For example, I had one guest blog post about winery financing from the Silicon Valley Bank, and there was a lot of back and forth between the members and the author [over our online forum]. I thought it might be a dry subject, but it wasn’t for the members. It solicited more responses [than many other more mainstream topics].” He also takes requests from members. For example, although he doesn’t make chardonnay, several members expressed interest in knowing more about how chardonnay was made, and so he asked Donald Patz of Patz and Hall fame to write about it.
Second, members have a private forum in which they can discuss anything they want among themselves. This feature of the membership feeds Adam’s desire for his customers to interact with each other – not just with Clarice. In addition to wine and the guest writer content, members have taken to discussing travel and other tips. “The members are crowd sourcing information,” Adam said. “I didn’t appreciate the power of the forum when I first put this thing together. People are getting better experiences when they travel to wine regions, even when it’s not related to Clarice, because of the forum.”
Third, there are parties: the Clarice wine release party and parties hosted at another wineries. This component of the membership is designed to help members expand their palates beyond Clarice with the added bonus of helping to create a sense of community among the members.
When asked about how he picks the wineries he approaches to host his members, he said that “it’s really about finding someone who is doing something interesting and educational. I don’t want anyone who will give a big sales pitch,” so it’s about finding people he knows who will provide an educational experience and extend deals to the members and really engage them.
“I’ve always felt that when people are in the tasting room, if they leave with a bottle or case then that’s fine, but if they ask interesting questions and are engaged and really want to know what I’m doing, that’s the kind of experience I want my members to have. The [other winemakers and wineries] I select for my members feel the same about their interactions with Clarice members, and want to generate real interest.” Adam plans to add events outside California for members who aren’t local to the Golden State.
Finally, Adam negotiates discounts for his members with other wineries beyond these events. “It’s important that my members explore wines beyond those that I and my friends make,” Adam told me. “My wine universe is too small for anyone to have a well-rounded experience,” which any follower of his social media should find surprising.
Knowing the basic parameters of these benefits going into the interview, which are more expansive than any winery membership I’ve come across, I had to ask him why he was making such an investment in his members, especially when he’s capped it at roughly 625 slots (the cap is actually lower than that because he needs to base it on the worst case production scenario of a poor growing season). The answer comes down to how the wine industry is changing, and Adam’s love for the human element of the business.
“We had a period of time where tasting rooms – through the cellar door – was the primary way [that we sold wine in California], back in the 1970s. That was it,” he continued. “Then we moved into a time when wine critics really took over with [Robert] Parker, [Wine] Spectator and the like. Now I think the period of wine critics truly driving sales, though they’re not unimportant, has ended.”
When I began Good Vitis in October, 2017, I firmly believed that the handful of people in the industry who might came across the blog would dismiss it with no afterthought, because who cares about what yet-another-hobbyist thinks about wine, right? They weren’t going to hang a 93 point Good Vitis wine review around their wine on the store shelf, so what use was I to them? I couldn’t have been more wrong in my presumption that my opinions were what concerned them. Adam can explain:
“And [the point about critics driving sales] is not just wine. If you think about it, Siskel and Ebert use to drive movie viewership as well. And now we go to a model where it’s much more group recommendation [e.g. Rotten Tomatoes, online forums, social media, blogs and word-of-mouth], that type of thing. It’s been true with wine as well. I don’t think a 94 or 95 point rating all of a sudden means you sell out anymore. So people have gone back to more direct sales, but the problem is that the number of tasting rooms is so ubiquitous that people get lost.” Good Vitis, Adam is essentially saying, is part of the crowd that is being sourced these days.
These observations get to the heart of Clarice Wine Company. “I think we need to come up with some new models to attract people to wine,” he told me. “We underestimate the importance of personal relationships that are developed around wineries. I never purchased software because I liked Bill Gates better than Steve Jobs, but with wineries you need to have that level of personal interaction to establish that personal connection that drives customers’ purchasing choices,” he said. I take his point that personalities (and likely world views) like those of Steve Jobs do tend to draw followers. To Adam’s credit, he has a personality that I have no doubt draws fans.
The cost to join Clarice is a very specific number: $962.92. I had to ask about this. The $2.92 comes from the portion that is taxable, which is the case of wine. The membership benefits themselves are not taxable because they provide legitimate benefits to the members. With another nod to his customers, Adam figured out what was the lowest reasonable amount he could charge for the wine so as to minimize the tax burden.
The bottles and labels themselves received serious design consideration and effort as well. The labels are beautifully designed and executed (despite Adam’s color blindness), and are true pieces of art. And the bottles bear a Chateauneuf de Pape -inspired custom cartouche. Both myself and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the ascetics of the Clarice Wine Company labels and bottles, Kayce because she photographs the bottles written about on Good Vitis and because she has a keen eye for visual design, and me because Adam and I share a love of Chateauneuf de Pape.
The juice inside the bottles are the best I’ve had from Adam. They are more structurally dense and layered than those in the Siduri line up. I wanted to know if this was a stylistic choice. “I wanted to pick earlier for Clarice than Siduri because, while I love Siduri wines, I wanted Clarice to be really age worthy,” he said in response to my observation. “I do more whole cluster – in the 54% to 58% range – as well. And I don’t pick at specific brix or pH levels.” Age-worthy wines require significant more structure and balance than other wines, meaning volumes of tannin, acid and alcohol in the right relations to each other. Picking grapes earlier sets a winemaker up to make age-worthy wine by securing higher acid and tannin and minimizing sugar, which has an inverse relation to the final alcohol level.
At this juncture, I interrupted to ask how he thought the 2017 Clarices I tasted would age. “So far, my experience with this vintage, I drink them over 72 hours and they evolve nicely over that time.” This was ironic because I had decided to sample them over a 3-day window as well after having the first sip of each. The density on them is incredible, and it is immediately clear that they have a lot of stuffing to unpack, which only extended aging will do. Extended decanting helps dramatically in the short term, but isn’t a full substitute for cellaring when it comes to wines this complex.
“I felt good with the materials [grapes] and fermentation. I had native [primary] fermentation, native malolactic fermentation [a.k.a. secondary fermentation] and I did all hand punch downs. Three times per day during a five-day cold soak, then I dropped it down to twice per day during fermentation, then to once per day after that.” These efforts extract long-chain tannins from the skins, which are the softest and most pleasing of wine tannin types, and they are evident in the wine as the tannin structure is both substantive and elegant, which is a great sign for how these wines can improve over time.
Another element that contributes to tannin development is oak. Going over the three bottles, Adam explained that “the Santa Lucia pinot has the least amount of new oak, about 30%. Gary’s Vineyard is in the sixties and Rosella’s is 83% new. All of it is French where I source barrels from two cooperages. This gives me two distinctly different styles. I have one that comes in with very light toasting and one that’s more heavily toasted. Both are air dried for three years.”
He explained that “although Gary’s and Rosella’s are both single vineyard wines, I still do a lot of barrel blending trials on them as well as the Santa Lucia, which is an appellation blend. After tasting barrels the first time, I put some blends together and wait a few weeks to see how they coalesce in oak. Then I taste and re-blend, wait a couple of months, and do it a final time.” Obsessive? Maybe a little, but the benefits are evident in the bottle.
The Gary and Rosella vineyards are well-known to Adam. He has an incredible list of vineyards that he sources from for Siduri, and I imagine narrowing down the list down for Clarice was challenging. “I have amazing relationships with the families that own the vineyards I use for Clarice.” Adam performed the wedding ceremony for a member of one of the families, and chaperoned a 21st birthday for another. “They were the first to understand what I wanted to do with the vineyards.”
What he wanted to do began with paying by the acre, not the tonnage, because he is all about dropping fruit when needed in order to ensure the fruit he gets is the best it can be. “Dropping fruit” means cutting grape clusters off the vine during the growing season so the remaining fruit can absorb more of the nutrients and become more concentrated and flavorful. Further, it increase the ratio of skins to juice, which makes for higher tannin levels.
A vineyard manager is unlikely to drop fruit under their own volition. If a vineyard sells its fruit by weight, rather than the acre, the incentive is to grow lots of big grapes so they have more weight to sell, and therefore make more money. Think of the typical grocery store grape, which we pay for by weight. The grapes are large with loads of juice – meaning, very heavy.
But large grapes are not those that Adam wants because relatively to smaller grapes they’re flavorless and lack good tannin. In order to ensure he gets what he wants – and we get his best wine – Adam pays by the acre, which gives him control over how much fruit he brings in. It’s more expensive for Adam this way because the vineyards calculate acreage rates based on what they would make if selling by the ton, but he doesn’t get the production that a winery buying by the ton would.
“2017 was a good example” of why he purchases by the acre, Adam said. “It was the first year we emerged from a long drought, and I was concerned that the vines, after finally getting a good drink, would get vigorous and put out tons of fruit. My vineyard families understood this, and agreed to drop fruit.” The concentration and depth of flavors in these wines show why the decision to drop fruit was the right one.
The author, left, with Adam, right.
As I’ve eluted to, the three 2017 Clarice wines are very, very good. I’ve posted my notes and ratings below. It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good. The cost to acquire a case may seem high, especially if you don’t live near or travel frequently to California wine country and cannot take advantage of the in-person benefits. But, the $80.24 per bottle is entirely justified by the quality. Add, then, the benefits if you can take advantage of them and Adam is offering a deal. Adam’s personal investment and the time he takes to not only make exceptional wine for his customers, but to engage them in new and innovative waves, makes Clarice an intriguing prospect: it is an investment not just in good wine, but in your own education and enjoyment as well.
2017 Gary’s Vineyard – Very pretty nose.: boysenberry, blueberry, dark plum, blue raspberry, nutmeg and unsweetened cinnamon aromas. Medium bodied with juicy and tart acidity paired with slightly gritty tannin that coats the mouth. With further integration, the balance will be on-point as the wine grows into its significant density. The flavor profile has a slightly dirty edge. The core is features blackberry, black plum, muddled strawberry, blood orange zest and purple flower petals. This is doing well at the moment, and I foresee a nice, but subtle, evolution over the next five-ten years. 94 points.
2017 Santa Lucia Highlands – The nose is young and seems almost impenetrable. The first aroma I get reminds me of the smell that comes from a freshly opened bag of grape-flavored fruit snacks. Beneath that lies graphite or wet soil (I can’t be sure which) and mountain strawberry. The palate is young as well, though slightly more developed. Dense, it offers slightly less sharp acid than the Gary’s, but with more tannin structure it results in what feels like a more settled wine at the moment. Flavor-wise, we’re talking vibrant strawberry, raspberry and red plum in the fruit category, which is enhanced by rose, lavender and wet soil. I think this one merits 3-5 years in the cellar. 94 points.
2017 Rosella’s Vineyard – The bright nose boasts high-toned, nose-tickling blood orange, raspberry, strawberry, underbrush and lilac. The palate is the most delicate of the trio, but still carries what seems to be the signature density of this label. The tannins in the Rosella are the most seamless and integrated of the three wines, as well as the most persistent. Their lineation carries the flavors for a very long time, which gives you ample moments to enjoy the red and black plums, mature strawberry, rose petal, wet forest floor and well-established dark raspberry. This may be the most layered of the three Clarice wines, and one that will mature with grace over at least a decade. 95 points.
Value note: All three warrant an A value rating. Even if a customer did not avail themselves of the benefit, these come out to roughly $80/bottle. As explained earlier in the article, though not cheap, the quality matches the price, if not exceeding it.