This Father-Son Winemaking Duo from Napa Valley Is Crushing It
Given that I write about wine all day, all night, my own dinner table is often scattered with bottles that tell an array of fascinating family stories. Some inspiring, some scandalous, some delicious, some meh. On the inspiring and delicious front, two Napa Valley winemakers, Chris Phelps and his son Josh—are crushing it.
I first met the son in 2011 at a place called “The Ranch” in St. Helena, California. I was working on a podcast, and with a tape-recorder in hand was trailing Josh Phelps, who was outpacing me in flip-flops with a bottle of wine in hand—a bottle I had to dodge more than once as Josh was quite expressively rattling off a colorful array of comments that typically ended with “you can’t print that!”
A few weeks later, when harvest was in full swing and I was steam-cleaning barrels at Alpha Omega winery, I met the father. A tall, slim man with a high forehead and broad grin walked onto the crushpad. That was Chris Phelps. I can still recall hearing him converse in English and French with winemaker Jean Hoefliger. But several years later in 2015, when by coincidence both Chris and I were at Alpha Omega on separate business, I distinctly remember taking stock of Phelps’ laser-like stare as he eyed grapes just plucked off the vine that were destined for Ad Vivum, a project he collaborates on with his son Josh.
Seven years later, I’ve gotten to know them both quite well. As winemakers, Josh is unquestionably a savvy, mature, rising star. While the patriarch, Chris, has built an “impressive” career—to quote the critic Robert Parker—but has somehow remained totally under-the-radar.
Both are quite deferential to each other, as I learned interviewing them in Josh’s St. Helena home. Chris, at age 61, has a lot of respect for his 32-year-old son’s lengthy list of accomplishments and features, which include being named to Forbes's 30 under 30, Zagat's 30 under 30, and Wine Enthusiast's 40 under 40 lists.
Beginning in 1982, the elder Phelps learned to make wine at the famed Château Pétrus on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, and later worked for Napa icons Dominus and Caymus. Today, he is a consulting winemaker, whose main focus is with Francis Ford Coppola’s revitalized Inglenook winery. Additionally, he works with Delectus in St. Helena, Banfi in eastern Washington on Red Mountain, and the Mueller Family, a boutique producer of lush Diamond Mountain Cabernet. Chris’s own label—Ad Vivum, a single-vineyard Cabernet from Yountville—is a collaboration with Josh.
While Chris was the first career winemaker in his family, his son Josh, the eldest of four, is the only one—so far—who has followed in the patriarch’s wine-stained footsteps.
“The way I remember it,” Chris says, as Josh swirled a glass of white, listening intently to his dad’s narrative, “is Josh wanted to be a chef. But it doesn’t take you long to realize that life as a chef is an intense career and you have to be really lucky to make it.”
“And he saw my lifestyle and how I got to travel to France, meeting a whole cross-section of people from all walks of life just getting into wine to big celebrities. It’s an unusual job. When he was a senior in college, his final project was aimed at starting a wine brand.”
Josh’s own take on getting into wine varies slightly.
“Working in the back of the house for Michael Chiarello in my teens,” Josh says, “got me thinking about wine in a different way. I knew I wanted to start a business. I even had a valet parking business in high school. So, I enrolled in Chico and majored in business.”
“We took a family trip to France when Josh was 21,” Chris interjects, “and spent time on the Right Bank. We went to Vieux Château Certan and Château Pétrus and got the full wine country experience in Europe. He saw the lifestyle, and creativity—the regalness of the Right Bank.”
Standing in the cellar of Pétrus, “I realized I wanted to make wine for myself,” said Josh.
After college he worked a production stint for Joel Gott, then dialed in the Sacramento market for Kimberly Jones, an importer and broker with an impressive portfolio. Meanwhile, he was in the process of building Taken Wine Company, which launched in 2010 with roughly 100 cases, and in just three years rose to a national brand in major restaurants and retail. Josh sold his equity in Taken in early 2017 and launched Grounded Wine Company and is now working with Leslie Rudd’s Vintage Wine Estates for sales and distribution.
“Grounded is my own thing,” says Josh. “but my dad and I select the vineyards together.”
In 2015, they produced “Steady State,” a Napa Cabernet, and in 2016 a Bordeaux Blend in Eastern Washington called “Collusion” along with a Grenache-based blend from the Central Coast called “Public Radio.”
At Josh’s kitchen table, staring me down was a $20 bottle of Collusion next to a $150 bottle of Ad Vivum.
Pulling the cork on the 2014 Ad Vivum, Chris talked about how involved Josh is in all aspects of winemaking. “Once we identify the goal of the wine, we hold to that vision, and it’s easy to do that together. We know and trust each other so well.”
As I swirled the heady Cabernet a wave of rich black fruits and crushed violets gave way to a richly layered palate of elegance and finesse; meanwhile, Josh talked about their approach to winemaking. “We want to make real, honest wine,” he says.
“We really agree on that,” Chris adds. “There are no corners being cut,” says Josh.
And it shows in their wines, which are pure, fresh and richly layered. Nosing his own Cabernet, Chris suddenly wondered aloud if he had come up with the name of Josh’s first new label under Grounded—Steady State.
“I don’t know, I can’t remember,” Josh said, with a hearty laugh. “But you are good at coming up with names. It’s pretty easy to work together.”
“With a 35-year career here in Napa, making wine and guiding it to the bottle is what I do,” Chris says to me. Motioning to Josh, “the sales and marketing thing is not my forté. And a lot of what I know, I’ve learned from this guy. The occasional disagreement comes up when I’m not understanding something marketing or business-related and forget how naturally perceptive he is in those realms. Also, his hyperconnectivity to trends is extremely on-point and I’m very appreciative of that.”
I wondered if growing up in Napa, surrounded by a bevy of extremely well-financed family operations was intimidating.
Josh swiveled the corkscrew into Collusion and quickly pulled out the cork. “I didn’t inherit a wine brand,” he said, pouring the 2016 vintage into another round of glasses. “But I pushed my dad to start a brand.”
“It’s true!” Chris readily admits. “I wasn’t thinking about it. My first vintage of Ad Vivum, the 2007, was the same first vintage as Taken. I’m proud of him and I’m proud of how he’s helped manage both me and my brand. I wouldn't have done it if he hadn't urged me. ‘What’s your retirement plan?’ he asked me.”
Leaning back in his chair, Josh looked up at the ceiling with a fixed stare, as if peering into the not so distant past. “I always wanted to start my own company for as long as I remember. Some of my best friends inherited a winery and many are working their ass off. But I do respect young people starting something from scratch and although I’m second-generation Napa, I’m a first generation winery owner.”
I tasted Collusion and savored its generosity, warm red and blackberry fruit tinged with sweet spices and clove, all the while Josh thumbed through a few text messages. Chris raised his glass. “Wine is for enjoyment and pleasure,” he said. “If you miss that you’re going in the wrong direction, and Josh and I really agree on style and the enjoyment factor. Balance. Style. Enjoyment.”
As he was firing off a text, “What kind of wine do you make?” Josh asked rhetorically. Setting down his phone and taking in a view of his dad through his own wine glass, “I make balanced wines,” he said, his mouth widening to the same big grin I’d recognized on Chris’s face the first time I met him. “Real wines—because that was my experience growing up at home.”