Born in the vineyard-rich region of Livermore, California, Chris Phelps fell in love with two things early on in life: wine, and the French language.
So it was natural that he studied enology and French at UC Davis, and after graduation in 1981, entered the Institute of Enology at the University of Bordeaux. In addition to participating in an intensive wine program, his requirements demanded practical experience, and he was fortunate enough to discover a landmark immersion opportunity, serving as winemaker at Château des Laurets in Puisseguin-St. Emilion during the blockbuster 1982 harvest.
During Chris’s Bordeaux experience, Christian Moueix (often referred to as “Mr. Merlot”) and winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet became his mentors, an association which allowed Chris to work and live at Chateau Pétrus for a winter. “Many luminaries in Bordeaux are very in touch with the cycles of nature, how they 'feel' about a vineyard or a wine,” says Chris of what he learned while in France. “Berrouet taught me about the passion of wine, and why he was inspired to write a book of poetry about terroir."
Chris was then invited by Moueix to join a new Napa Valley winery, Dominus Estate. Following six months of intensive training at Pétrus, Chris was named winemaker at Dominus, where he worked from 1984 through 1995, honing his skills with iconic Bordeaux styled, or 'Meritage' wines.
In 1996, Chuck Wagner of Napa Valley’s Caymus Vineyards recruited Chris for several winemaking projects, hiring him as full time red specialist winemaker in 1999. While there, he led the production of both the prestigious Caymus Napa Valley and Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings.
When Chris joined the Swanson Vineyards team in April 2003, it was an ideal partnership for both winery and winemaker. The Swanson family’s passion for innovation and history of consistently producing French-style wine from its Oakville vineyards posed an irresistible draw.
"Merlot was a big reason to move to Swanson, bringing me back to my Bordeaux roots,” Chris explains. “Merlot is the biggest red variety in Bordeaux, and in all of France. It is a winemaker's grape, with natural acidity, lots of tannin, but the gentle kind that makes drinking red wines pleasurable."
Since then, Chris has contributed a fresh, cutting-edge perspective to all phases of winemaking, from pre-harvest through blending and bottling. His style can be summarized as minimalist, in respect of excellent grapes. “If the fruit is picked when it is physiologically ripe and balanced, intervention through winemaking techniques is minimized,” Chris says. “My job as a winemaker is to form an honest interpretation of what a specific vineyard site in a specific vineyard is trying to tell me.”
Chris is a member of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture and the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group. He lives in St. Helena with his wife, Maria, and their four children, with whom he shares a love of swimming and backpacking. An assistant scoutmaster, he also leads his local Boy Scout troop on expeditions.
Marco Cappelli was destined to specialize in dessert wines. During his first year at U.C. Davis, he enrolled as a physical anthropology student, yet found he was even more drawn to the enology program. Fascinated by the winemaking process, he was especially intrigued by the transformation that took place during fermentation, and soon began conducting small experiments in his dorm room. His first "wine" was a sweet one, made from diluted honey.
Marco was so sure of his calling that he left school for a quarter to take an internship during crush at the Louis Martini Winery in St. Helena. The experience solidified what his first batch of fermented honey had hinted at: he wanted to be a winemaker. He returned to U.C. Davis, acquired a B.S. in Enology in 1984, and then traveled to Europe for more practical training in Italy and France. While Davis had given Marco a solid theoretical foundation in winemaking, his time in Europe helped refine his palate and gave him a deeper understanding of what wine truly is and how to enjoy it in every day life. In Italy, he says, he learned that wine is food, as important to the daily meal as bread or pasta. In France, he grew to deeply respect how soil, climate and human factors influence the character and veritable personality of wine.
Marco returned to Napa Valley from Europe in January of 1986. Almost immediately, he was hired as a cellar worker for Saintsbury Winery in Carneros, where he soon met and become friends with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff. It was Andre who, one year later, introduced him to Clarke Swanson.
Clarke was a risk-taker, and saw in Marco an extraordinary, if nascent talent. The two were kindred spirits, with Clarke’s pioneering approach to grape growing, and Marco’s curiosity and passion to explore innovative winemaking techniques and to produce world-class wines. In March of 1987, Clarke hired Marco to make the very first wines for his new winery, Swanson Vineyards, under the direction of lead consultant Tchelistcheff.
In the spring of 1990, Clarke sent Marco on his first trip to Australia. Arriving at harvest time, the trip was a revelation for the young winemaker. In the continent’s isolation, the Australian industry had developed relatively separately from the in fluences of European winemaking traditions. Marco studied their progressive techniques, returning for subsequent tours, and eventually incorporated some of their most cutting edge approaches into Swanson Vineyards’ vineyard management and winemaking methods.
In 1992, Marco established yet another ground breaking niche for the winery: sweet wines. He became a specialist, perhaps the only “sweet winemaker” in the country, and, through Swanson Vineyards, is responsible for crafting some of the most highly regarded sweet wines in the world.
Among those dessert wines is Swanson Vineyards’ highly coveted Angelica, a project that began in 1995, when Clarke directed Marco to a small grouping of very old Mission vines from a tiny Amador County vineyard planted in 1856. "We researched Gold Rush-era documents trying to identify a production technique that we could reproduce," Marco recalls. "We wanted to make something that would pay homage to the wine styles from the period, and found such a technique described in the 1890s by a Frenchman, Emile Vache. His 'recipe' was for Angelica -- a wine type popular at the time, but not seen much today."
The fortified wine is "A true California original," says Marco. "It is a living relic that refl ects the history and culture of our state. Most of the old Mission vines have long since been ripped out, and the few original plantings that remain should be preserved as national treasures. We are doing our part."
"Over the years, Marco has shown another of Clarke’s signatures traits - an entrepreneurial style. In 2002, he purchased 42 acres in El Dorado County, in California's Sierra Foothills. He currently sells his grapes to local wineries, and makes a red Rhone-style blend plus a small amount of fortified wine.
His evolution into sweet wines reflects what first drew him to Swanson Vineyards more than two decades ago. "The innovation is exhilarating and very rewarding. My years working with Clarke Swanson prepared me for this." Swanson was one of the first to plant Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio in Napa, and the original Alexis Red Wine -- a blend of Cabernet and Syrah -- was ahead of its time in California.
"I hope to continue honoring that tradition with my dessert wines."