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February 16, 2015 |  528 Views
A Tale of Two Sonoma Winemakers
By Marcia Frost
Corey Beck is the Director of Winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, one of the most recognizable wineries in the world. His grandfather was the vineyard manager of Chateau Montelena and he studied winemaking at the University of California at Davis. Beck has been working at Coppola’s since 1998 and has been in charge of producing dozens of different varietals. 
James MacPhail is the owner/winemaker at MacPhail Family Wines. With a degree in Business and Hotel Management, he just started in the wine business in the 1990s and launched his own brand in 2002. MacPhail only works with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and his variety comes from the areas the grapes come from and the blending of them.
These men took different roads and work in unique atmospheres, but they have one thing in common – they both make great wine!
Where else have you previously worked as a winemaker?
Corey Beck: I started my career at Chateau Montelena and learned how to make world class Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  I was there for five years and then left to work for the Coppolas. At the time we were called Niebaum-Coppola and were much smaller. I was fortunate enough to make Rubicon with Scott McLeod. 
James MacPhail: It’s my first time as lead winemaker for a brand. I spent many years ‘making’ wine for others, but not with a title. I cut my teeth at Quivira, Unti, Gary Farrell, Pellegrini -- which housed Merry Edwards brand as well back then -- and a few other short stints.
Do you have any say in the grapes you will use for your next wines?
CB: Yes the beauty about my job is that I get to select all of our vineyards with our Director of Grower Relations, Lise Asimont.  I have a lot of respect for our growers and the vineyards we work with, we consider each and every one of them family. 
What made you decide to focus only on two grapes – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?
JM: It is the Burgundian varieties that always fascinated me, and which I identified with the most. Although I was working for others and crafting Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc, I was always coming home and drinking Pinot Noir and Chardonnay -- favoring more old-world style than new world. So, when I started my brand, I wanted to focus on one thing and do it well. I wanted to brand myself as a specialist, and craft what I enjoyed. I had no interest in starting a wine label crafting wines I did not personally enjoy or drink myself.
As a winemaker, how do you keep track of making so many wines? How many assistants do you have?
CB: We have five winemakers on staff and each of them are in charge of a different program.  I'm extremely fortunate to have such a talented team as it makes my job much easier. I get to work with each of them to develop the style of wines so each one of them has their own personality.  We're fortunate enough to work with vineyards throughout California thus we can showcase the majority of our regions.  Making Pinot Noir from Monterey is so different than Russian River and our goal is to represent the region as much as the varietal.
As a winemaker, how do you make different wines out of only two grapes?
JM: This is one of the beauties of crafting Pinot Noir, and now chardonnay. I don’t treat each fermentation that much differently, because Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will show their different flavor profiles and styles based on the vineyard site and clone selection planted. I am basically there to guide and showcase their potential. 
What is the biggest difference for you working at a large winery vs. a small one?
CB: I was fortunate enough to work for both small and large size wineries and there's really not a lot of difference.  My philosophy is that we take a small winery mentality and apply it to a larger scale.  We have about 150 growers that we work with and we keep every lot separate so we can evaluate it and provide feedback to the grower.  The grower feedback tasting that we do really sets the stage for vineyard improvement and wine quality. 
JM: First and foremost, the small winery is my own. So anytime an artist has their own space, I believe creating that intimate environment only helps with final quality and craftsmanship. Large facilities can become impersonal, and wine needs to be made with a connection between the winemaker and the grapes. Sometimes this is lost in a larger facility.
At what point do you begin selecting grapes for wine – before they are picked, during the harvest, after fermentation?
CB: I'm a big believer visiting the vineyards throughout the growing season as there are critical decisions throughout the year. The goal is to have the growers dial in their canopy management early and not fall behind as this will bring along the ripening of the fruit at a much more even pace. Once the grapes are picked the winemaking team starts the selection process during fermentation.  We can tell a Reserve style wine on day 3 of the fermentation process.
JM: All my vineyard sources are long-term contracts, with either designated rows or designated blocks. I know exactly where my fruit is and how it is being farmed and developing. Winemaking begins in the vineyard, so as soon as winter pruning begins, is when the wine begins its journey. I like to say that my job should be 80% done once the fruit is harvested and delivered to the winery. My job at that point is only to ‘coax,’ or help guide the fruit into wine.
How many tastings on average do you do before you declare a bottle ready to be sold?
CB: Each wine gets tasted once a day during harvest and then once a week until the wine is bottled.  
JM: Once the vintage gets bottled in August, I don’t open a bottle and taste until the Holidays. I begin assessing its readiness around Thanksgiving – it has become a tradition! By the first of the year, after three or four tastings of each bottling, I finally get a pulse on when which wines will be ready for their release that year.
How involved is Francis Ford Coppola in the process?
CB: Francis is one of the most involved owners I've ever been around in our business.  His passion for food and wine is infectious and he's directly involved in every aspect of the process.  He sees things most people wouldn't ever dream of and has the passion and dedication to bring them to reality.  Every time I'm in the market selling wine people are always telling me we have the best packaging of any winery, well that all comes from Francis and his art team.
What’s in the future for your winery?
CB: This last year we (Francis Ford Coppola Winery) purchased the historic Geyser Peak winery just 4 miles up the road from us.  Francis has been hard at work developing a new theme and winery name and we have some exciting new products coming your way. 
JM: Wow, so much! For 2014, we (MacPhail Family Wines) will be opening our new Tasting Lounge in The Barlow, an artisan community of different trades located in Sebastopol, CA. Next year has me ‘on the road’ for about 12 weeks -- broken up every other week -- visiting markets where MacPhail is distributed. We are launching an official wine club in 2014 as well. All this before the summer!


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