Wednesdays with Winemakers – Sam Spencer
Sam Spencer’s career spans over two decades of engagement in the global wine industry. From vineyard development and all aspects of viticulture, to marketing, consumer sales, to winery and client relationship management, he has done it all. He holds a degree in viticulture from UC Davis, and successfully built several wine brands from the ground up. A brilliant marketing specialist, yet vineyardist and viticulturalist at heart, Sam puts the soil first.
Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?
I became a vintner because I was fascinated with the entire business from top to bottom, I still am. I love the big brush strokes and the pointillist approach that winegrowing requires. The rhythm and flow of the farming make sense to me in a deep way and satisfy my senses as well as my intellect.
If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?
Most likely a photographer. I worked for Patrick Demarchelier prior to embarking on this path, or conversely a commercial fisherman. I worked aboard a 165ft freezer trawler in the Atlantic, aptly named “the relentless,” while I was in college.
What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?
I think that I have a very strong intuitive understanding of vineyards, the underlying dirt and what those vines need in order to express their most interesting facets.
What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?
I am always striving to improve myself and take notice of my shortcomings, working towards a better outcome. Impatience seems to hinder me the most.
What’s the one professional mistake you made that would never repeat?
Working for less than visionary people.
What is your proudest achievement?
I am very proud of the vineyards I have built. Madder Lake Vineyard is in the high Mayacamas in Lake County. I took this project on before I was 30. It has been an amazing adventure to see the evolution and development of this site. I am also very proud of the La Herradura Vineyard which was built a little before Madder Lake. This project was complex in different ways due to its proximity to the headwaters of Conn Creek. I am also particularly proud of my sons, who are a lovely reprieve from the business of wine.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
1998 was daunting, largely due to my inexperience. 2011 was challenging, I had a very different set of skills and the resources to address the shortcomings of the vintage.
What is your favorite word or saying?
Andale Pues, Amigos.
What is your most prized possession?
I have a painting that was painted by Pat Day, who is a very revered painter from NZ. My mother left it to me. The painting looks south across the Cook Strait towards Nelson and the South Island.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I have an elaborate warm up routine prior to surfing. It involves some yoga, muy thai and active stretching that embarrasses my kids to no end.
What song best sums you up?
I don’t think any one song sums me up, right now I am listening to Kendrick Lamar a lot, Hip Hop, Jazz, the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and a little dose of the Grateful Dead. They are all important to me for different reasons and have their place on my turntable.
What is your favorite memory?
I don’t have a favorite moment or memory. I have complex set of experiences that form deep and pleasurable associations. They change from day to day.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
What is your biggest motivation?
To do good work and to be a good father.
Which bottle(s) of wine would choose to be stranded with on the deserted island?
Aubry Chapmagne NV Rose, Corton Charlemagne and some Nuits St. George for good measure.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
Good wine satisfies the palate, great wine stimulates the imagination.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with?
Winston Churchill, Madeline Albright and Kelly Slater.
Who is your winemaking hero?
I have met some incredibly talented winegrowers around the globe who make profound wine in relative obscurity and little reward. I am humbled by their dedication and perseverance.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
Nimble and faceted wines, with precise flavors. Focused.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
The pleasure of being at the table with their friends and the enjoyable mood that we created together.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
I love it when I am told that my wine is delicious, I have heard that from all three parties.