Interview with Winemaker Sam Spencer

May 22, 2008

As part of our ongoing mission to share interesting facts, knowledge and people from the world of food, I recently interviewed Sam Spencer of Spencer Roloson Winery. Sam is an old friend who built his label from scratch over the past 10 years in California's Napa Valley. We love his wines and celebrate his success with only one reservation, now we can't afford as much of it! Still, we are happy members of their Wine Club.

Sam, what is your philosophy of wine making? What do you see as your obligation to your drinker?

I believe in making honest wine that clearly reflects the vineyard and its topography and ultimately the winegrowers hand in a balanced fashion. I feel obligated to make interesting and delicious wines with care for my consumers.

When you think about all the work that goes into making a bottle of wine, how much is in growing the grapes vs. vintaging?

Growing is the hard part and site selection is the single most important decision you will make along the way to putting wine into a bottle. Careful winemaking is important, but the reality is that if you have a great vineyard it can carry many flaws and still produce delicious wine. I have been vary fortunate to develop Madder Lake Vineyard and the La Herradura Vineyard from the ground up. Both are exceptional and offer outstanding wine-grapes and ultimately wine. The decision to develop these sites was based largely on instinct and enthusiasm rather than experience as I was 10 years younger and both were bare land. I guess I was lucky to some degree in picking these spots. Now I am more intimate than ever with these two vineyards and I see they will continue to develop and mature along with my craft and my own maturation as a winemaker/vigneron.

You are known for making wines from varietals not common to California, like Tempranillo, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc. What's unique about working with these lesser known grapes?

I think the advantage to growing Tempranillo and Grenache Blanc along with Syrah and Grenache Noir is that we are defining the style and benchmarks as we work with these grapes. There is also the downside, as these wines are often misunderstood by the press who drive sales via their scores. But I like it that way, the successes are all ours, as are the failures. You can't hide behind the masses when you are the only one making Tempranillo.

You recently got onto the wine list at the French Laundry (congrats!), can you tell us how that came about?

We have had our regular bottlings of wine at the French Laundry for several years. That came about naturally as we show our wine to the all of the restaurants in the Valley and beyond. What I think you are referring to is the Premier Auction Lot that the Laundry has purchased from us for two years running. I made a block designated syrah in 2005 from the La Herradura Vineyard called BLOCK ONE that Paul Roberts of the Laundry bought. The 2006 Premier lot is called Le Ferrieur and is a Tete de Cuvee from that vintage. We make a few very special wines each year for charitable events. For the last three years we have participated in the Premier Napa Valley, a barrel auction that is only open to the trade and the press. The wines offered are en primeur/barrel samples of the very best wines made in the valley, special cuvees. The proceeds support the Napa Valley Vintners and our marketing efforts. This is a very different auction than the grand Auction Napa Valley. Basically it is a bake sale for the NVV—albeit a much more lucrative bake sale than most.

Spencer Roloson has gotten a number of 90+ ratings in well known wine magazines, but I'm always fascinated by how wine quality and price are determined. For you what makes a bottle of wine good or great?

Ratings are subjective, but there are better wines than others. Again the vineyard is going to dictate that. The 90+ ratings are key to sell wine in a certain sector of retailers. I don’t like to pitch my wines that way because I think it reduces years of work into a simple score. But who has the time to learn about every vineyard? the scores ease the mind of the consumer who wants to know that that bottle of 90 point wine will go well with their chicken.

Wine is great when the trinity of good food and wine are coupled at the table with good company; when you can decipher the vineyard in the wine, feel its place and taste fruit more than the barrels, with balance, intensity and clarity. That is what I think makes great wine.

So if ratings are subjective, is there truly objective way of evaluating wine? May some sort of chemical analysis?

There are analyses that are evolving daily. They can interpret the architecture of a wine. The new ones go beyond normal wet chemistry, pH-TA-ETOH etc. They offer a look into the building blocks of color, tannin and phenols to give you a snapshot of the developing grapes in the vineyard and the wine in all of its stages from unfermented must to bottle. I use a technology that allows me to interpret very fine gradations in fruit maturity and in wine during the elevage. I use the data to make more informed choices in the field and the winery. It offers me a predictive strategy for each block and resulting wine, giving a slight advantage in a process that only happens once a year.

So where do you come down on the cork vs. screw top debate?

I am particularly fond of cork in spite of its shortcomings. We perform extensive sensory evaluation of our corks to ensure their quality and have seen a marked reduction in TCA taint since we began doing so. I am also a big fan of the glass stoppers that are newly available for closure. Synthetic sucks in every way, screw caps are allright, the glass has a nice feel to it.

I'm always amazed by the limited the selection and high prices of wine in most of the country. How many states is your wine sold in? What challenges have you faced in building your distribution network?

We are in 20 markets and managing that distribution chain is the biggest problem I face. The system as it is with mandated tiers –Producer-Wholesaler-Retailer-- is broken and needs a major overhaul. I am always looking for improved ways to sell directly to my consumer, so we can have more of a conversation.

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Melanie D's picture

I love wine. I can really be eloquent when you give me a good wine. lol.

Random T.'s picture

If you want to see a reader's feedback :) , I rate this post for four from five. Detailed info, but I have to go to that damn yahoo to find the missed pieces. Thank you, anyway!