Chris Phelps is a lucky man, and the name of his winery is a reminder for him to live life to the fullest. “Ad Vivum” is a mashup of several Latin words: “Ad,” which means “towards,” “Vivere” meaning “to live,” and “Vinum,” which means “wine” — “to life and wine.” It was inspired by a near-death experience in which Chris was struck by lightning in the Sierra Nevadas. Thanks to the quick actions of those around him, Chris lived to tell the tale, but the event changed his life, inspiring him to create a winery of his own after many years working in Napa.
Chris’ road to becoming a winemaker started in his family home in California’s Livermore Valley, where his parents were avid amateur winemakers. Watching them make Zinfandel and Cabernet for friends and family instilled in Chris a love of wine and the winemaking process.
Later on, while enrolled in medical school at UC Davis, Chris gave way to his true passion and switched to the enology and viticulture program there. Chris’ time at UC Davis lead him to an internship at Louis Martini, and then to the Bordeaux University Institute of Enology. There he met Christian Moueix, whose family owns the famed Château Petrus, in Pomerol. Chris got a huge break when Moueix offered him the opportunity to manage the harvest at Château des Laurets in the Right Bank region of Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion. There he met Jean-Claude Berrouet — winemaker at Petrus for 44 years. The two formed a strong bond, and Berrouet became a mentor to Chris from that point on.
After his time in Bordeaux, Chris returned to California to take over as winemaker at Dominus, another estate owned by the Moueix family. Chris stayed there for 12 years, followed by seven at Caymus, and 12 more as winemaker at Swanson. There was no denying his talent and experience, but taking the leap of faith to start his own winery still didn’t feel like it was in the cards for Chris. “I thought about doing something on my own, but had four kids and it just never seemed like the right time to take the risk,” he told me.
That began to change in 1990, when Chris met Larry Bettinelli while on a spiritual retreat. Though they spent time together there, they never really talked about their professions. “After all, our profession is not who we are,” Chris added. Fortunately, they bumped into each other a short time later and found they had much more in common.
Larry is a fifth-generation Napa farmer. His family home and farm, just off Highway 29, became Robert Pepi Winery and is now the home of Cardinale. At the time when he met Chris, Larry was frustrated that all of his grapes were going into large, commercial-scale winery blends. While he got paid OK, it wasn’t enough to really re-invest in the vineyards, and there was no feedback about or recognition for the quality of the grapes. Hoping to change that, Larry offered Chris a couple of barrels worth of grapes to do some experimenting on. He thought Chris might be able to give him some guidance on tweaking the vineyard and improving quality after working with the grapes.
Initially, it was just tiny lots — home-winemaking, really. But eventually they got larger, shifting to the back room of Caymus during Chris’ stint there. Shortly after, Swanson became their first legitimate client. All the while, Larry was tweaking the vineyards and improving quality — he even designed a specific trellis system for his Sleeping Lady Vineyard to allow for perfect exposure and air circulation. On the day I was there you could see it perfectly — dappled sunlight, gently filtered through the canopy, shone beautifully on the ground.
In 2007, two years after being struck by lightning and living to tell the tale, Chris reached a turning point. While standing over the fermenting tank of a tiny micro-block section of grapes from the western edge of the Sleeping Lady Vineyard, Chris was nearly blown away by the aromatics of the must. He called Larry, and asked to buy the lot, an unusual request, but the friends worked it out and the first vintage of Ad Vivum was born. As Chris said to me, “I’m not God’s gift to Napa Cabernet Sauvignon or anything, but I have worked with the stuff for most of my life and I think I am at least a pretty good judge of when I sense something special.”
Chris was certainly on to something, and the winery’s continued success is a testament to his good judgement. He attributes the characteristics he loves from the tiny micro-block to the clonal selection (typically 100% 191, though in 2013, because of the short crop, 14% was Clone 7), and to the unique soils.
Chris’ winemaking is straightforward: “I don’t add anything — and it’s not sweet,” he told me. Hand-sorting occurs once in the vineyard and again at the winery, gentle de-stemming, cold soak for 4-6 days or so, depending on the vintage, at about 50°F. Then it’s on the skins for 4-5 weeks, free run goes to barrels (50-65% new, vintage-dependent) for 18 months, and the wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. When asked about how he makes the wine, Chris answers, “I can’t say what I do that makes the wine both somewhat upfront and accessible, and yet also built to age.” Chris likes to use the saying, “It’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do,” to guide him in his winemaking.
My take is that his time in Bordeaux under the tutelage of Jean-Claude Berrouet, and his time at Dominus, seem to have infused his wines with elegance, charm, precision, and balance, while also capturing their essential California origins. About 10 barrels per year is all there is, although Chris is contemplating another parcel of vines for an altogether different red blend. Here’s hoping! Meanwhile, there is a terrific trio of wines in the bank with his compelling 2012, 2013, and 2014 vintages. “Ad Vivum” indeed.