Meet Phil Stice
It’s 5 o’clock on the first Friday of January, and Phil Stice is in his element, hosting a wine tasting at Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens, GA. He does events like these from time to time in Athens, where he lives, and Atlanta, where he earns most of his living. Uncorked tonight are some of the hippest new wines to come out of California, establishment-defying Chardonnays and Grenache blends that are setting new standards for what California wine is and what a California winemaker can or should be. Unbeknownst to most of the Athens retirees, University-affiliated yuppies, and young, pretty service industry professionals scattered about the bar, Phil Stice is not only a wine taster and the chief sales representative for a small boutique company called Specialty Wines, but he is also a winemaker himself. He’s spent significant time in farms and cellars and released his first wines earlier this year. So while “Dr. Phil,” as he is sometimes affectionately known, simply charms the small seafood establishment’s patrons and educates them on the nuances of the nouveau Cali juice at their fingertips, he’s also part of the story of what’s changing in California, and an example of the way these changes are helping make American wine more interesting, delicious, occasionally cheap and definitely cool.
Stice is good-looking, with clear blue eyes, short wavy hair and an easy smile. He’s quietly confident and possessed with an impeccable palate. He’s also culturally ambidextrous, as easily at home in a crowded bar watching a soccer match as he might be in a high-level wine grape biogenetics lecture in the oenology program at the University of California at Davis. He came to the wine business honestly, if not directly. Raised in Athens, Georgia, he attended both the local public high school and the local public University, where his father is a Ph.D. in the Animal Dairy Science Department. Two cousins, however, are winemakers in California (one at Caymus in Napa and the other at Bohème in Sebastopol, California, near the Russian River Valley). While Stice started out pre-med with a biology major in college, he eventually tacked on a horticulture minor and finished college while doing a Maymester in Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Georgia’s campus in Tuscany. After that experience, he left his medical dreams behind and turned his sights to the California side of the family business. The only “Dr.” in his name may be the one Athens has given him.
First he went to work locally at Tiger Mountain Vineyards in North Georgia, just around the corner from Goats on the Roof on Highway 441 near the North Carolina border. In the fields with iPhone buds in his ears, hedging and thinning the grapevines, then harvesting the grapes, then diving into the cellar work of fermentation and aging, Dr. Phil learned the process from the earth up and back down again. That same year his cousin hired him on at Caymus. There, he learned the work ethic of a vineyard field crew, farming alongside the locals from dawn to dusk. He also had the pleasure of a work trip to Mendoza, Argentina to see first-hand a wine operation south of the border. With a solid foundation in the field, he came back to Georgia. Working at a boutique wine shop in Atlanta, he sharpened his palate on the bottles of white Burgundy brought in from the generous clientele’s home cellars for Friday tastings. Then he set out again for the west coast, interning at Rhys Vineyards in a California wine American Viticultural Area (AVA) called the Santa Cruz mountains, where he spent more time in the cellar learning the chemistry of winemaking. This time when he came back, he established the Stice Wine Company.
The Changing Model for California Wine
In theory, there are two sorts of models for how California wine has always been made. The first is the estate model, which is largely the model we think of when we think of Napa Valley: the huge, ornate mansions (and Cabernets and Chardonnays to match them) with rolling, winding hillsides of beautiful vines and paths and irrigation systems, in-house farming operations that operate like clockwork, big tasting rooms and 5-star restaurants. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the grower model — the small, back-to-the-or-never-left-the-land farmers who grow grapes alongside chickens and goats and oranges and make wine with it themselves, day after day, year after year. While both tales have their basis in fact, the truth, it seems, is a little cloudier, more interesting and in some ways more troubling.
For example, there are many people and families and farmers in California who have grown grapes for decades and never made a single bottle of wine. They sell the grapes in a variety of ways, either through established contracts with estates or other producers, or through the help of the “grape broker,” who lines up potential buyers, especially for fruit that is unaccounted for toward the end of a harvest. More likely, these growers turn to what Jon Bonné, author of “The New California Wine,” calls the “Big Three:” Gallo, Constellation Wines and the Wine Group. These big California companies are responsible for producing two out of every three bottles of California wine. The five biggest producers after the “Big Three” account for another 20% of California wine (these are names you’ve heard of: Two Buck Chuck, Sutter Home, Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, etc). Together that’s over 80% of the wine being made in California. What’s interesting (or troubling) is that these companies don’t necessarily own all of the land or fruit that 80% of the state’s wine is being made from, but they find a way to access it, and often, to control its production and distribution (and revenue). Even in situations where landed California estates or small, sustainable producers own some of the land or fruit and produce some wine from it on their own, they just can’t compete with the low-cost production of the “Big Three” or the skyrocketing property value of the wine industry it created. What’s more, according to Bonné, the “Big Three” and the other major grocery store brands often don’t have anything to do with farming most of the juice that goes into the bottles you drink — they buy mass-produced grapes from the Central Valley to use for their cheap labels. This stuff comes from vineyards who go heavy on herbicides, insecticides, irrigation, nitrogen and steroids, essentially overproducing their fruit by overstuffing the soil and then packaging the juice up and shipping it out like a truck full of chickens bound for the plant. There’s no time for hands-on farming or winemaking decisions, only a guaranteed profit and a need for more chemicals the next year.
Meanwhile, the remaining 20% of California’s wine is being produced by winemakers and farmers who’ve fought long and hard to buy land, or lease land to grow grapes, or purchase small batches of grapes through brokers to make wines that no one has heard of, unless you’ve gone looking for them. These farmers and winemakers are attached to the land, even if it’s not their land; they are attached to a sense of place and the special kind of wine it can produce, even without maximizing its yield with irrigation or pesticide; they are attached to idea that California wine has something more interesting and more rewarding and perhaps even more sustainable to offer than Two Buck Chuck (full disclaimer: as a cheap graduate student, I bought dozens of bottles of Charles Shaw at Trader Joe’s and drank them enjoyably and without remorse). But when you have the pleasure of spending wine time with Dr. Phil, who quietly yet charismatically and humbly claims that there is something out there that’s a little better, that isn’t necessarily more expensive, that tells a story of its own, that looks past the “Big Three” without attempting a revolution, that focuses simply on making good wine, while empowering the people and noticing the places that do it, why not dig a little deeper, learn a few new things, venture out and take a chance? After all, it only involves drinking more wine.
Phil Stice Makes a Chardonnay
Fortunately for Phil, his family had a built in love for wine and his cousin Kurt at Bohème was the perfect guy to lean on when it came to making wine. Kurt leases approximately 20 acres of land over three vineyard sites and is somewhat of a testament to the ways the wine business is changing in California, charting a different path between or outside of the mythical estate and grower models. Perhaps because of this, Kurt is adamant that the business side of winemaking must be viable: “there are serious costs to managing the entire process of making wine from start to finish, not to mention the extreme overhead just to lease vineyards to farm and harvest grapes”. For Kurt, running a good business is part of the sustainability project, which is part of why he resists the popular trend to get organic certification or turn fully biodynamic. The organic and especially biodynamic aspect of farming can be very expensive and can result in huge losses of grape product if the weather turns nasty or unpredictable, which in California, it does. The key at Bohème has been to follow organic practices and farm over 90% of the vineyards organically but without the certification, reserving the option to spray or adjust where necessary to keep the crop — and the business — alive. Kurt calls it an “organic, yet practical” business approach to reaching the same shared goal: good, quality, clean wine. This practice is also quite common in the Old World, where farming has been largely “organic” for generations without seeking a label or jumping through the necessary time and financial hoops to get the certification. Stice learned to respect these time-honored styles during his wine-shop time in Atlanta, with his boutique distributor, Specialty Wines, and, of course, in the field and cellar with his cousins. With this vision of straddling the New and Old Worlds, Phil set out to make a classic, Burgundian-style Chardonnay with California grapes: full-flavored but not heavy, with acid and fruit and body — a wine, if it met its goal, of “weightless power.”
Kurt offered Phil a facility he could use to make the wine, but first he had to find grapes. He knew he would probably be working with the popular “Wente” Chardonnay clone largely used in California, but he didn’t want just any grapes. He wanted the best grapes possible, from the best site possible, with the opportunity to establish a direct relationship with the farmers and farming practices that would determine the core of his product. One of the things that Stice and every other aficionado stresses about wine is nothing new to the wine world: terroir. The word doesn’t have an easy English translation because it incorporates a slew of things that relate to where and how a grape is grown, as well as what is done with the grape once it’s harvested to maintain these characteristics. It refers to the soil type and quality at a particular vineyard site, the weather patterns both daily and seasonally, and the farming techniques used (which could include the type of herbicides or pesticides or nitrogen used or the lack thereof, as well as other organic methods of preventing disease). It can even refer to a winemaker’s choice of which grape varieties to grow or seek out, given weather and farming techniques, or when to harvest certain grapes during a particular season. All of these intricacies are at the forefront of what Stice wants to know about a particular wine that he is selling for his job with Specialty, and so, of course, they transferred over to a particular wine that he was interested in making himself. At last, on a hunch from his cousin, Stice found a patch of “Rued” clone grapes, a Wente subtype of the Chardonnay grape, that were available through the Mengle Vineyard and largely contracted and farmed by a prestigious and independent Russian River Valley farming family. Through the help of a grape broker, Stice was able to procure a part of the harvest for his first wine. In essence, these were grapes that had made great wine before, and he felt good about the way they were farmed, the people and the place, the terroir. The Rued subtype also provided a little extra depth since it is often known for its aromatics and full body, one step closer to the desired “weightless power.”
He bought the grapes and set to work at Kurt’s facility. First, they gently pressed the grapes in a “bladder” press, rested it 24 hours to settle any remaining solids (the so-called “heavy lees”) and fed the juice into four barrels he had hand-picked from the cooperage Francois Freres, barrels he’d worked with at Rhys Winery. These barrels were toasted, providing a warmer oak flavor, a “graham cracker thing”. He wanted a long, slow, cold fermentation as is often done in Burgundy. He also chose a unique fermentation process, using lab yeasts on two of the barrels, while letting the other two barrels ferment spontaneously with indigenous yeast, another Old World technique. The first two barrels took two weeks to ferment, while the indigenous yeasts slowly worked their magic over the next six months. Throughout fermentation, Stice and his cousin turned the barrels and stirred the lees in each of them (lees are the byproducts of yeast fermenting grape juice into alcohol that can add texture to wine that ages on them). After fermentation, in classic Burgundian-style, Phil put the Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, converting malic acid, a tarter flavor, into lactic acid, a smoother acid, enhanced by the byproduct of diacetyl, a compound that imparts a buttery flavor to the wine (this buttery flavor is one facet of what can often set Chardonnay apart from other white wine varietals, especially in California). After this secondary, malolactic fermentation, Phil aged the wine in oak barrels for one year at cellar temperature (~65 degrees). Then, before bottling, he moved the wine (called “racking”) into a tank for cold-stabilization to further avoid contamination and to begin mellowing the wine (cooler temperatures tend to do this while warmer temperatures can reactivate yeasts or encourage bacteria). Finally, after another trip to California where Phil and Kurt did what they claim was officially called “trailer-cowboy bottling” (literally, a trailer that they rented with a bottling line on board), Stice’s first wine was in bottle and ready to age. After a year in bottle, he hosted his first release party at Seabear Oyster Bar in April 2017.
A Georgia Boy in Fine Californian Company
Stice is far from the first person to seek out such these particular characteristics and processes when making wine. The basic grape crushing and fermentation process is almost standard. The hands-off approach in the cellar is a little less common. Many wines, including many in California, are ripened as long as possible to create as much sugar as possible, which then translates into higher alcohol levels. Higher fermentation temperatures or certain strains of lab yeast can also do the same. But there is a growing trend that Dr. Phil has tapped into toward a new sort of California wine, that echoes some of the long held practices of the Old World, but in a California-way. Stice sells some of these wines in his work for Speciality, notably Kenny Likitprakong of the Hobo and Folk Machine wine labels, Ian Brand of the L’Ptit Paysan and La Marea labels, Steve and Jill Matthiasson from the Matthiasson label, and, of course, his cousin Kurt at Bohème. These winemakers are all part of the California wine world and a trend away from what that has meant for the past 25 years. They’ve each started making wine in a very small way, without owning vineyards, without owning winemaking facilities and without a huge amount of expendable capital. They either farm their own grapes, consult on how grapes are grown, or have direct relationships with the farmers who grow for them and the vineyard sites where they are grown. They’ve been focused on making terroir-focused wines, using varieties that grow well in the places where they choose to get their fruit, rather than picking any desired varieties and forcing it into a climate that doesn’t suit it. These people embrace the unique qualities of California terroir without trying to "fix" it with drastic irrigation, changing the soil or drenching the vines in chemicals.
Each of these new California winemakers is also unique in some ways. Kenny Likitprakong started out as “gypsy” winemaker, making wine however and with whatever he could get his hands on, in co-ops with leftover fruit, traveling extensively to learn and taste and try new methods, but now he has his own winemaking facility and four or five labels that he supports with it. Kenny’s Folk Machine and Hobo wine labels have also focused on making affordable table wines, outside of the mainstream of big Napa and Sonoma wine houses and with an aesthetic to a younger, hipper generation of sippers. The Matthiasson family is more focused on organic farming practices with the ideal farm being a completely sustainable organism (not biodynamic or “natural” but sustainable), complete with cover crops nourishing the soil, restrained irrigation strengthening the vines, and the use of unorthodox grape varieties that suit the Napa climate. Steve Matthiasson literally wrote the book on sustainable viticulture in California and still consults for a myriad of farmers and winemakers implementing organic and plant focused farming practices. Ian Brand at P’tit Paysan is apparently obsessive about soil type and quality and goes to great lengths to find the wildest, most unconventional vineyard sites specifically because of their soil quality. This sometimes leads to wine grown in gravelly and granite heavy soils, for example, and creates wine that tastes fun and different while remaining true to place. Most recently, he released a unique and exceptional California Albariño — traditionally a Spanish seafood white — on his La Marea label from a coastal Monterey vineyard whose soil is composed of sedimentary rock and calcium-rich shale (it’s amazing). Phil’s cousin Kurt likes to be hands-on with his land and leases. Bohème’s wines are mostly farmed by Kurt himself. He goes to great lengths to knows his vineyard sites well, paying close attention to the weather and growth in each one, and uses painstaking traditional techniques to trim each individual vine in each vineyard he farms. He also maintains close community relationships with other long-time farmers in the area, making wine from other vineyard sites that he leases from them, and, as we know, occasionally finding fruit for our friend Dr. Phil to ferment.
However different these people and wines may be, there is a unique desire to make something both new and normal in their products, something out of the California mainstream but not overtly strange or weird, just good. Not an over-ripened or over-extracted Pinot Noir or Cabernet, or an over-oaked Chardonnay, but aromatic and flavorful wines with individual expression reflective of the terroir that grew them. There is a more nuanced and particular, yet simpler approach to every part of the process. This new approach is a shared creation and vision ofthese new California wine folks alike, normalizing an emphasis on a more vibrant sense of place and a cleaner, more sustainable wine flavor. All of this while focusing simply on each vine and each grape and each wine that comes from them and either intentionally or inadvertently keeping the “Big Three” out of the equation. Now Dr. Phil earns his place among them.
Story by Hunt Revell
Photographs by Paige French