Brice Jones produces some of the most remarkable Pinot Noir in America right now. But his Emeritus wines aren’t the entirety of the story. Indeed, Jones has been at the center of so much of California’s wine evolution. Brian Freedman spoke with him on the phone and it quickly became apparent that Jones isn’t just a legend of the industry, but also an expert storyteller and a passionate wine-lover to boot.
Brian: You’ve been doing this for so long and you’ve been a part of so many of the important changes that have happened in California wine. Can you give me a little bit of your background?
Brice: Sure. I graduated from the Air Force Academy in the early ‘60s and became a fighter pilot and went to Vietnam for a couple of years. When I came back, the Air Force and I didn’t see eye to eye on my career. I wanted to go back to Vietnam and they wouldn’t send me. So I said, “Well I’m going to bag it.” In the ‘60s I had also gotten very hooked on wine; in my second tour of Vietnam I was working for a general who was running the air war—it was a fascinating assignment— and I did a lot of projects for him. One day over lunch he says to me, “You know that Burgundy is the name of a place?” That’s got to be a load of crap, I thought. It’s a brand of Paul Masson.
Anyway, he said to look it up. So I got home and started reading, and I was really hooked. By the time I was a captain at the end of the ‘60s, I had cellar of about 35 or 40 cases of First Growth ’61 and ’64 Bordeaux. I had a cellar! And as a captain in the Air Force, I was only paying $35 a bottle.
But I wanted to get into business and the Air Force wanted to send me to school in computers. I could see myself in a windowless room in Oklahoma City for a career and I said no. So I got out and went to business school on my own.
Brian: So I know that you were involved in the deal that resulted in the creation of Sonoma-Cutrer, historically one of the most important Chardonnay producers in California. How did that come about?
Brice: It was just vineyards in the beginning, but when I came out here looking for land, all of the good red wine land was gone and of course I wanted to make Cabernet. But it was all bought, so in the end I said, “Well…I better find some land.” I could have gone to Mendocino or Monterey, but I thought that was too risky. So I said, “Well I’ve been out near South Windsor in Sonoma County,” and in those days there was nobody growing the premium varietals.
I went up to UC Davis to learn what grapes I should plant and I was so discouraged when I learned that it should be white wine grapes. Not only that, it should be Chardonnay, and even [though] I was passing myself off as an expert in New York because I could pronounce Beaujolais, I’d never heard of a Chardonnay. But I planted them. When the white wine boom hit, I was sitting there on 600 acres of Chardonnay.
I had this rolling hillside and with the cold climate Chardonnay…boy it was great, but it wasn’t getting the tonnage. So the partner said, “Let’s have a winery.” I replied, “Sure, let’s have a winery.”
While I was doing all that—and we finally broke even in about 1988— by ’91 or ’92 I realized we were established. All those guys that had been the [investors] said, “Well, when do we get our money back?” “What? You want it back?” But long story short, in the end I either had to sell it or go public. I didn’t want to become a public company, so we sold it to Jack Daniels.
But anyway, the same week I was signing the papers over on Friday, on the previous Tuesday Bob Hallberg walked in the office and said, “I’m ready to sell.” I said, “You match any offer,” and it was the last most beautiful piece of land right in the heart of the Red River Valley, where all the Pinot guys are.
People ask me all the time, when are you growing some Chardonnay? I’ve grown a lot of it and I can tell you that you can grow Chardonnay in a parking lot in Fresno, but Pinot Noir requires a very specific set of parameters. Climate is very important. And where we are right there off the Gold Ridge, we get the marine layer that keeps our nights under 50° during the maturation period. That is crucial andallows us to grow great, not just good but great, Pinot Noir in that specific little tiny area. Of course, we have the warm days to sugar them up, but also the cold nights which is exactly what you need.
Brian: Tell me a little bit about the beginnings of Emeritus.
Brice: All right, well in 1986 I’m just getting Sonoma-Cutrer off the ground, and my financial broker was an outfit called Linear Brands, which was Robert Haas. Robert Haas, you might remember, or maybe you don’t, but he and Orson Welles used to tout Paul Masson on television, and Robert Haas is Mr. Burgundy and Orson Welles was something else.
Robert Haas is Mr. Burgundy, and one day he says, “What if we invite a dozen French white wine brand producers from Burgundy to come to Sonoma for a seminar with a dozen Chardonnay guys like Mondavi and Arrowood and all these guys?” And I said, “Would they come?” Yeah, they did and on their own nickel. For a week we held seminars in the mornings and field trips in the afternoons.
We then continued this every four years and in 1990 we did it in Burgundy. And boy when I went to Burgundy I was blown away by how much they knew about winemaking and vineyards after ‘only’ 1300 years at it. See, Bob Mondavi invented premium wine in this country in 1966 and he did it with the introduction of stainless steel, refrigeration, and hygiene. And boy did the French ever need all of that. And so the seminar really began the merging together on both sides of the Atlantic of their methodology with our technology. And when we returned I turned that whole thing inside out and said we’ve been kneeling at the wrong altar here. There’s nothing wrong with [UC] Davis – it’s got stainless steel, it’s got a refrigerator, it’s got hygiene. But it doesn’t have the methodology of the French. So we integrated all of that and we try to with everything we do at Emeritus—everything is in the French method.
Brian: What are some of those methods that you implement?
Brice: Well, first of all in the vineyard we use one-meter by two-meter spacing. We pick at night because we’re under 50 degrees. We get into every tank and push down –we wouldn’t dream of pumping over like the larger guys do. We do still ferment our finest wine in oak fermenters—almost nobody uses oak anymore.
Everything we do is in their methodology. If you go to Burgundy you’ll see a lot of stainless steel, a lot of refrigeration and they have stopped spitting on the floor when they taste and stopped pouring the wine from the glass back into the barrel. They’ve taken into consideration all of that hygiene and they needed it.
Brian: So has the quality of Burgundy increased over the years since they’ve been implemented?
Brice: Absolutely. What’s happened is that up until about the early ‘80s they had no competition at all. As a result they were all over-cropping the hell out of their vineyards. Which is why we’re used to seeing [in] their vineyards that they’d plant some Pinot Gris or they’d plant some Syrah. Pinot Gris was used to give the Burgundy a little aroma and the Syrah to give it some color.
Brian: I tasted both of the 2012 Emeritus Pinots. Talk to me a little bit about how you came to that style. Is that what the land is giving you? Is that what your microclimate is giving you? How much of that is what you’re doing, how much of that is conscious viticulture and winemaking, and how much of that is just what the wine gods have given you with your fruit?
Brice: For Pinot Noir, it is artistry. I’ve made a lot of Chardonnay – it’s very formulaic and I always say Cabernet can be made by America’s first astronaut. Pinot is the monkey, it requires artistry.
In the mid-‘90s, this guy comes in one day and says, “Hey guys, I want to show you some land out at the coast.” So we get in our trucks and drive out there at 20 miles an hour for an hour and half. Seven miles into it, I was not very interested… The French have a saying. It’s something I’ve heard many times and the guys will tell you this all the time: If you can see the ocean from your vineyard, you cannot make great wine. Of course it makes good sense, people like the ocean because it offers a moderate daytime and nighttime warmth.
Well, grapes need a warmer day and a cold night. So if you can see the ocean and you’re getting a warm night, especially with not enough daytime heat to mature the fruit. Even today, this vineyard out there comes in three weeks later than our normal stuff. But anyway, I went up there to look at this and we did not see the ocean because it’s in the coastal range and we had another mountain between us and the ocean. We’re seven miles inland at 900 feet of elevation above the fog layer. What we get is warm days and cool nights.
So I said, “Well this a beautiful vineyard. It’s going to make someone a beautiful 40-acre vineyard, but it ain’t going to be Sonoma-Cutrer.” By then we had 1,000 acres and I wasn’t about to set up a remote farming station on the dark side of the moon for 30 or 40 acres.
But in the end I bought it for my oldest son. He was smart as a whip but had dropped out of school at 16, so if things went south he could always come and live on it. That was the intent.
Brian: Tell me a little bit about the difference between the Wesley and the Hallberg wines.
Brice: William Wesley is partially dry farmed and partially not because it is 900 feet in elevation at about a 20-25% slope. Where the slope is steeper there is not enough topsoil to let the vine’s roots grow down deep enough so we still have to irrigate parts of the William Wesley. We’re not getting as much character from the soil and we are getting a different personality from the climate because of the cooler day times and the longer growing periods. We get more maturation period, so in a way the wine is more feminine.
The Hallberg on the other hand is now fully dry farmed and I think you get that full impact of the terroir such as the soil. I think it’s got plenty of cojones and the characters shine through here.
Brian: That was a fascinating exercise, tasting them side-by-side, because they are such wines of place. It was eye-opening while I was tasting them, however, I just kept on going back and making sure that I read the prices correctly. They seem so reasonable for the quality of the wines!
Brian: One last question for you: Do you still have any of those cases of ’61 [Bordeaux] laying around in your cellar, or are they all gone?
Brice: Well, you know here’s a good life lesson that I give to people now and then, especially my kids. My oldest son was born in ’82 and he’s got a cellar full of 82’s that he just won’t sell. But I’ll get him to move I think because nothing lasts forever. I used to be in some tasting circles and they’d pull out a 1914 and everybody’s comment is always, “Wow, this is really good for its age.”