So it was, at least on my part, with a little trepidation that we entered the tasting room of Davis Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. I already knew the wine was world-class, always taking home double-gold, gold and silver from the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Rodeo Wine Competition, etc. On top of that, we already had willingly stocked our wine fridge with as much as we could afford at the time. And of course, I sell it to any customer I can convince at my day job.
If anything, I was nervous that the experience wouldn’t live up to the hype. Thankfully, it was quite the opposite.
It's not just that the wine was mind-blowingly great. Even barring what I knew from tastings at work, the upcoming releases I was privileged to get a first taste of were nothing short of incredible and a full review of my tasting will be available next week.
But what will always stick in my memory, for what I hope is many years to come, is when owner Guy Davis came down from whatever business he had been working on to shake mine and Jenny’s hand, sit down, pour us all extra glasses and have a conversation with us.
Not just standard salesmen B.S., mind you: a conversation. He spoke to us and answered questions with real passion about his techniques, his history and the philosophy behind what is surely some of the best all-around juice you can find. Maybe it was the copious wine we already had, but I was nothing short of enamored in and of this world he had spent 20 years creating.
On top of that, he was incredibly personable, funny, charming, well-informed and very unguarded. He has a gift that I’ve never mastered and always envied: talking to someone as if they’re a friend you already know you’re going to make.
Heading back to our flight out of San Francisco with 2 bottles he generously autographed for us, we were ecstatic that the experience had both met and surpassed the hype.
Cut to a month and a half later, I walk into Houston Wine Merchant as a newly-minted wine journalist for an interview with Guy. I approached the counter where he and his wife, Judy, are conducting a tasting for a crowd with very similarly gob-smacked looks on their face to mine just 6 weeks prior. While I stood to the side, not really sure how to broach the subject, Guy glances over my way and with a friendly smile of recognition comes over and shakes my hand, welcomes me back, introduces his wife and pours me a glass of Cuvee Luke (his version of White Rhone, named for his grandson) before I even know what happened. Then we had another conversation.
Once again, I was entranced. Here’s a little of the time I spent in that world.
Tom Santos: Having read your history, I saw you started in the service industry. What position did you work?
Guy Davis: I was in the kitchen. I was just so fortunate when I was 19 years old to answer a wanted ad by these 2 crazy Frenchmen who had moved directly from a Parisian neighborhood bistro. He had fallen in love with a woman from Seattle who had spent some time in Paris; they got married and he grabbed his parents’ sous-chef, moved to the States and opened up a restaurant.
TS: Did you ever work front of the house?
Guy: I did, but after I moved onto management, maybe 4 years later. But I was mainly front, and I would go to school during the day, work 4-12 pm and at the end of the evening sit down for family meal and a glass of wine.
They assumed, and we’re talking 1979 when wine and food wasn’t what it was in the US now, that we’d be a little more like his neighborhood bistro and be more like what he had seen in 5 generations in Paris. (laughs) And it just wasn’t. There was a lot of open discussion about how things needed to be retooled, so we were always tasting new wines to find the best mix for the wine list. He still held firm that it should be all French. But I was fortunate enough to be in on all the discussions at the dinner table of what would work and what to shift to make this happen.
So I had this moment, I remember it well, about a month in: back then, to me, it all smelled like red wine. One night, they were looking for Loire Valley red and were tasting two Chinon Cab Francs. They were having a discussion about one being too herbaceous for the US market, despite being a better wine. The other, simpler one, which was a tart red fruit, they thought would be better for the restaurant.
I picked the two glasses up and I remember that I could smell bell peppers in one and the other was a tight cherry. From that moment on, I remembered every night at family meal that I had to smell what was in each wine and I was just hooked.
After a couple years, the owner and his wife had a baby and she was at home. She’d normally hostess at lunch and he’d normally maitre’d at night and pushed that all the way up til service. After I’d gained his confidence - our palates aligned a lot - it started with him calling me from home and saying “Hey, a wine rep will be in at one, I won’t be in til later. We’re looking for a white at this price, something from Rhone that’s reasonable. If it’s there, have them pour me samples.” Over time, it evolved to the purveyors just contacting me directly. After that, at around 21 is when I started just buying all the wines for the list when I left.
Tom: This wasn’t your original career plan, right?
Guy: I was pursuing a degree in economics to be a stockbroker, I thought, and leave the restaurant business. But it turned out while I loved the relationships I was building, I didn’t like talking about money all day, every day. So I took what I learned about economics and overlaid to the wine industry. I found a partner and started a company where I could sell product from small-family wineries, from the US and abroad, directly to the top collectors. It turns out the people who I’d call about stocks and bonds were also the kind of people who traveled abroad to collect wine. So that takes place, and it helped lead people to discover the wineries and to help these families have an outlet. This is, again, the 80’s when small wineries couldn’t get attention from the distributors.
So I started working in the vineyards, and my very first experience was working for Sky Vineyard in Napa with organically farmed Old Vine Zinfandel. Judy and I became close friends with them and would go help them. We were selling their wine, so it was originally to help learn to better tell their story, but that’s when I became hooked with the growing process.
That’s when I started working harvests for whoever and wherever I could, all over the world, and I went back to UC Davis to study fermentation science and viticulture and set the goal (to be a winemaker), which my wife was great enough to let me pursue.
We started looking together, originally for Russian River Pinot, something we thought had this future... We looked for an old apple orchard or something we could both afford. We had both worked through school in the restaurant business and didn’t come from money, but we both really wanted to put our heart and soul into producing great artisan wines. All the people we had worked for had farmed organically, and we had this vision of creating something special.
So we came across this old Zinfandel vineyard that had been neglected for 20-plus years, and it was quite a project. Included in that was a house in extreme disrepair, but we got our foot in our door and it was the perfect exposure for Pinot Noir: east-facing slope, good morning sun, no harsh afternoon sun. So we cleared that ourselves, plant it, and were fortunate enough to a block of Old Vine Zin that had somehow survived. We nurtured it back into production and got a little extra gift for our hard work and now we continue Zinfandel with 118 year-old vines.
So that's how we got from restaurants all the way to today!
TS: Awesome! You answered about half my questions already! (laughs) So, do you prefer your wine drunk at home or out and about on the town?
Guy: Wow, that’s a… Hmm. I think as long as there’s friends and family around the table, that anything is great. For us just to have a little piece of people’s heartfelt celebrations, whether it’s just Wednesday night and the day is over or grander celebrations of life, is pretty great.
Wine adds such an essential piece to everything and it just brings people together, it softens the soul and lets conversations begin that might not otherwise and really, it just lets emotions flow and lets friendships grow deeper.
So if there’s time for that out and about, that works too, but it seems that home around the table with friends and family is when it really shines.
Tom: Getting back to something we discussed earlier, you can pretty clearly see that there’s a lot of French influence in your wine. Why French, considering the presence of Spanish or Italian and in both Valleys? Is it a personal choice?
Guy: It’s… You’re right; it’s so internationally focused in both areas because it is all about wine on the table. I’m glad to hear you say that, because it’s that influence of family meal at the restaurant. For the first two years I drank wine, this was just something that came to me… for two years, every glass I had drunk was with my family meal before I ever really bought anything just to drink on its own.
They’re (the wines) very focused on being that thing that not necessarily has to be with food, but always enhanced what food they’re with and are enhanced by food as well. So it’s definitely the exposure I had at the restaurant.
Tom: Your operation is a little smaller scale than most others. It almost seems deliberate at this point. Is there any particular reason you choose to stay small? Or is the nature of the vineyard you picked?
Guy: No, the business is the size that it is by design. We set a target for about 5000 cases a year and 2/3rds of that is grown from my own property. 5000 cases and about 200 barrels is the number my oldest son Cole, our cellarmaster and assistant winemaker, and I feel that we can manage for quality. At a size larger than that, you don’t get to be as hands on, knowing everything vine to bottle. I’m not saying that those wineries that don't do that don’t make good wines in many vintages, but for us to know everything in the barrel at the end of each month allows to really know everything so there are no surprises. It lets us take that artisan approach to crafting each of the blends and there’s never a "recipe" approach every three months.
Coincidentally, to do that financially, we sell about 70% of our wine to people directly and the other 30% we sprinkle around in only 6 states, to the top restaurant/food cities in the country. But we really don't do broad market wine. In selling direct to the people who drink it, it allows us financially to stay this size.
Tom: What makes you happier personally: caretaking of the grapes or the actual winemaking itself?
Guy: Oh, I think the best part of what I get to do is that the fact that I get to close that circle by doing some of each. I really would never want to just grow grapes, although that part has my heart. So does being with my son in the cellar and then when we’re at wine dinners, like we’ve done this week. So for me to take it from the soil to white tablecloth or friends/family, doing each and every piece is really the thrill for me.
Tom: What’s a good learning experience that you’ve had in your career?
Guy: You know, one vintage 10 years ago, I purchased some fruit from a vineyard that I thought was an amazing site and… the fruit when it got near harvest on one side – the vineyard ran east and west – being in the Northern Hemisphere, just like your house, the north side is always shady.
At the end of the season, when you’re always trying to figure out the perfect day to pick, the south side of the canopy was ready to go and the north side was still wanting about 2 or 3 weeks to reach its maturity and the tannins and for the balance of sugar and acid to be in the right place. So I struggled with how to make the decision to not bring something in that wasn’t ripe - half the fruit - or waiting for that and have the south side be overripe. So I had to go and actually paid the grower extra to pick one side of the canopy and then the other half in a few weeks. But still, it’s not that an exact science and there were still clusters that were… I learned for that for our style of winemaking, that’s more about balance and complexity, I will not work in vineyard with east-west rows. North-south vine rows are what we’ll work with.
Similarly, with Pinot Noir, I’ll also only work with east-facing slopes that have that gentler morning sun versus the harsher afternoon sun.
Tom: Why did you completely switch to Sonoma from Napa?
Guy: Well, I love Cabernet Sauvignon and I’ve made Cab for 15 years in Napa Valley and I made some really nice wines, but I found the biggest thing I was trying to accomplish every year is restraining the fruit and smothering the complexity, so I was constantly trying to keep the wine varietally expressive of Cab and not just turning it into a jammy red wine. Although it was attainable, I wasn’t able to have as much passion for that wine as I did all the others.
So at a certain point, just watching the people who came in to purchase Napa property from some of these growers having to overpay because they came from elsewhere, they immediately wanted to recoup their investment by driving the price through the roof. And the thing for me is that I want my wines to be available to everyone.
I want my wines to be drunk by people who might drink $15-20 bottles on a regular basis and our $40 might be special occasion wines, or for people who drink ’61 Haut-Brion on their special occasions, we can be their everyday wine. Because we farm organically, we keep our wines at that price, and I don’t want to cut corners. Other than that, I want them to be drunk and to make to wine lists for $100 or less. I know people for whom that’s a barrier, and I want my wine to be accessible.
So between the expression of the varietal character of Cabernet and the expression of that grape in Northern California and wanting to keep it a certain price, that made the decision simple once I really sat and thought about it. Now I have found 1500-foot elevation vineyard that puts us right in that spot of beautiful balance for it.
Tom: Why sustainable/organic farming? What effect does it have on the grapes?.
Guy: Well, definitely the first people I touched on the producer side were farming organically and I had an understanding for minimal impact and looking at the soil as the first living thing in the process.
Once you start to approach it as the vine not being the first living thing, but the soils, wine becomes an expression of place. That’s why in France they don’t even put the varietal on the wines, put rather the village it comes from. And the more we work with individual vineyards, with the different Pinot Noir designates*, each one being a expression of place, you learn that the more it can reflect that, the more pure the wine is.
So because the site and soil it comes from is so important, it… affects the wine quality and not always better and worse, but definitely most expressively. Then my kids went to a Waldorf biodynamic farm school and I learned from them and being around the school how important these elements were and in my heart I now knew why and it’s been such an easy choice.
Things like native yeast fermentation, where we don’t put cultured strains in and we get much more even long, fermentations and more expressive aromatics because those strains go hotter faster... All those things go back to native yeast. And it’s healthier because I don’t use pesticides or insecticides, so it’s all about the best expression of the site.
Not to mention this property will pass to my children, so weedkiller and things I wouldn’t put in the soil has… it’s become an easy choice.
*Davis Family produces 3 different Pinot Noirs from different sites in their vineyard, each very different than the other
Tom: What do you want for the future of Davis Family Vineyards?
Guy: My oldest son for 7 years has been assistant winemaker, cellarmaster and our youngest is a junior at Sonoma State studying Business and has the personality of telling stories, making friends and really running the marketing side.
My only goal is to hand off the most healthy company I can and to pass on what I’ve learned so they can take things even beyond where we’re at.
For more information or to order their wine, visit davisfamilyvineyards.com or contact them toll-free at 1-866-338-9463.
I hope you enjoyed our conversation. I know I did, and I look forward to more.