There is no I in Team: Interview with Seth Chambers, Winemaker at Winery at La Grange

There is no I in TEAM.  While that’s quite the cliché, that’s the approach to business at the Winery at La Grange.  Winemaker Seth Chambers emphasized that over and over throughout our interview, that everything about his practice and about the approach to making it a great day for customers at La Grange relies on a good team approach between the growing, winemaking and tasting room teams.

Seth Chambers PV

Seth came to winemaking through a summer job (it seems like that is a theme here in my interviews).  While visiting his parents in Manassas during his summer break from Penn State, where he was studying AstroPhysics, Seth took a job with Chris Pearmund, the only paying job in a vineyard he could find.  He made the decision to change from astrophysics toward organic chemistry, and this summer job was a great fit. Once he graduated, he moved back to Virginia and got right to work at Philip Carter Winery in 2008 as “assistant” winemaker, working directly with consultant Matthieu Finot.  That work plus his studies in organic chemistry laid the foundation for his future winemaking.

What Seth really learned in his time with Finot was the French tradition of low-intervention winemaking.  “The more I fuss with it, the more it has the chance to degrade. If there is something that needs to be addressed, he intervenes.”  Keeping it at this minimalist perspective, he is able to let the wine develop, and monitor it for quality. “Wine is a food, it can be overprocessed.”  He chooses to focus on critical control points – when you pick, cleaning the fruit and the equipment, and thus avoid problems later in the winemaking process.  

After his two years making wine for Phillip Carter Winery, he went back to work for Chris Pearmund at Winery at La Grange, and also making wine for Chris’ other two wineries, as part of a team.  At this point, he took a lot of his direction from Chris in regards to the winemaking process. It was also at this point that he made the decision to pursue his degree in Oenology through a distance learning program at Washington State.  This was a two-year program that he could get through while working for Pearmund. He chose oenology over viticulture because his focus was really on the cellar, and growing grapes in Washington didn’t really apply to how one would farm grapes in Virginia.  He wanted to learn how to take high quality fruit and make great wine with it. Washington was also becoming very well known for making quality wines that rivaled California, but the schooling was not as expensive as California schools. This coursework also allowed him to do networking that would inform his future work at La Grange.  As he was completing that course of study, he left La Grange to go to work for Naked Mountain and put all of this new learning into play.

It was here that he started making wine that wowed him.  The first great bottle he feels he made was the 2012 vintage of the Naked Mountain Petit Verdot.  While this one got acclaim and wound up in the 2015 Governor’s case, he noted that it was just noticeably better than anything else he was making that year.  “You taste fifteen barrels in a row and then you get to one that jumps out at you because it’s appreciably better because of fruit, tannin structure, acid integration, the oak in it… that one came across as balanced and more deserving of attention.”  Apparently, he isn’t the only one who felt that way! It was right as this wine was getting ready to get awards, including a spot in the 2016 Governor’s Case, that he returned to La Grange and took over the winemaking, and made some big shifts in what was happening there.

Seth is definitely interested in experimenting with new wines and exposing club members and customers to new ideas.  As we spoke, he recalled one of the club member days where he was sampling “orange chardonnay” the winery purchased from Fauquier winery Granite Heights.  This wine sat longer on the skins, for 16 days total, and the wine absorbed color from them, as well as additional flavors. While he noted that this process can produce wine that is bitter or herbaceous, this wine wasn’t either of those things.  During the member event, members sampled the wine and were asked to vote on whether it should be bottled as a dry or sweet wine. It ended up closely split, and Seth decided to make both, so the winery has roughly sixty cases of the dry orange chardonnay, and about 75 cases (with smaller bottles) of dessert wine that is fortified and has sugar added.  This is just one example of winemakers’ daily decisions that are made that impact the wine we end up drinking – or in Seth’s words “you can go this way or that – some people may like it, some may not.”

And this philosophy puts customer loyalty over profits.  While the accountants want to see more Virginia cabernet sauvignon rather than Virginia rosé made from cabernet sauvignon, Seth points out that mediocre cabernet sauvignon (because virginia grapes don’t get ripe enough) may sell at a higher price point, but it won’t build loyalty.  A strong rosé at a lower price point will build loyalty and keep people coming back for more wine, more good times, and to buy more wine.  

Seth sometimes experiments and shares these experiments as a way to educate the La Grange clientele.  His Black Label program was meant to compare cabernet sauvignon aged in different barrels. “This was a conversation I wanted to have, about the impact of American Oak versus French Oak,” he says.  He took the same high quality fruit from Paso Robles and just handled them with one different factor (the barrels) that made a big taste difference. This is the kind of experience he wants the club members and customers to have when they come to La Grange – see what one single variable in treatment can make happen in the wine.  

He also wants to do some fermentation on skins with traminette and petit manseng in the coming year to see what he can show with that, much like the chardonnay he did.  Seth is up for some experimenting – that’s where Virginia has to go. “We’re a young wine region – every young region grows chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – they’re known.  People buy based on name recognition – these grapes were an evolution step for us in Virginia. This is behind us in where we are headed – now we will focus on grapes we can grow better.”

One of the initiatives he put in place was to reduce overall production and address a backlog in the cellar.  The winery had built up a stockpile of vintages, and needed to move stock. By reducing the production, he was able to get more bottles out of the cellar to customers and club members.  As that has occurred, he has been able to develop these new wines and vintages and introduce new varietals and blends to the club. When he arrived at La Grange, he was told that it was a Tempranillo winery and no one wanted white wines.  He asked if he could change that and was challenged to do so. And he did, introducing a variety of white wines into the portfolio and creating other types of blends. 

I did ask Seth the question.  As I talk with winemakers, I find there is some polarization between using grapes grown here in Virginia versus grapes sourced from the west coast.  La Grange is open that they are sourcing grapes from the west coast, primarily Washington and Paso Robles. This goes back to some of the connections he made in his studies.  He shared that he sources grapes that are interesting that don’t grow well in Virginia. “I source what we can’t get here and what is new and interesting. This year we will get nebbiolo, malbec, and barbera.    Barbera was so good last year – in the cellar as it developed I realized it was special – like the Naked Mountain Petit Verdot. When I look at sourcing – I consider, what is our club drinking – what is new that I can try? What can teach me something?  I am pretty adventurous. The club here has supported that.“ Seth certainly does love the Virginia grapes too – he shared the as-yet unreleased 2017 Petit Manseng with me during our conversation. These grapes are all estate grown. This is an interesting petit manseng – with a lot more viscosity to it and a darker color – there was like some pineapple to the taste – some tropicality, but it was smooth and pleasant to drink – lower on acidity and not crisp, but still bright with its flavors.  While he is thrilled to work with the estate grapes, he also wants to play with grapes that cannot be grown here and create wine like the Grenache-Syrah Mourvedre (GSM) blend that was so fantastic (and he hinted that there is more to come! Woohoo!). And yes, that one is my personal favorite at La Grange.

Seth is a fan of other Virginia wineries, and he is drinking Walsh, Arterra, King Family, Keswick, and others – he wants to know what others are doing with the grapes grown here and learn from that.  He also loves Chateau-neuf-du-pape and Paso Robles wines, but he avoids the over-produced, overly commercial wines of Napa and Sonoma – he does want to see what is different and interesting on the leading edge.  He likes wines that “push what people expect… you can learn a lot from what falls outside your normal parameters.”

What he really wants people to know about La Grange is that it’s a team effort that works to provide guests a fun atmosphere with good wine.  In his words:

“It would be a lie to say this is the only place you can get good wine.  What we offer here is the experience of hospitality, if you are part of our club you get know Zach, Alex and Katie.  You get fun and exciting wines, great classes. We want to teach you about wine – things like the black label – let me tell you about this wine style, the region it came from.  Customers can see the press, the tank, the vineyards where it grew. We are an honest farm – I am open about the grapes that come from the west coast. I’m not trying to sell a west coast cab as a Virginia cab.  We want our customers to be learning while having a good time. It’s more about the overall experience than selling the wine.”

Seth loves having classes and wine dinners at the winery, and wants the customers to engage with him as much as they want to talk about the wine.  He can be found at these special events and on weekdays at the winery, and is happy to talk about any aspect of what he is doing.

I agree with his assessment of the team effort.  It’s clear that the La Grange team is having a blast while they are working there, and they want their clientele to have a great time too.  It may not all be Virginia grapes, but the wines are good, and at the end of the day, at a reasonable price point. The club membership is a fantastic value, with steep discounts when you purchase multiple bottles.  And the club team is very focused on the members, and ensuring that they have a great time, every time they come. There will be another package distribution next weekend, and I’m really looking forward to what it may hold. 

Seth is working to turn the estate grapes, as well as fruit he is sourcing from Washington and Paso Robles into incredible stuff, learning and teaching customers along the way.  Sourcing grapes that aren’t available in Virginia, he’s been able to experiment with wines that aren’t common at Virginia wineries, and because he has been able to expand the menu at La Grange, he has been able to experiment with other winemaking methods to make some unique wines with the grapes from Virginia.  So if you’re one of those who judges when a winery doesn’t exclusively use Virginia grapes, hold your nose. But be sure you’re not when you taste the wine, because it’s good, and you want to get the full experience. Plus, you’ll be having a lot of fun!

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