"We want to be able to market this idea to people like ourselves," Head High Wines Partner and Director of Winegrowing Sam Spencer says. We're in Venice at The Inertia offices. It is a typical summer day in sunny Southern California.
The winemaker's gaze persistently tends towards the ocean. We're a mile or so from the beach, and we're inside so his gaze is met with nothing more than a wall and the sound of traffic, but that doesn't matter to him — he knows which direction the water is and that is the direction which he is drawn.
The Inertia is a surf publication based out of Los Angeles. It is an appropriate place to meet Sam, a longtime surfer himself whose approach to wine is every second as fluid as his approach to waves, which is to say patient and appreciative for those moments when all the elements come together and provide him with a subsistence he won't find anywhere else.
Sam is tall for a surfer, with broader shoulders, but there is a friendliness and accessibility about him that instantly puts him out at sea. And as you would often see among the weathered faces in the lineup, there is a youthful exuberance that shines from his eyes, the kind that brings about an almost unexpected energy from underneath a more rugged, hardened, worked facade.
"Head high" is surf speak for waves that are, as one might assume, head high. These are often the best waves (depending on the break) and represent a desired condition; therefore, it makes sense that a winemaking surfer would name his endeavor Head High Wines.
But for Sam, his pursuits of surf and winemaking transcend the mere pursuit. We recently had an opportunity to speak with the winemaker about what it really means to be "head high."
Michael Woodsmall: Let's start with this idea of marketing "to people like ourselves." What exactly do you mean by that? And how has it affected Head High Wines?
Sam Spencer: The truth is, in my whole career, I've never really been touched by wine marketing. I've seen it pass me by and critiqued it as it's gone but I never have felt like there was a urge to get swept up in all of it. I’ve seen campaigns that I thought were brilliant, but they weren't really targeted to me. I realize I'm a small portion of that, but I also know that behind me is a demographic who is underrepresented, and I thought that we could touch them and then also a broader market as well.
Very few people really surf, yet everyone wears board shorts. I thought there was an opportunity to basically take the concepts of surfing ‘head high’ and also the ambiguity of that name. There are people in the Castro in San Francisco who are attaching this to the gay pride movement and marriage equality, which I never anticipated. 'Head high,’ keep your head up, your chin up. We wanted to go after this in a playful way, not be beholden to any one vineyard, able to showcase particular regions and make wines that were super delicious and over-delivered and hopefully tap into the feelings that you or I would possess about these sports and these past times and be able to walk into a Venn diagram that no one's ever drawn out before.
Where are you going about realizing this dream of yours? Where are you located?
It's a particularly beautiful spot [in Sonoma County]. We're on a big hillside. When I bought the land, I didn't have enough money to plant it. I bought it and bought it outright — my brother and dad helped me finance the development of the vineyard in two phases. We have got 45 acres up there.
Dreams are expensive.
But I love it. It's a hugely successful run for us. We're actually going to fuel the growth of our rose program out of that. I grow Syrah, Tempranillo, Grenache blanc, Roussanne, Grenache noir (a lot of it), and some Zinfandel, but the Zinfandel we're actually going to phase out and
How did you end up in Sonoma County? Did you grow up west coast?
I actually grew up in Manhattan.
Then how did you grow up surfing?
My family had a home in Rhode Island, and I learned to surf in Narragansett.
I started surfing because I had a cousin named Jeb Barnes who I idolized. He’s about six, seven years older than me. We were in Rhode Island together as kids in the summer. His mom was my godmother. That's actually how I got in the wine world, too, because of my godmother. Anyway, Jeb was surfing and I wanted to do it, and my parents were like, "You know, if Jeb will lend you his board, you can do it.” So I started paddling out on this sinker of a long board, and I got into it, but never really got good at it. Then, when I was in college in Colorado Springs, at Colorado College, I went down to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico.
It was the first international surf trip I took, and also the first time I ever surfed outside of July, August, September. I went down there and I ended up meeting some people who run a surf school that are still friends of mine who run a surf school. Through people I met there, I began developing connections within the surf community. Eventually, I took a trip on a boat named War Baby, and that is where I really cemented my love for it. Since then, I have surfed everywhere.
Bring it back to wine, and landing in Sonoma County.
I got in the wine business after the boat trip. I came back and I went to California. I was in San Francisco where I shifted my focus to wine and surfing
I started paddling out at Ocean Beach and getting my ass handed to me every god damn day.
I was like, "I know I can surf in the tropics. Why can't I surf here?" I am competitive by nature and I would just go out and out and out. Eventually, you know what happened? I actually got proficient and then comfortable and then saw some quantum leaps in the quality of surf I was able to pursue.
The same sort of thing happened with wine. At first, wine kicked my ass. This was no easy thing. I didn't buy my way into this. There are many people who get it because they are the progeny — they are born into it. I had connections to it, but it certainly wasn't my birthright, and I fought my way into it the same way I fought my way into surfing.
I love surf. I love wine, too. I see both as disciplines. You don't have to think in orthodox. In surf, sometimes I ride a long board and sometimes I ride a short board. It is the same with wine — I feel like I have at least enough experience to be able to go out and pursue different styles without feeling like I'm being didactic.
Do you think that the current movement of the outdoor space in particular, the increase of popularity, is representative of a higher pursuit? A lot of these brands are starting to be embodied by weekend warrior, so to speak, the people who live in the cities but want that access to the outdoors. Do you think that, and this return to farm-to-table, is helping wine companies like yours where the mission is ‘beyond’ the planting and the harvest towards a more general appeal of farm life, so to speak?
The connection to the agriculture is surely significant. Farming is critical; I think that you have to know what you're doing in order to deliver something that is playful in the way we were discussing.
[Acting coach] Lee Strasberg said — and I’m going to paraphrase here — that to embody the part you kind of have to throw it away at some point or forget the lines… you have to know them but forget them to allow the spirit to possess you. I feel like that's the way it is with wine. We've got the agricultural resources between Bill [Price] and myself, and the networks to do it, to go out and say, "We're not trying to be the best state brand. What we're trying to do is deliver something that's really just juicy and delicious and fun and inspiring. That's what we're trying to do."
I also mean in the consumer side, in our seeing you and yours as this attractive ‘grassroots’ lifestyle. I feel as if wine, after twenty-some-odd years of a strict focus on the product as a separate entity of the process, has finally returned to its roots, instilling a sense of "I want to drink this because Sam Spencer represents the type of person I want to be” in wine drinkers.
That's exactly what we're trying to do, make the connection between wine and this farming lifestyle/interest in agriculture. I think people are interested not only because is it interesting, but it's healthier, more personal, and ultimately better. If you're tasting my wines and you know that I'm a legitimate farmer, that's cool.
I've done a lot of different things in my career in the wine space. This is the one project that all the boxcars lined up and the noise kind of dissipates and it's moving along in the way we want it to, which is really exciting — it’s very gratifying.
How has this gratification trended outwards? Has it? One of my favorite descriptions you once gave of your rose is that it was a "generator of good will." In many ways, Head High Wines is a generator of good will as well. Isn't that right?
As part of our business model, we have a philanthropic initiative. We're giving 50 cents from every bottle we sell. And it’s not a percentage of profit — it’s 50 cents from everything we sell, split between two foundations. One is Sustainable Surf and the other is Sonoma Valley Educational Foundation. We work with a lot of families who make our lives possible.
The wine industry is a selfish pursuit — I'm not feeding anybody but my family and the families who work with me.
What we wanted to do was invest in the two places where we're able to make the biggest impact. Sonoma Valley Educational Foundation is a small foundation but has tremendous impact; and Sustainable Surf has unreal impact because of their enthusiasm.
Sustainable Surf seems to be an interesting partnership for a winery yet a very appropriate one for you…
The relationship we've developed with Sustainable Surf has been huge, not just for our brand, but for both of our brands. We both were looking for the right partnership, and I talked to a few non-profits in the global surf space, if you will, and that thing that you were describing, ‘that sort of cool, not cool’ really came up very quickly.
When Michael [Stewart] and I connected, I was like, "This guy's heart is on his sleeve." I love what he's doing. And to take their expertise and apply it to our industry and become advocates for change here… it's really exciting.
Since it seems like there's so much synergy between the two pursuits for you, in particular, what's one thing that you recognize in yourself that you're very proud of today that you think is a direct result of your pursuits?
Perseverance. I like the idea that this has become not just a pursuit but part of my life. Perseverance is part of it, but I just also think that sensitivity to the natural part of it ... Farming throws a curve at me every year. Every year I think I've got it figured out. It's temporal. It comes and it goes, and next year is different. Every wave is different. It's all about the frequency of the swell hitting the contours of the bottom. There's nothing that's unique about it. Every time it's different. I think that I'm perpetually curious about both, and that's something that I'm curious and engaged ... because I could be 47 and bored, but I'm not.
Reflecting on your career, what are you most proud of to this point in your life? And what are you the most excited about on a day to day basis right now? What gets you stoked?
I really am most proud of my children. Honestly. They’re lovely boys, and I like that about them. They're honest, straightforward, they're open emotionally in a way that I really wasn't when I was that age. They're great. In terms of what I'm proud of, I'm proud of those boys, Oliver and Dodge.
As for what gets me out of bed in the morning aside from my kids? I box. Recently, I haven’t been sparring a lot because we've got harvest, but I typically spar probably 24 to 30 rounds a weeks, at three-minute rounds. I box with this guy who is a tremendous inspiration, but what I love is that he and I walk in and we listen to hardcore hip hop. I mean, not even rap. We listen to Rick Ross and all this stuff and it's at 5:30 in the morning and we are throwing down. I get out of there and I go home and I take my kids to school, and there's nothing that's coming my way that's going to be more threatening than having that guy throw a punch at me. I love him for it— he changed my life.
He's an inspiration to me. And as I said, my kids are an inspiration to me. But I suppose the underlying truth is that I love what I'm doing. There's no part of this to me that feels like work. The fact that I'm able to do this and do it in a way that is constructive and creative, we're building something, is fantastic.
Now, before we let you go, let's turn our attention to the wines.
In One or Two Words? “Cathartic.”
Sniff It Out: “It’s 100 percent Pinot Noir, and this is all saignée, which means this is juice bled off of our tanks. I want pink wine to be coppery and not red or blue, so we drain. We kind of play it by ear a little bit. If we need a little color, we might drain a little longer, but usually things are coming off in the first 12 hours from the time we crush. It's a true transparent picture of what 14 represented, because this blend is representative of every tank that came in from our Pinot harvest. It's a model for what we're going to do. We're going to grow this considerably. That's the plan.”
In One or Two Words? "Sonoma stoke."
Sniff It Out: “It's Sonoma Coast. A hundred percent. Our focus is largely Pinot. Bill, my partner, is quite a force in the industry. He's been an investor in many, many brands and owns a lot of vineyard, and he gives me access to some of his best grapes. Between his holdings and my networks, we're able to put together really, really lovely wine at an affordable price and over-deliver. That's the goal."
In One or Two Words? “Idiosyncratic.”
Sniff It Out: “When I set about to make this wine, I realized I had no constraints. I could just make out of the box. Didn't have to make Napa Cabernet. I didn't have to make anything else, Pinot or otherwise. It's Malbec, Merlot, Cab, Zinfandel, and Grenache. I went at it thinking Catalonia. I wanted to make Priorat style wines, but maybe not quite so intense, quite so alcoholic. That's what this is.”