Denise and Stephen Adams met more than three decades ago, on a blind date. Both Francophiles, they subsequently married in the Dordogne, just east of Bordeaux. They honeymooned in the region, and eventually planted both literal and proverbial roots; in 2004, the couple acquired the esteemed Château Fonplégade in Saint-Émilion. Over the course of several years they painstakingly renovated and revitalized the property’s time-worn, mid-19th century chateau (ravaged by World War II), and in doing so, earned the esteem of the residents and vintners of their adopted country.
In 2008, seeking a foothold back home, the duo established ADAMVS, a superb winery high atop Howell Mountain in Napa. Somehow they manage to make exceptional wines on both sides of the ocean. We had a chat with Denise to discuss the experience of stewarding two very different wineries.
You achieved incredible success in restoring and rejuvenating Château Fonplégade; what led your desire to then create a Napa Valley winery?
At some point we truly felt compelled to look for a property to farm in our own country. There was no question that it would have to be in Napa, and when we first stepped foot on the soils of ADAMVS we felt right at home. As if we belonged here. The property had to speak to us in a special way, as we were not looking to make average wine. Accomplishing great wines requires great terroir. We were excited to have the opportunity, yet only if we could make a significant contribution to Napa. The property was already being farmed organically which clearly spoke to us, and being lovers of the Howell Mountain AVA, it all came together effortlessly. We considered it a privilege to be a part of this great growing region and to also to bring some of our knowledge from France to Napa.
With Château Fonplégade, you inherited a history which dates to the mid 19th century. ADAMVS was created from scratch. Which has been more challenging?
We actually found farming records for Fonplégade which date back to the mid 1500’s! Perhaps more challenging would be Fonplégade, due to being an American in Bordeaux, not speaking or reading French fluently. The cultural differences. We were new to farming grapes and making wine at the time, so we relied heavily on the team we built to teach us. We wanted to make a significant contribution as Americans in Bordeaux and to be seen as serious growers and great stewards of the land. Respect and acceptance are earned, and we worked hard.
This said, we basically had to go about the business of being vintners in the same way in Napa, except this time we had experience under our boots. As a trained artist, I so enjoyed the creative process in helping design the buildings—the wine library, tasting room (Cypress House) and winery. Not to mention the interiors. These buildings all have meaning and significance to the land, the wines, and to me personally. Creating a logo, naming the estate, designing all of our marketing pieces, our wood boxes—down to the pencils we use, made from vine cuttings, was the ultimate convergence of my love for art, hospitality, and farming.
How is your time split between the two wineries?
Fortunately, we have been able to spend equal time at each property. There is a natural rhythm that has taken place over the years which is to rotate every two months or so. We are quite comfortable with this routine as it allows us to have significant time to dig in and get work done, yet we never feel apart from either property for too long. I am blessed to have staff at both properties who are deeply committed, so I never worry when I depart—just a little torn about leaving either property.
How did you choose the name for your Napa winery?
The name was one of the most difficult tasks of the entire vision. We pored over countless ideas waiting for the right name to emerge, and finally I stumbled onto the name ADAMVS. We have 5 distinct soils on our estate and the predominate soil is a red, iron rich, volcanic lava-derived, clay soil. Our last name is Adams and when I read the Latin meaning of ADAMVS, ‘borne of our red earth,’ I searched no further.
It was a challenge to move your traditional-minded Château Fonplégade vineyard crew to organic sustainability; did you experience similar challenges in Napa?
Since I had the opportunity to assemble my own team at ADAMVS, I intentionally sought candidates who already embraced biodynamic farming practices and philosophies. Though the Fonplégade team fully embrace our biodynamic practices today, after years of experience and seeing the difference in quality, it went much more smoothly to gather a team who were already passionate and educated on biodynamic farming practices at ADAMVS.
And you feel that contributes to your success there.
In large part, it is our farming practices in biodynamics. This brings total life force and vitality to the soil and allows the full spectrum of nutrients needed to be resilient to pests, diseases, and extreme climate conditions. I view this to be the highest level of farming. The property provides an artistic palette for making beautifully crafted wines due to vine age, sun exposure, soils, and elevation up to 2000 ft. It is all estate fruit and we use native yeast.
What’s the key in Château Fonplégade?
All of the same as the above, except for the elevations and soils. Our climate in Saint-Émilion is a mild, maritime climate, meaning warm days and cool nights. Ideal grape growing conditions. We are situated in a prime location, among all of the first growths. These properties along with Château Fonplégade are generally on the plateau of Saint-Émilion with a generous amount of limestone, clay, and a combination of sand and clay. On the plateau we mainly grow our Cabernet Franc which brings complexity, brightness, and freshness to the wines. I especially enjoy the subtle saltiness and minerality, especially on the mid palate, which generally lingers.
What makes a visit to your properties unique?
I love entertaining and spoiling my guests. I have been fortunate to find a small staff who are not only extremely knowledgeable and passionate, but have a heart for service/giving and genuinely care about every single detail; it’s in their DNA. The experience at ADAMVS is not a tour, it is a conversation and a discovery. We feel as if we are bringing guests into our personal homes. We only take an appointment or two a day because we spend time with guests without rushing. Nothing is rehearsed—we strive to tailor the experience to the personal desires of our guests. We might stop in the biodynamic garden to try some stinging nettle tea, barrel taste, or feed Buttercup, our donkey who mothers all of our chickens.
At Château Fonplégade, once I started sharing my favorite chocolate chip cookie, freshly baked, I discovered that the French do not typically eat or make cookies. After a short while I had a reputation about town and everyone wanted my recipe and would come up to me to say they heard about my cookies! It was quite funny that a chocolate chip cookie would introduce me to so many people (though they started to give the wines a little too much competition!). Now, we make this chocolate chip cookie for almost every American guest who visits Château Fonplégade, to take back to their hotel in case they are a little homesick. The property has an historic fountain in the middle of the vineyard where pilgrims from the 13th century came to fetch their daily water. Fonplégade means ‘fountain of plenty’ or ‘the never ending source of water.’ This water still flows today from the fountain in the heart of the vineyard, all the way inside the cellar in a contained, running stream, creating moisture for the barrels and to remind us daily that our work in the cellar and the vineyard are interlocked in a way that cannot be separated.