It was nearly 30 years ago when San Francisco native James MacPhail decided to leave his corporate job in the city, and, following his heart, ventured into wine country.
His journey took him to Healdsburg where he’s resided ever since. Along the wine path, a young and driven MacPhail found himself diving deep into the wine world, cutting his teeth and sharpening his knowledge at wineries like Gary Farrell Vineyards and Pellegrini Wine Company where he got to work with Merry Edwards, tasked with her now-celebrated Sauvignon Blanc project.
Before then, he landed at Quivira Vineyards in the early 1990s, his first venture into the wine business. “I was hired as a harvest intern in 1992 and ended up working there for five years,” James says with a smile.
His role during his tenure at Quivira evolved from harvest to tasting room associate and climbed to director of operations, direct-to-consumer sales and spearheading the online sales. This was a valuable experience in his career that has led him to where he is now.
To many, MacPhail is considered a master of Pinot Noir. “At some point in my wine-making career, I gained a few love and respect for Pinot Noir and decided it was my calling” he said proudly.
He has carved a name for himself over the years in the Pinot Noir world. In 2008 he decided to start a then-small project that put him on the radar of countless Pinotphyles, MacPhail Wines.
The modest, but full-of-heart, project started with six barrels of Pinot Noir and has grown over the years to satisfy thousands of fans.
“2008 as we know was not the best year to start a winery. Aside from the economic collapse, Anderson Valley (where the fruit was sourced) suffered from wildfires, which caused us to skip the first vintage,” MacPhail explained. But that didn’t stop him; he pushed hard and thrived with the help of the Hess Collection Winery where he was making wine under the Sequana label at the time.
He eventually parted ways with Hess and the MacPhail label, which continues to thrive.
The set of circumstances and his continued quest to produce small batches of wines that move him led him to start Tongue Dancer Wines in 2012. “I had access to incredible vineyard sites and I simply couldn’t resist to start this project,” MacPhail said, with the excitement and fire of a kid on Christmas morning.
Tongue Dancer delivers decades of experience and dedication to the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay world.
The amount of wine produced is ridiculously small, and with all the attention to detail, a true winemaker’s dream.
MacPhail, and his wife Kerry, currently produce six labels under the Tongue Dancer brand ranging from 96 to 328 cases from a handful of vineyards located on the Sonoma County coast.
The vineyards include Pratt Vineyard planted by the talented vineyard manager Jim Pratt, the renowned Bacigalupi Vineyard in Russian River and Putnam Vineyard located on the Sonoma coast.
During my visit last week, we tasted through the current lineup, a showcase of James’s masterfully approach to his favorite varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Here the notes.
2018 Tongue Dancer Rosé of Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($25). Produced using saignee method exclusively from the Putnam Vineyard, this baby was not shy, layers of grapefruit driven citrus, bramble and spice delivered a rich and playful wine ideal year round.
2017 Tongue Dancer Chardonnay Pratt Vineyard Irwin Lane Russian River ($39). MacPhail’s homage to the Old World approach to Chardonnay, a wine with tension and flint showcasing layers of fresh cut lemon, honeysuckle, Asian pear and echinacea. This lively and savory gem is a serious contender to Puligny Montrachet.
Moving on, we explored the rich and California stamped 2017 Tongue Dancer Chardonnay Bacigalupi Vineyard Frost Ranch Russian River Valley ($50). Made from 100% Old Wente clone, this wine radiates with stone fruit notes led by ripe nectarine, pineapple and holiday spice characterized by a creamy and well rounded texture. An experience sip after sip that makes you crave more.
We then ventured into the Pinot Noir world, the one that originally ignited the fire, 2017 Tongue Dancer Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($49). A generous bounty full of dried roses, black cherry and exotic notes of black tea complimented by a savory cola finish. Both juicy and restrained with complexity and resonance.
The last of the line-up is one that makes MacPhail light up, sourced from a vineyard that produces tiny, yet powerful, grapes and delivers every time. 2017 Tongue Dancer “Pinot de Ville” Pinot Noir Putnam Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($65). At four barrels produced, this wine is the ultimate Coastal Pinot Noir expression. Dense and bold from the get go with a purple core and a majestic floral display of fresh and dried violets that lead to a handful of dried herbs. Dark plum and pomegranate dance around an earthy path with muscle and finesse.
It is rare, yet extremely satisfying, to come across projects like this, Kerry and James have managed to create a brand that is worth following. Due to the tiny production this wines are rarely encountered in stores or restaurants. Thank you for the opportunity to dive into the Tongue Dancer wines, and cheers to you James and Kerry!
Eduardo can be reached at email@example.com.