Slowly, methodically, like the rhythmic beat of a metronome, Thomas T. Thomas has become a winemaker.
That wasn’t his original plan. For a long time, until the 1990s, he didn’t really know much about wine or even drink much of it. He meant to be a musician and singer.
The Music Man
A self-taught electric guitar player from Toledo, Ohio, Thomas was tapped to study voice at Ohio University in Athens.
“The funny thing is, I didn’t have a clue how to get into music school because I had never studied music. I didn’t know you had to audition, so I just showed up trying to register for classes. The people in the music office looked at me like ‘who is this kid’?”
Although Thomas couldn’t read music, the music school’s dean gave him a shot at admission. The dean – who also happened to be the head of the voice department – gave Thomas a hymn book and instructed him to pick a song for an audition. The dean “liked my voice and I got in” the classical music department as a voice major. The school also had two jazz bands. Thomas’ play-by-ear and improv skills landed him a position with the junior group.
After learning to appreciate and embrace the operatic style of singing, Thomas later transferred to University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) where he once again had to audition competitively to get in. This time he understood how the system worked and was one of only twenty-two students accepted as transfers into the CCM music program.
Thomas graduated from CCM in 1980, but had already come to terms with the fact that a musician’s lifestyle was not practical and began to seek other career alternatives. “I loved music, but men’s voices have to mature until about age 30 for a classical music career, so I couldn’t move right into that path. I wasn’t prepared to struggle for the next 10 years.” He began taking business classes at UC. With an MBA successfully in hand, Thomas moved to Stamford, CT, in 1987 and took a position with GE Capital in the Corporate Finance Division.
“Aha” Moments and Epiphanies
Thomas had met his future wife in graduate school, but she was still living in Cincinnati. They married in October 1989 and moved to California just two weeks before the major Loma Prieta earthquake. After a four-year stint at Del Monte Foods, Thomas went to work as a finance executive at the biotech company Genentech.
By then — now 25 years ago — wine was beginning to emerge as a strong interest. His wife was working as a pharma rep, and in the course of dinners with her boss, they were introduced to the perfect pairing of a nice steak with a great bottle of big red wine. Everyone has his/her own version of an “aha wine” moment. Thomas’ moment was Parducci Cabernet…
A journey commenced to learn everything he could about wine. Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine was his initial guide, helping to break down the big world of wine into bite-sized pieces. By the time the Thomases started traveling internationally in the mid-1990s, they had become deeply involved in collecting wine, amassing a 500-bottle collection by strategically buying wine lots when the financial crisis forced many retail establishments out of business.
It was a wine tasting trip to Burgundy with a fellow aficionado in 1999 where Thomas had another epiphany and declared that he wanted to own a winery. “I had never seen so many vineyards in my life. As far as the eye could see, Burgundy was the most beautiful and exciting place. I was so taken with the experience and wanted to be a part of it all.” Smitten with Burgundy, Thomas even toyed briefly with the idea of moving there to purchase a winery.
Friends urged him to first visit Tuscany to experience its equally alluring beauty. The following year, Thomas took his family (and Burgundy wine-drinking friend) to Tuscany, renting a house in the picturesque historic town of Colle di Val d’Elsa near San Gimignano.
“I was on the train from Rome to Florence, reading Wine Spectator, when I came across an article on the Anderson Valley’s perfect cool climate for growing Pinot Noir. Looking out the window at a Tuscan landscape reminiscent of California, I’m thinking ‘this could be the next Napa Valley!’ It was in that moment when I decided to focus on my own back yard. Anderson Valley would be where I would have a winery.”
Discovery and Development
As soon as they returned stateside, Thomas started the search for land in Anderson Valley. During a six-week sabbatical from Genentech, Thomas drove the area to shop for a property and was “blown away by its beauty and rural simplicity.” In 2001, the Thomases bought the first property (of many) they had looked at on a foggy fall morning. “The land said ‘buy me’.”
Then the hard work began to prepare the property to become a vineyard. They had to put in a road, clear out the overgrown land, and bury the phone lines underground. While still working at Genentech, Thomas methodically divided the tasks into phases.
- Phase One was to build a house (2003-05).
- Phase Two was to design the vineyard, including soil analysis and grape selection. (During this phase, Thomas resigned from Genentech. After a two-year break, he briefly joined an education-focused nonprofit organization, eventually serving as its CEO.
- Phase Three in 2007 was to adjust the soil and prepare three acres of land (of 38.5 total owned by Thomas) to plant four Pinot Noir clones selected for their combined medium-bodied profile and notes of plum, spice, red cherry, dark cherry and leather.
- The fourth phase began in 2011 with production of two tons of fruit which Thomas sold to a winemaker in Mendocino.
Building a Brand
Until 2017, Thomas sold 100% of his fruit to various wineries and corporations. “Since I had no experience in the wine business, and all of my knowledge was from reading books and drinking wine, my plan was initially to be a grower and put the fruit in experienced hands. I did not know how well the grapes would perform, so I needed to assess the quality of the vineyard.” Much to Thomas’ surprise, the wines made from his grapes were winning awards in international wine competitions as early as 2012. Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast both rated the wine 92 points.
After six years of selling his fruit, Thomas decided that the 2017 vintage would be the right time to create his own brand, taking a baby step into producing and selling wines from his own vineyards. He became one of very few African-American winemakers in northern California. (The Association of African American Vintners, founded in NoCal in 2002, lists 10 charter members and a half dozen industry supporters.)
Thomas’ first wine was called “Reserve” because he was able to choose the best vineyard blocks for this inaugural bottling. The next year (2018), Thomas stopped selling fruit to third parties. His plan is to offer four wine styles:
- “Buster’s Hill,” the top wine in the range, is named for a single prestige vineyard plot and will be produced only in the best years;
- Reserve and Estate wines will be produced every year, showcasing the full vineyard site; and
- an entry-level appellation wine called “T” will combine estate with purchased grapes.
What’s next? Thomas also loves White Burgundy and Chablis, and intends to either plant or purchase Chardonnay grapes. He has already planted three small plots of olive trees and will plant about 40 more trees this year. Thomas continues to experiment with a barrel program that evaluates oak from different French forests, different percentages of new vs. neutral oak, and varying lengths of barrel aging.
2017 Reserve Pinot Noir: 40% new French oak (Allier), in barrel 17-18 months. Smooth, drink now or hold. Strikes a nice balance between austere Burgundian and fruit-forward New World style. (Release date Spring 2020)
2018 Estate Pinot Noir: in barrel for 10-11 months. 25% new oak. (Release date Fall 2020)
2018 “T”: in barrel for 10-11 months. No new oak. (Release date Fall 2020)
2018 Pinot Noir Reserve and Buster’s Hill Single Vineyard: still in barrel, bottling March 2020. (Release date Spring 2021)
The winery’s website is currently under construction but should be live in February 2020. Wines will be available Direct To Consumers (DTC) through the Thomas T. Thomas Vineyard website via Wine Direct, initially for the following states: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia. Starting in February, consumers can sign up for release announcements on the website.