How the vintners behind the label Sophie James are pouring their hearts and souls into a new kind of wine club experience
Words by MEAGHAN CLARK TIERNAN
Imagine your next family gathering at a gorgeous mountaintop property in the hills of Sonoma County, catered by one of the Bay Area’s best chefs and paired wines that were all crafted organically on-site. That’s the kind of community event that Sophie and James Gray envisioned — they call them “family dinners” — when they started Sophie James Wine Co. in 2017.
“We’re so happy to be sharing this place, our wine and our wild dream with you,” Sophie tells a crowd of 130 during one such recent occasion, a sublime alfresco experience co-hosted by Souvla founder Charles Bililies, at which guests dined on spit-roasted whole lamb and Greek frozen yogurt before glamping overnight under the stars.
It’s just one example of the warm, welcoming events that the husband and wife host at their Sonoma Mountain estate, situated at 2,360 feet above sea level. Though the guest list is always limited to those lucky enough to be members of the Tribe (aka the currently-at-capacity wine club), the affairs feel anything but exclusive — Sophie and James make everyone feel like a close friend.
“We were craving a different lifestyle, to reconnect with nature”
“We’re not a normal wine company,” explains Sophie, a glass of signature rose in hand. The Bay Area natives took a leap of faith when they purchased this retreat as a respite from the hubbub of San Francisco a decade ago. “We were craving a different lifestyle, to reconnect with nature, and wanted to create a community,” she says.
Though the duo had been growing wine-worthy grapes on the property prior to founding Sophie James Wine Co. (there were already 5 acres of hilltop vines on the estate when the Grays purchased it), in 2017 they decided to stop selling their grapes to other Sonoma wineries and instead give the craft a try themselves.
Now, two years on, that leap of faith has blossomed into an enviable lifestyle brand for both Sophie — formerly a stem cell researcher at University of California San Francisco — and James, who ran a U.K.-based secondary ticket marketplace until it was acquired by Ticketmaster. In addition to running their company, the couple are raising two little girls, and James leads Giving Assistant, Inc.
In the age of sponcon and social media influencers and the superficiality that can sometimes accompany them, the Grays are creating something special. And it’s obvious they’re loving every minute of it. “We put it all out there — for better or for worse — and I think our Tribe sees that we are more than just a wine brand, that we are a family,” Sophie says. One doesn’t need to nab a spot on the Tribe list to see how much the husband-and-wife team cares — it’s easy enough to get a taste of that effervescence just by following along online.
Sophie runs the company’s Instagram feed (@sophiejameswine) and has enjoyed partnerships with fashion brands like Everlane, Joie and Sezane; the winery has even held dinners at the estate to celebrate their seasonal collection releases. There’s also been the occasional brand retreat, such as for members of The Assembly SF.
The piece de resistance is that the pair are still genuinely surprised by their success. With each event, whether it’s a chef-led dinner series at Sophie James or a co-hosted evening elsewhere in the Bay Area, they are genuinely humbled by the turnout. Past collaborators have included restaurants like Lord Stanley, Cala, Foreign Cinema, Pizza Politana and Mister Jiu’s Moongate Lounge, and even natural beauty brand True Botanicals.
Now in its 10th harvest, the winery expects its 2020 allocation to be the largest yet, and it will include a spring, summer and fall release; for each one, Tribe members will be able to choose four or eight bottles. And despite the list being perpetually maxed out, the couple say they do gradually add members throughout the year.
Stay tuned for even more, Sophie says. Though all the current production goes exclusively to Tribe members, there are several more acres of plantable land on the estate. “It’s our dream to make a sparkling wine,” she says. And with more vineyards and more wine, no doubt will come more Tribe members.
Feature image: An evening under the stars at SOPHIE JAMES WINE CO. in Sonoma wine country. Photo by Darcy Dellera.
Oct. 18, 2019
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