FRĒDA WOMAN: SOPHIE GRAY
Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and Sophie James Wine?
My name is Sophie and I am a mama to 3 amazing little girls and I run Sophie James Wine. Years ago I found myself at a crossroad where I had to decide whether or not to sacrifice precious time with my baby girls to pursue starting a mission driven wine company, or to remain a full-time mom. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life, I was completely torn. I would like to tell you how this all unfolded.
Sophie James was founded on the principles of organic farming and our love of nature. We believe that organic farming is better for the health of our water, soil, farm workers, communities and Mother Earth. We also believe that organic farming (farming without the use of harsh herbicides and pesticides) leads to the highest quality wines.
Our mission here at Sophie James is to create the highest quality organically-farmed wines, as well as try to bring positive change to our industry through organic farming and low-intervention winemaking and to try to encourage other vintners to switch to organic farming.
Talk to us about drastically changing your career. What motivated you? What challenges did you face?
Well it all started with a dramatic leap of faith that James and I took back in 2010. We had just fallen in love and were dreaming of starting a new life out in the countryside. At the time I was a stem cell scientist at UCSF and similarly to James I was at a crossroads in life and feeling burnt out on living in the city.
We found our beloved Mountaintop property, which happened to have some wild growing Pinot Noir vineyards, and from the moment I stepped foot on the land I knew my life was about to change forever. We literally packed our bags and never looked back. I left my job at UCSF and ultimately my career (I also turned down my dream job offer at Stanford). There were no promises of happiness and success—but our hearts were full of hopes and dreams.
I’ll never forget those early months on the Mountaintop. In all honesty it was a really challenging time. I had so much self identity tied into my previous career but deep down I knew it was not what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing—but what was next? I had no idea…
We soon got married on the property and I became a mama. We spent years fixing up the house and focused heavily on investing in our organic farming program.
We had no plans of launching a wine company, but soon after moving in, we were approached by a very high-end wine company that was still family owned. They wanted to buy our precious, organically-farmed Mountaintop Pinot Noir grapes and we were thrilled! For years we happily sold our beautiful Pinot fruit to this wine company, but soon, some sad realities set in.
At this time I was a fulltime mama to our two eldest girls, aged three and one at the time, and my husband James ran his own company. What happened next wasn’t planned but it changed everything and led to the creation of Sophie James Wine.
As I started to learn more about our industry, I began to have more questions. As grape growers I couldn’t understand why we were the rare minority that farmed organically. This was so shocking… I also couldn’t understand why it was so rare to find wines that were made from organically-farmed grapes. For us it was clear. Even though it cost us much more money to farm organically, there was no other option because we knew that while farming organically is not only more labor intensive and time consuming it leads to higher quality grapes and is better for the environment.
As I said above—for years prior to launching Sophie James we sold our organically-farmed grapes to a high end/family-owned winery. Soon some sad realities sunk in. The high end / family-owned winery was bought by a wine conglomerate. We learned through some heartbreaking experiences soon that they did not value that we farmed organically nor did they respect us as farmers and humans.
It was upsetting for me to accept what I was discovering within the industry. So I had a choice—either sit back and do nothing or be the change I wanted to see in the industry. So I turned all my frustration and disappointment into something beautiful…and Sophie James was born.
I will never forget the moment when I realized I needed to launch our own wine company—one that was different from any other wine company out there. One that would value organic farming, our community, Mother Nature and our farm workers.
Since James was running another company at the time I knew this wine company had to be run by me—a mama to two little girls at the time (now 3!)—who had no experience in wine, marketing or sales, but somehow I had everything it took to launch and run what would become Sophie James.
I remember being overwhelmed and scared but I knew failure was not an option. If I was going to take time away from my babies we were going to be successful. I also dreamed of having that same purpose driven life and creative outlet that I had when I was a stem cell scientist. I kept telling myself “Sophie it’s never too late to rewrite the story of your life.” I worked so hard. I sacrificed and I put my head down. It was incredibly difficult to differentiate ourselves in an industry that is male dominated and overrun by big corporate companies with huge distribution and endless perks for members etc. But in the end I had our story. I had our mission and we also hired the most talented winemakers in the business and a world renowned organic farmer to lead our farming program. I knew in my heart we were focused on quality not quantity and our product would speak for itself. I was ready to share it with the world and we have and they love it. I knew from the beginning that our members would see, taste and feel the difference in our organically-farmed wines and they do. From year 1 we have sold out every release and I am just so proud and grateful.
It has been 4 years now since Sophie James launched and now we have built the most incredible community that is now on this journey with us—I know all together we are going to be the positive change that I dreamed of all those years ago.
What challenges did you face?
I have had so many challenges there are too many to list out but I would say that one of the biggest challenges is that everyone assumes that we have a big team, but what they don’t know is that I run Sophie James with just one full time team member. See wine is extremely capital intensive—that is why you do not see a lot of young families starting wine companies who own their own vineyards. One important fact, and what greatly differentiates us from many other wine companies, is that we did not inherit our property, nor do we have investors or partners who have helped us build Sophie James—we have built it ourselves from the ground up. That’s what makes us first generation, family owned and it is also what makes us so special. Because of this though we are still in our early years of growing—every extra penny we have earned we have re-invested in the business. While we don’t have a tasting room and unlimited perks for our members like some wineries owned by conglomerates, multigenerational wine families, or celebrities what we do have is a premium product that we honor mother earth with while producing and we are incredibly proud of this! One day we will get that tasting room but in the meantime we are excited about some fun events that we are planning for our members later this summer!
One other challenge is addressing a major educational gap that consumers have. I feel like we have a whole generation of people who are extremely thoughtful about choosing to eat organic fruits and vegetables. However, there seems to be a huge disconnect when it comes to choosing organically farmed wine. I am on a mission to help our community understand that wine is an agricultural product that needs to be farmed year round… Once I started drinking our wines (that are only made from organic grapes) I could feel the difference and now our members tell us they have the same experience and it is so wonderful…
Do you have advice for someone quitting their day job to follow their passion?
Start part-time and have faith in the journey. For years and years I felt lost after leaving my previous career as a scientist. I went through a lot of soul searching and during this time also became a mama. Looking back I now see that so many of the challenges I was facing were actually little lessons and experiences that were preparing me for my purpose in life—which is to run Sophie James and bring positive change to our industry through organic farming and low-intervention winemaking. One thing I really like to point out is that for years and years Sophie James was extremely part-time—it started as 5 hours a week and then went to 10 and now it is full-time (plus some:).
I am deeply inspired by Mother Nature—our mission at Sophie James is centered around protecting and honoring Mother Nature through organic farming so I try to incorporate Mother Nature wherever I can when entertaining with flowers—lots of flowers. I also love using the simple beauty of seasonal fruits and vegetables to decorate and even incorporating edible flowers into our food. I love foraging branches from our property… but it’s really about the little things like using a wildflower under the string to hold a napkin togher—those are the pieces of your decor that will wow.