Owner-winemaker Jayson Woodbridge of Hundred Acre Wines did everything his way, and he was right. So what’s next?
Jayson Woodbridge’s attention is very firmly on the myriad hawker foods he could be eating… if not for the pesky Singaporean journalist attempting to ask him well-worn questions about Hundred Acre. “I rarely do press interviews, but I like magazines and lifestyle stuff. I love lifestyle – houses, cars, boats, food and wines,” he drawls, larger than life, a little sardonic, definitely impatiently. At one point during the interview, he exits his chair, leaving me to think perhaps he’s decided to end it early.
“The Greatest Critic Is Me”
It’s not often a bonafide rockstar of the wine world – one whom the press has called contrarian, flamboyant, driven, genius, volatile and even arrogant – makes himself available for interviews. Woodbridge, a former investment banker who started Hundred Acre Wines in 2000 and has racked up 22 perfect 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate since then, does not need the media. Demand for his Hundred Acre wines far outstrip production, driving prices to four digits on the secondary market. There’s no fancy marketing, no welcoming cellar door with the bells and whistles, and definitely not much love for critics and strangers. “If I don’t know you or respect or have some understanding of what you do, it’s a no,” he says, of the hundreds of calls he gets a month.
But for those who are given a peek of Jayson Woodbridge, unabridged, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. This is the same guy who named his vineyard after the forest in Winnie the Pooh after all. Three of his vineyards are christened, in some way, after his kids. The opening paragraph from Homer’s Odyssey, of a man’s singular quest, is printed on every bottle label. Did I mention he loves cooking, possessing a commercial wok and parilla in his home kitchen, and even has a recipe for a mean Thai green curry on YouTube? Lunch arrives, and he eschews the beef short rib for the delicately toothsome Inaniwa udon. I realise that Woodbridge has high expectations of everyone, but especially of himself.
There are many cult wines and cult winemakers in Napa Valley, in varying amounts of success. Woodbridge is one of the more recent ones with a genuine cult following, but more importantly he is the only owner-winemaker who obsesses over making the wine himself. Apart from some consultation in the early years from terroir expert Philippe Melka (whom he calls his “wine Yoda”), Woodbridge has relied on an uncanny combination of his own knowledge, conviction and a very developed palate.
Together with winemaker wife Helen, they own three vineyards in Napa Valley making Cabernet Sauvignon and one in Barossa, Australia making Shiraz. All fruit is grown on estate, and whatever is not used is declassified and discarded – the last six vintages in Australia included. Woodbridge was one of the first to implement shade aids and misters in the vineyard to protect crops during adverse weather, and goes to great lengths to ensure he gets the fruit he wants. This include yields limited to one bunch per shoot, multiple passes during harvesting using a well-trained, veteran team who has consistently worked with him, and fermentation by block and clone at his dedicated winery, The Ring, located at Ark vineyard.
The Kayli Morgan vineyard is the first in Woodbridge’s estate, planted in 1996 and with first vintage released 2000. Being predominantly clay over gravel, it’s interesting to note that it was planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, unlike say Petrus, as remarked by Lisa Perotti-Brown. Ark vineyard on the slopes at the base of Glass Mountain – which got its name from black obsidian rock – is planted to a complex pattern of clones, rootstock, and blocks in a nearly 180-degree arc. Few & Far Between is planted with a bit of Cabernet Franc alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, and comprises gravelly loam. Its prime location above Eisele vineyard (now in the hands of Chateau Latour’s owner) lent to its name, but F.E.W. also happens to be one of his son’s initials.
Finding time to visit Singapore – which he last visited 20 years ago – would have been impossible a few years ago. In 2017, Woodbridge sold off his other brands, Layer Cake, Cherry Pie and If You See Kay (say that out loud) in favour of slowing down after many hectic years traversing the globe making wine. Having turned 56, he expresses wanting to spend more time with Helen, fishing in her hometown of New Zealand or skiing in Switzerland where they have a home. Having proven himself relentlessly over the past 20 years, it would seem he’s allowing himself to smell the roses – but perhaps not for long. I manage to sneak in a last question to Woodbridge on his future plans, and discover there are several projects beyond Cabernet that he is famous for – alas, which I can't reveal for now. Whichever the case, you know exactly how Woodbridge will do it – his way.