Here at The List, we’re ever-curious about the culture of design, so who better to survey about the field’s current state than those currently working at the top of it? In Need to Know, a weekly column, we pick the brains of best-in-class creatives to find out how they got to where they are today—and to share an insider’s perspective on the challenges and highlights of their particular perches in the design world.
Though Lawrence Fairchild of Stones Wine “never had any intention of being in the wine business,” he currently presides over five neighboring vineyards in the heart of California’s prized Napa Valley wine country—placing him in the upper echelons of a notoriously exclusive industry.
So just how did a farm-raised Nebraskan climb such heights? Fairchild’s trajectory came to this apex more by way of kismet than raw ambition, if you can believe it, and his technical background in agriculture made him uniquely well-suited for such a path. After studying economics and political science at University of Nebraska—where he says he was “probably the only student reading GQ”—Fairchild tried his hand on Capitol Hill, where he was tasked with researching and drafting legislation and writing congressional speeches for the Foreign Affairs committee and International Trade Subcommittee.
The Hill’s surrounding resources provided inspiration and escape. The National Mall, sandwiched laterally between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, is lined with governmental buildings, national headquarters for organizations such as the Red Cross and the American Institute of Architects, and a cadre of educational institutions that are free of charge for visitors under the auspices of the Smithsonian umbrella. It was at these very institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, where Fairchild educated himself on art—what he liked, what he loved, and what he could live without.
Developing these heuristics early on would color Fairchild’s later decisions—both business and personal—with creative tinges, eventually leading him to found Fairchild Napa Valley Winery. We spoke with the proprietor about farming, Stones’s ornate presentations, and how even the most intimidated can acquaint themselves with the inner workings of wine appreciation.
I know that you grew up in a farming community and that you’ve kind of found a full-circle ending with Stones Wine. How did that experience prepare you for where you are today?
Growing up in Nebraska is probably not the ideal spot or the most interesting place you would think to come from. I did grow up on a pretty large farm—it was all cattle and crops—so what’s full-circle to what I do now is I do love the agricultural side to this business. I love the vineyard side of the business, I think [there’s a] work ethic that is developed on that type of farm, where you’re always working 10- and 12-hour days and, looking back, it was a pretty meticulous operation in terms of the crops and things. That’s kind of the same way that we farm now. And it’s kind of the same thing that we do with the vineyards now that we’re extremely particular and extremely meticulous on the grapes and how we grow and how we farm. I think all of that has ended up probably being a pretty huge asset in terms of what we do for the quality of the wines.
Take me through how Fairchild Wines first came to be. What made you decide to pivot to this industry, how and when you acquired the first vineyard, and how you started working with your winemaker, Philippe Melka.
I think it was gravitating toward this industry more than pivoting toward it. After I finished my time on Capitol Hill, I went to San Francisco and I was working on some mid-size, non-tech-related startups. Because even at that stage it was still pre-internet—things have moved so fast over the years. But I was lucky that in my twenties, back in 1994, I [was able to buy] my first property in St. Helena, in Napa Valley. Because I liked the area, and thought it was a beautiful area, I had no intention of ever being in the wine business, but I did love everything about it.
I took U.C. Davis oenology and viticulture courses in the ’90s just purely as hobby. The vineyard needed a lot of repairs, and so I didn’t start producing in very, very small amounts off of that vineyard [until] 2005 along with the one other vineyard in the Napa Valley. And it was still not a full-time profession at that time, but that that was kind of initially how I started.
And the goal was, even in 2005, to do it at the highest quality level possible. I was fortunate that the vineyards that I had even back then were of a extremely high quality. And so that was kind of the intrigue, and then that followed by the addition of the Stones Wine portfolio in 2011. Their following kind of exploded after that.
Could you differentiate between your labels—Fairchild Wine versus Stones Wine?
There’s a little bit of a story behind that. I had the first two wines, one which was called Sigaro, which is the vineyard I purchased in ’99 and then the second wine, called G-III, which was based on an old Georges Latour vineyard. Stones was the original vineyard, where Stones was by the name of Las Piedras. And las piedras in Spanish means “the rocks,” or“the stones,” and so it was going to be a Fairchild label simply called Stones, but the wine gained a lot of notoriety. Even in the barrel, it was very highly rated—it was [getting] a lot of attention both from clients and the wine industry.
And so I decided—without even telling the clients or making it public—to develop an exclusive bottle offering for that particular wine, called Stones. And the origination behind that was it was going to be designed at the level of Hermès or Cartier. We used white French oak—we use zinc pewter labels, hand-stamped and handmade in France.
So I just thought that there was a level to develop this particular wine called Stones and it was just simply called Stones No. 1.—not knowing that there would be a second Stones and a third Stones that would follow in subsequent years.
Drawing on your agricultural background, can you speak to how various growing environments—and the care and attention that they’re shown—result in differing qualities of wine? And, using your properties an example, could you describe how your vineyards are uniquely suited to produce the quality of wine that you do?
We’ve been lucky to expand. I have five different vineyards now in Napa Valley and all of them are, I guess, by helicopter [about] five miles away from each other. I look for very specific soil structures because of my ag. background, [and] my winemaker Philippe Melka has a geology background. So we’re very much about the soils—what grows in them, how well the grapes perform—so they’re very, very, specific areas and very specific sections throughout Napa Valley.
The first thing I look at is what those soils are, because whatever the soil is, whatever comes out of those particular locations, is exactly how the grapes are going to taste. There really is no variation—you can’t change that. The only thing we can do is we can farm them much, much better than they have been farmed before.
We pay a lot off attention to the location, the health of the vineyard—we do like stressed vines—it’s one of those things we look for—which means that all of our soils are extremely rocky One of the vineyards is a stone stream looks literally like a cobblestone street—you’ve never seen more rock in a vineyard. I look for all of the rock, the drainage, the minerality, and then we just farm to a very, very high level that allows us to pull fruit out of these vineyards—it’s pretty amazing.
Stones has very strong artistic leanings. What inspired that?
I’ve been a big fan of kind of art and design for a number of years, and when developing the packaging of what we were putting together for Stones, that all of the labels are unique and … we try to make them pieces of art, try to make them very collectable. In fact, a lot of clients say they just don’t want to open the bottles because they just love them as the art piece, but they eventually do.
I thought there was a higher level of design and a higher level of presentation to match the quality of the wines. These are all 96- to 100-point wines, so we’re at the highest level of quality. I wanted that feeling [you get] when you receive a gift or from Cartier or from Hermès—that amazing presentation. All the way down to our invitations to purchase [our wines], which are done in calligraphy and all personalized. All that is really, really important to me. Some of the things we’re doing in the future are even at a much, much higher level: We have a special project that is hand-blown glass and they are one-of-a-kind bottles—I think there’s another level of appreciation for our clients that are receiving something that’s pretty amazing.
When it comes to sourcing these artists who aid in your brand identity, how do you go about finding them?
It depends which wine we’re talking about. All of the Stones labels are original hand illustrations, so we’re creating our own original art for those labels before we get them all hand-pressed in metal. We’re actually working on a couple of those now, we continue to get original art, art that means something to me.
For some of the future projects where we’re using even a little bit more original art, there’s a couple artists that I collect. One goes by the name of Wosene. He’s an Ethiopian artist who paints now out of Berkeley but these are all original, amazing abstract pieces that are just stunningly gorgeous. And they’re original to Stones and Fairchild. They will be one of a kind bottles.
And another goes by the name of Cédric Bouteiller, a graffiti artist out of Provence, who did a beautiful, original six-by-six piece called “Marilyn,” and that’s going to be somehow incorporated into the labels of original art on some of these bottles. So that’s kind of drawing a little more toward the abstract and the modern and things that are extremely interesting. I want to be able to provide some original things to our clients.
Please speak to the membership aspect of the company.
Over time, just because of the quality and the demand, these wines became allocated. It’s not really something that gets created—it just happens based upon design and quality. The wine quality always has to be there. But we’ve been fortunate that we work only by referral, and the wines are only made available five times per year. There’s only a thousand or so people worldwide who receive the wines.
We try to make sure that everybody on that waiting list, over time, is able to receive wines. But in terms of how we approach what we call either our members or our member clients, we’re very high touch. We’re very much in tune, very high-ended and in beautiful communications with our clients. We’re still very old world, kind of, and trying to present beautiful materials. I really approach it very much like a Louboutin, Hermès, Cartier, Patek Philippe. That’s very, very, important to us, to maintain that [high] level of member communications.
What, if any, advice would you give to people interested in learning more about wine who might feel a little bit intimidated by the intricacies of that world?
I look at it really from entirely an opposite direction. I believe that, regardless of the price point, the region, taste wines—decide what you love. It’s as simple as that. Over time, what you’ll find is that if you just taste different wines you will choose regions, [whether] your region of the world is Napa Valley or Rhône or Burgundy or Bordeaux or Spain. Just taste the different wines, because over time you’ll learn what kinds of wines you love and what flavor profile and what minerality.
Just kind of let it come to you. I can tell, just by tasting a bottle, what the origin of that bottle is and why I like it and why I don’t, or what the elevation is. And that gets a little more technical, but over time, you just learn to find which areas and which vineyards and which locations and which regions of both the U.S. and the world that you love—and don’t make it any more complicated than that. Just really keep it simple.