A Sip Wines "Winelight"
Ames Morison and Chris Medlock James
Oh hey, it’s 2021! I would say something more celebratory, but I’m taking the following meme quite seriously at the moment:
Still, I’m kind of a sucker for making new year’s resolutions, and this year it feels particularly important to reflect on making positive life changes (at least if your 2020 was anything like mine and thus characterized by an almost obscene number of bags of Ruffles consumed by one person). After the year we just had I definitely don’t want to jinx anything (see above meme), but in my (probably naively) optimistic heart of hearts, I’m (quietly) calling 2021 a year of hope.
It therefore feels very fitting that my first Winelight of 2021 features Sip Wines winery partner Medlock Ames. Owners and co-founders Chris Medlock James and Ames Morison are constantly going above and beyond for the sake of others and the world, making fantastic wine in the process.
First of all, and I’m not even saying this is one of the most important things about Medlock Ames, but just these words: PEACE CORPS. Until speaking with Ames Morison, I had only met two other people in my entire life who actually joined the Peace Corps.
If you don’t know anything about what it actually means to serve in the Peace Corps, the very short version is that you’re sent overseas for over 2 years to help with projects in developing countries. My impression is that for most volunteers, it’s an overwhelmingly dramatic difference from their US lives, regardless of their homes or backgrounds; my two friends who both worked in Africa didn’t have home electricity or running water. (And here I am, refusing to even take my six year old camping because I don’t perceive anything fun about sleeping outside, and also bugs.)
Ames spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala before he and his cofounder, Chris Medlock James, decided to pursue their wine dreams, and I think it’s safe to say that this experience was formative in shaping Medlock Ames today. Ames credits his exposure to ancient farming methods in shaping the value structure of Medlock Ames, both as an agricultural and viticultural endeavor as well as a wine producer.
Patting myself on the back for an excellent segue, this is when I want to really dive into that value structure, starting with the biggest piece. Which is, even in the highly progressive, largely sustainable wine communities of northern California, Medlock Ames is one of the only vineyards and wineries committed to fully organic farming and CCOF Certified Organic--in addition to running sustainable operations. Like, actually one of the only ones, even though the majority of vineyards and wineries are operating sustainably (through various forms of certification). So, what’s the difference?
If you find the various designations confusing, it’s totally understandable, both because of the overlap across categories as well as similar terminology. Here’s how Ames and Julie Rothburg, president of Medlock Ames, explained it to me. Winemaking has a number of stages from beginning to end, and different practices (sustainable, organic, etc) may apply depending on the stage. Perhaps bullet points will help:
- Growing the grapes
- Harvesting the grapes
- Processing the grapes/making the wine
- Bottling the wine
- Running a tasting room
- Shipping the wine
- All the other admin stuff (marketing, office management)
Sustainability is the broadest designation in that it can encompass any and all of these stages, from eliminating pesticides in grape farming all the way to powering a tasting room through solar energy and reducing carbon footprint in shipping. To be clear, Medlock Ames does a LOT of this as well, from using solar power to preserving natural ecosystems on their land, and way more.
But here’s what really sets them apart: Medlock Ames holds an organically farmed certification from CCOF, which is specifically focused on the practices used to grow and harvest the grapes. Organic certification is EXTREMELY strict, it’s expensive, there’s lots of paperwork—and it’s meaningful. Organic farming represents a deep commitment to maintaining healthy soil through the total elimination of artificial chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides, nurturing native wildlife, and minimizing total impact on the land and environment. It is the embodiment of natural stewardship and respect for the land, as well as the health and safety of all people coming into contact with that land—including the ultimate consumer of the land’s bounty, meaning us wine drinkers. Being fully organically farmed does come at a cost, but it’s one that Medlock Ames is happy to bear. Fortunately, their customers have agreed wholeheartedly, fully embracing the necessary business decisions that allow Medlock Ames to maintain their organically farmed certification.
[As a point of clarification, many of our winery partners have implemented many of the practices that go into organic certification, often as part of their sustainability efforts. There are various reasons why different operations choose to pursue different certifications. Again, overlap, confusing. It’s all good though.]
Impressed enough yet? Well, there’s more, although it might not jump out at you in quite the same way as super impressive certifications and PEACE CORPS. But as a former corporate lawyer and also former management person, I was really struck by something on the Medlock Ames website: they have an actual, fully articulated and publicly shared value statement. I won’t do a deep dive into corporate jargon, but I do want to briefly explain why this is interesting and different. You may be most familiar with the popular “mission statement,” which is basically a short distillation of what a company stands for. For example, here’s LinkedIn’s mission statement: “To connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” It’s why the company exists, and it can sound pretty lofty.
A values statement, on the other hand, is more on the ground. It’s an expression of a company’s moral direction and expectations, a reflection of how the company wants to engage internally with its employees, with stakeholders, and with the general public. A values statement is kind of the antithesis of an “ends justify the means” approach: whereas a mission statement is an articulation of an end goal, a values statement means that a company is being transparent about how they want to reach that goal. It’s not actually that common to find a values statement on a company’s website (at least not without some digging), and for an operation as small as Medlock Ames, it’s really striking. It shows that leadership has invested time and thought into how they want to run their company and it provides a moral roadmap in times of question. Take a look at the Medlock Ames values statement and you’ll see what I mean:
- Preservation of the land is at the heart of all we do and is a guiding light not only in our farming but in how we support our community and how we make decisions to ensure our choices have the most positive impact on the world we live in
- Integrity and respect for all of our employees, all of our customers and anyone else we interact with in our community
- Continuous learning and improvement of ourselves and our organization, supporting each other in this endeavor with productive feedback while always having each other’s back
- Maintaining the highest standards in our work and for our environment, and especially in the level of hospitality we provide
- Teamwork in the vineyards, the winery, our hospitality centers and with our community overall
- Dedicated to creating an environment that is inclusive of all with a commitment to diversity that welcomes and respects our employees while representing our community.
One last thing, although I feel like it should be pretty obvious at this point: They’re accomplishing all this while making fantastic wine. I really hope I’ve established enough trust with you, my reader, that you’ll believe me when I say that ALL of the wines I’ve sampled from Sip Wines are delicious (and I’ve fully embraced that particular blogger perk). But maybe you still find it hard to believe that people can be so… well, so GOOD, and also make an incredible product. Believe it, my friends. Medlock Ames is the real deal.