Kelsey Phelps grew up in the California wine industry as the granddaughter of Napa Valley wine pioneer, Joseph Phelps. She learned at the dinner table, in the vineyards and by watching her grandfather build an iconic business. Like her grandfather, Kelsey is an entrepreneur at heart. She practiced law in Silicon Valley before following her dream to join her family in the wine industry. Kelsey opted to start her own company, SEPPI Craft Sparkling Wines, so that she could focus on creating wines that directly reflect her tastes and personality. Kelsey resides in Washington, D.C. but travels frequently to California to produce her sparkling wine.
I had the great pleasure and opportunity to interview Kelsey, so that you too could learn more about her SEPPI Collection, and how it became. Here’s some of our tasteful dialogue:
What was it like growing up with family in a vineyard?
As a child, I obviously didn’t appreciate wine the way I do now and I didn’t understand how fortunate I was to be around such amazing vintners. I loved spending time at my grandfather’s house but I mostly remember the swimming pool and beautiful plants and wildlife. There are wild turkeys that roam the vineyards and those birds are scary! When I got older, I interned in the cellar, worked in the vineyards and the tasting room. That’s when I really started to develop my love for wine!
At what age did you become interested in wine?
I would say mid-20s, but even then it was really important to chart my own path. I was unsure if I wanted to work in the family business, but I wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet without depending on anyone else. I decided to go to law school and become a business attorney. It wasn’t until later in life I that decided wine really was my passion.
What was the turning point in your career as an Attorney that made you realize you wanted to continue business in the wine industry?
There were a lot of upsides to my life in corporate law. It was very intellectually stimulating and I was making very good money for a young person, but the lifestyle was grueling. I really had an epiphany. What is the point of life? Where is the time to enjoy all of the things I’m passionate about? I’m making money, but what can I do with it? I realized the work I was doing was not making me happy. I wanted to celebrate life, not spend it doing work I did not enjoy. So I decided to take a risk and enter the wine industry, even though that meant leaving behind the security I had worked so hard for.
What do you enjoy most in the wine industry?
Working in nature is the best part. There are few other jobs that allow you to be outside so much of the time, and I say this coming from a job where I had been spending 12 straight hours in an office. I love being in the vineyards, sourcing grapes, hearing the birds, being hands on. I also love the business side and creative process. I didn’t want to sell anyone else’s wine. I wanted to create wine that represented who I am as a person, my personality, my tastes. Oh, and I also love the tasting and wine dinners part!
What is your favorite taste of wine and why?
I love, love, love bubbles. And rosé! To me, bubbles mean celebration. I try to remind myself to live life like there is no tomorrow. I love wine that compliments the celebration of being alive every day.
How did you start your business?
I used the money I earned and saved from my previous career, and built everything from the ground up. I wanted to learn at every step of the process. I started asking around – family & friends – in Napa Valley. I was introduced to Keith Hock, who is now my lead winemaker. He taught me about the technical wine making details for bubbles and we work together to craft the blends. I did some serious research to find vineyards to source my grapes and build friendships with growers. It’s very important in the wine industry to have strong relationships because a lot of business is done on trust. My fruit comes from carefully selected vineyards throughout Northern California and a small amount of it comes from my family’s vineyard in Sonoma. I also needed to find the right equipment to make my wine and the right people to make sure everything moves forward when I’m in DC. But I am very grateful to my grandfather because I would not be able to do any of this if he hadn’t opened the doors fifty years ago.
What is one of your favorite memories with your grandfather?
Just spending time with him at his house. He was a great cook. He excelled at anything he did. He liked to make simple dishes but with very high quality ingredients. My favorite dish of his was pasta and fresh pesto with basil from his garden. And then there was his process of selecting the wine! He would take out this huge binder that listed all of his wines and pour through it to select just the right bottle for that meal. Long before I could drink I loved going down to his wine cellar to retrieve the wine. There were thousands of bottles and it was like a labyrinth! Dinner with him was always such a joyful & thoughtful process.
What does ‘Seppi’ mean?
Seppi is my cousins’ and my nickname for my grandfather. He loved to travel and was captivated by the lifestyles of France and Italy. When he had his first grandchild, my cousin Elizabeth, he felt like he was too young to be called grandpa. He was particularly obsessed with Italy at that time so as a joke he decided his grandchildren should call him Guiseppe (Italian for Joseph) instead of grandpa. Of course as young children we could not pronounce that, so Guiseppe became Seppi. I named my wine to pay tribute to his legacy and the impact he has had on my life.
What influenced Seppi’s logo?
I wanted it to be fun and celebratory, but also convey the quality and craftsmanship that goes into SEPPI sparkling wine. Like my grandpa, I also love to travel. I think the scalloped edges and red stamp invoke the feeling of an old school postcard, but the gold foil and the geometric design keep it modern. I put a lot of thought into finding the right balance and am really proud of the end result!
Seppi seems so approachable. I cant wait to try it. What is in store for Seppi in 2020?
Thank you! The first vintage was in 2017, which aged for 19 months and just launched in December. During the past three months I’ve been marketing to friends and family, getting feedback. Now I am ready and excited to bring SEPPI to a wider audience! I’ve also been working hard on my 2018, 2019 and upcoming 2020 vintages which are all in the production pipeline.
Why did you choose to move to the East Coast, specifically the Nation’s Capital?
A few years ago, after I had already started SEPPI in California, I fell in love with the city of Washington DC and decided to try something new. So much of the US wine industry is based in California, Oregon or Washington, which means that very few of those winemakers have the opportunity introduce their wines directly to customers in the eastern states. I noticed this and saw a business opportunity, as well as chance to share more of the Napa Valley lifestyle that I love and cherish with my friends — and new friends — on the East Coast. It’s also a great excuse to travel!
What is a key motivator for you?
As a woman, I’ve always felt it’s important to be able to provide for myself and chart my own path. There is power in knowing “I DID IT” by merit of my own talents, grit and passion. I’m sure everyone can relate to being discounted, criticized and told they don’t have what it takes. I love to prove the naysayers wrong! That’s also the ethos I try to build into my brand. We all face challenges, unfair criticism and daily struggles, but to stay grateful, positive, forward thinking and celebratory is what I try my best to do, and is what I want SEPPI to represent.
Interviewing Kelsey really allowed me to dig deep. It reminded me to follow my dreams no matter the amount of time it may take. Your path is not for anyone but yourself. At the end of the day, no amount of money will contribute to your happiness if you are not enjoying life while making it. I love how Kelsey trusted me with her story! I hope this speaks to those who have read this far.
Be sure to learn more about SEPPI Craft Wines & Kelsey’s tastes at drinkseppi.com