Eat + Drink, What's New in Sonoma County

The Story Behind Sophie James’ Exclusive Wine Brand and Club

Members of the winery's invitation-only Tribe can enjoy experiences such as dinners on Sonoma Mountain and parties at hip Bay Area venues.

The drive up to Sophie and James Gray’s 2,300-foot-elevation vineyard property is a surreal trip through the best and worst of what Wine Country has to offer.

From the east side of Petaluma, hang a right onto Sonoma Mountain Road— voted the worst of Sonoma County’s pothole-ridden drives in a 2015 Press Democrat online poll— and keep going. Up, up, up along the narrow two-way road: sheer drops with jaw-dropping 180-degree vistas, over cattle grates and under low-hanging branches of 100-year-old oaks.

The top of Sonoma Mountain is not a place a lot of people get to visit. Many of the properties have been owned by the same families for generations, and gate after gate separates them from the crumbling road below, popular with cyclists and those seeking a view that stretches across Petaluma west to the coast. But through the Grays’ burgeoning wine label, Sophie James, the husband-and-wife pair have opened up the experience to their wine club members— and more broadly, to their social media followers through the brand’s increasingly popular Instagram account.

Both Sophie and James Gray attended the same high school in Marin County, graduating in 2002 and 1999, respectively.

James went off to San Diego State University, while Sophie went to the University of Colorado at Boulder. The two wouldn’t reconnect again until 2008, after James had moved back to the U.S. from London, where he built a successful online ticket resale business post-graduation that was eventually acquired by Ticketmaster. On their first date, James told Sophie (née Boddington) he wanted to trade in that life for one as a rancher. Sophie, then a UCSF stem cell researcher working 80 hours a week and on the edge of burn-out, was intrigued.

Primed with cash from his company’s acquisition and with real estate prices down because of the Great Recession, when the couple discovered the two-story glass and corrugated metal home, its 5-acre Pinot Noir vineyard, and the surrounding land, they were able to afford it.

In May 2010, they went into escrow on the sprawling, 130-acre mountaintop property.

In 2012, Sophie and James got married on the mountain, the ceremony held looking east over Jack London State Historic Park. Five years and two children later, the Grays realized the only way they could afford to keep their retreat was if they made the land work. It was time, they decided, to turn their small-scale Pinot Noir and rosé wine production into a commercial enterprise.

Sophie took her innate understanding of design and visuals and paired it with a work ethic honed over years in the medical research field to build a highly engaged social media following for their small wine brand.

“I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, they love our story. They love watching us live our life up here. They are interested in the wine, and Instagram is helping us,’” Sophie says. “… What’s interesting is that when you’re allowed to get creative, you figure it out.”

Through videos and photos, Sophie shares her young family’s experiences at their mountaintop country home. Views from sunrise walks, hilltops peeking out from a sea of low-lying clouds, the Grays’ daughters playing in the pool on a summer afternoon, and decadent tablescapes from luxe wine club events pepper the winery’s Instagram account (@sophiejameswine). It’s a vision so appealing that it allows them to skirt the need for a traditional tasting room setting, instead relying on word of mouth, private wine club experiences on the mountain, and intimate tastings at hip Bay Area venues to draw new members to their entirely direct-to-consumer business.

Kelsey Sheofsky, an early member of Sophie James’ “Tribe,” as the wine club is known, owns a pop-up luxury tent company that has partnered with the wine brand in the past. And while she loves the wines, Sheofsky joined the club to be part of the community more than anything, she says.

“I think it’s more about the people and the other members and getting to go,” Sheofsky says. “I think the people that are part of the club are not so much caring about getting their wine delivery — it’s more like they’re caring about what am I getting invited to do to pick up my wine, what experiences am I going to be introduced to.”

Sheofksy’s Shelter Co. works with the winery to create mountaintop glamping experiences, providing luxury tents for wine club members to stay the night in — an idea Sophie dreamed up so her wine club members could witness the dramatic sunrise views she posts so regularly on Instagram.

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I didn't have have a background in wine. I didn't have a background in marketing or sales. I had a background in understanding the power of hard work and not being afraid of dreaming big and taking a chance in life – even if it meant having to completely reinvent myself and go through a very long period of time where I really struggled. I am proud of myself for not only being brave enough to launch a company that I previously had no experience in but that I did it after having babies and didn't fall into the trap of feeling cornered in my career when I was in my 20's – a career that didn't bring the best out in me. I’m proud that I was brave enough to take that leap of faith and listen to the universe calling me. Thank you all for helping me live my dream 💫📸 @jamie_diger

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The picturesque landscape, the high-end chef dinners Sophie organizes for club members, the emphasis on interesting brand partnerships, and the fact that the business is run by a young, working mother all combine for an intoxicating brand story and marketing approach grasped by few other Wine Country labels. It’s one Sophie saw, most notably, being used by Sonoma Valley’s Scribe, which grew its own direct-to-consumer fanbase through a similar strategy revolving around members-only events and limited distribution.

“A lot of people in the city who are in the grind, basically, they’re dreaming about the future,” James says. “And they’re dreaming about a better life for themselves. … People come up and say, ‘Your story is inspiring us because we’re thinking of getting a place in the country and escaping this, and seeing you guys do this gives us confidence.’” When they took ownership, the property was run down — a metal box of a compound once owned by an adult film producer (a deep, green Jacuzzi bath in the master bedroom remains a lasting tribute the property’s previous owner).

The remodel was slow and methodical, with an attention to detail reflected in the way Sophie now runs her wine club. The paint on the building’s exterior was chosen based on a sample of the volcanic soil she brought to Benjamin Moore paints, because she wanted the home to blend in with the land. The now-mature landscaping they designed and planted themselves, purchased from the Sonoma County Jail’s plant nursery. And much of the home’s furniture was bought on a trip the couple took to Bali in July 2010 — the size, warmth, and colors of which blend well with the home’s vaulted ceilings and original brass and Lucite details.

Sophie was raised by parents who purchased and restored Bay Area Victorian homes, and that upbringing prepared her well for the project of renovating their mountaintop home. Over the course of the next two years, getting the property into a suitable living condition would become her full-time job.

With the retirement of Sophie James’ first winemaker, Jeff Baker, and with the wine brand’s expanding waitlist, in 2018 the Grays brought on winemaker Scott Schultz to help guide the business’ future. Whenever Sophie brings up the idea of getting their wine into local restaurants, Schultz — who owns his own Sonoma County label, Jolie-Laide, and has been in the industry since 2007— walks her back.

“You already have this club that people are, like, seething to be part of,” Schultz says. “It’s more like a lifestyle brand. People don’t see the wine on Instagram and say, ‘Oh, I have to have that wine.’ They see the house and the vineyard and the views and the top of the mountain. That’s what she’s creating so well. So it’s much more of a love of the story and the brand. But yes, of course, the wines can’t suck either.”

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Let the light in ✨💫🌟

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Membership to the Sophie James Tribe starts at $135 for a three-bottle quarterly release of Pinot Noir and a rosé of the same grape, and includes perks like invitations to mountaintop dinners and exclusive parties around the Bay Area. But with such limited production, access to the wine club is difficult, with demand outpacing current supply and Sophie dreaming of planting an additional 20 acres of vineyard on the property.

From 2012 until harvest 2017, Sophie James sold a portion of their grapes to Flowers Winery. But with production limited to their 5 planted acres, those sales meant their supply couldn’t keep up with the demand of those on the Sophie James waitlist. For harvest 2018, the Grays decided to keep the entire crop for their own label. That means that with the bottling of their 2018 Pinot Noir, they’ll finally have enough product to add new members.

For members of Sophie James’ Tribe, who range in age from their 20s to their 70s and live all over California, the exclusivity adds to the allure of the brand.

“Everyone wants an Instagrammable moment— not just necessarily a photo op, but something to do that’s cool and fun and exclusive, you know,” Sheofsky says. “How do you get to be part of that club? It’s definitely the future of that world. I think it makes so much sense.”

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