Todd Alexander, winemaker of Force Majeure, WeatherEye, The Walls, PÁŠXA Wines and his own label from Oregon fruit, Holocene, grew up in a little bit of everywhere — a fate of many whose parents served in the military.
Born in Montgomery, Ala., he quickly bounced to Texas, Florida, Ohio and Arizona. He majored in history at the University of Arizona, with a minor in art history and linguistics — and eventually found himself taking the Foreign Service Officers exam.
“I would have had a very different life,” he says. “Who knows where I’d be now? I’m glad it didn’t happen — but at the time it was what I thought I wanted to do. I was thinking about grad school, going into the Foreign Service … or, making wine. I was way into it, my now-wife, she lived in Napa, she was turning me onto all these cool wines.”
“I went to France, it wasn’t a wine trip, I just went to France. I was in the Loire Valley, then Bordeaux, and I was watching people in the vineyards, and I had this moment. This was a thing,” he says. “I always knew that, but seeing it made it real and less a concept — these wines don’t just appear, there are people making them.”
And with that, Todd Alexander knew he needed to be one of them. Without knowing anyone to help get his foot in the door, he returned to Texas, enrolled in a college program in winemaking and continued to play guitar.
“I’m a musician and a visual artist; the creative process is something familiar to me and comfortable,” he says. “This is a facet of that, and it’s tied into agriculture, which I really liked. My grandparents were farmers. I have that in my blood.”
For the next two years, he studied and worked in Texas viticulture, gaining practical experience to coincide with the more conceptual elements.
“I was ready to challenge myself, to do something fulfilling,” he says. “I thought ‘If I’m really going to do this – I’m going to go to California.’ ”
He worked for PlumpJack and CADE prior to taking a job at Bryant Family Vineyard and ascending to head winemaker/general manager during the course of a few years.
If one subscribes to the idea of the multiverse, one must also allow that there’s likely another version of Todd Alexander who is still in California, sitting atop a cult Cabernet winery — where the view must be at least somewhat spectacular. Luckily, our timeline’s version of Todd got a little antsy at the top, and was also keen to look into, and believe, the advice of science.
“When I was down in Napa, I looked at NASA’s climate prediction models, out to 2050, and Napa and Sonoma were … red.”
“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve reached what many might think as the pinnacle of winemaking in Napa Valley. I was working at this prestigious property, and where do you go from there?’ ” he asked himself. “While that was an honor to do — you’re just steering the ship. There’s less room to be creative. It’s ‘This is what we do, this is how we do it. Don’t mess it up.’ ”
The year was 2014 and half of Force Majeure’s partnership had just taken a step back. It was time to leap, so he left California for the idea of a somewhat greener future in Washington state, but he’s maintained relationships with some of the luminaries he’s worked alongside over the years, including David Abreu, Helen Keplinger and Michel Rolland.
“Force Majeure’s initial plan was to sell fruit, make a little wine. I wanted to create an estate program, stop selling fruit to anyone — just be vertically integrated, self-contained,” he says. “It was a hell of a lot of work — to get it reoriented, to pivot it and change it. Now it’s in a good place.”
Todd’s wines maintain a grip on that 95-98 point swing in every wine periodical, sometimes picking off a few 100-pointers as well. He has a keen way of leaning into the magic that can occur during any given harvest. Every step is tempered with the knowledge that a bottle of his wine represents countless hours and people, all coalescing into this tangible finality, capped with a cork. He understands Cabernet Sauvignon, he loves Syrah, and of late he leans into Rhône whites. But Grenache ….
“Châteauneuf-du-Pape was one of the first places that inspired me,” he says. “I was fascinated by the wine. I’ve always had an inclination toward Grenache.”
Without much experience with Grenache in California, the ability to work with it and allow it to express itself explicitly in the Columbia Valley was an exciting prospect, another boon to heading north. Our region is not Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but it doesn’t have to be. Great wine is a part of the place it’s from — and as such, a place is also part of a great wine.
“Rayas stands alone. It’s a singular wine, it’s not like anything else in Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Alexander says.
Château Rayas is likely the highest-regarded Grenache in the world. Always 100% Grenache, the sandy vineyards are surrounded by enormous pine trees that mitigate the notorious winds that whip through the Southern Rhône. While the wines aren’t the easiest to find, Rayas, to many in the business, is the kind of wine that could change the course of your life.
“I like the more elegant side of what Châteauneuf can do, when you do it right they’re almost Burgundian. There’s a finesse, an energy about the wines,” he says. “For me, anytime having something, if it’s got that power, that richness and fullness, without being heavy — and it has good acid, freshness and energy, some tension …. Those are the wines that get me excited.”
Before harvest graces us with her presence, Todd has several trips, bottling, blending and likely some breathing to work into the schedule.
“Oh there’s a lot to do in the next couple weeks. It woke me up last night,” he says, “for a while.”
And that’s just keeping his long-term projects afloat… one must also leave space for growth. To this end, Force Majeure is planting a vineyard on the North Fork in the Blue Mountain foothills. Meanwhile, Todd, age 44, has two additional wine projects that will be announced in the future. It’s enough to maybe rethink one’s life choices and look into grad school.
He shrugs, pressing on. “There’s always magic.”