If you are ever lucky enough to be welcomed into the Sebastopol home of Virginia Marie “Ginny” Lambrix, director of winemaking for Truett-Hurst, Inc., and Kevin Shaw, the founder of Stranger & Stranger, a label design and branding firm that specializes in alcohol packaging, expect a lot of laughter, warmth, generosity and a genuine interest and inquisitiveness about their guests.
There’s an easy, playful banter between the two, a dynamic that began before they even met, when Shaw was based in his native England and Lambrix was establishing herself as an innovative and creative Sonoma County winemaker. Lambrix had been making VML wines for Truett-Hurst and selling them in the tasting room for about a year, when Truett-Hurst’s partners, led at that time by longtime industry veterans Phil Hurst and Paul Dolan, decided to open a new winery, VML, named after Lambrix.
Having trouble creating a viable brand identity for VML, at Hurst’s suggestion the partners turned to Shaw, whose firm is known for intricate, innovative and award-winning designs that push the wine industry forward in its approach to packaging.
“So Phil called Kevin and gave him a brief, but it was for this really beautiful, sweet, foggy Russian River [brand],” said Lambrix. “And what came back was this really beautiful, sweet, foggy Russian River. I looked at them and said, ‘It’s beautiful and sweet—and so not me.’”
With that, Shaw and Lambrix began a year-long email collaboration to develop several Truett-Hurst brands, looking for labels that captured both her personality and the attention of a crowded marketplace. The result is extraordinarily intricate labels that are full of details large and small, many derived from the natural world. They evoke a sense of history and attention to a healthy vineyard, a mix of a botanist’s logbook and an ancient scientist documenting pagan rituals.
“He showed the labels to Phil and warned him, ‘Ginny’s a witch and your eyeballs are probably going to melt into the back of your head. Spend a little time with it and it’ll be okay,’” Lambrix said.
For Lambrix, the unconventional labels speak far more closely to who she is as a person and a winemaker. “I’ve got some edges. I do things like bury crystals in some of the vineyards, and I mingle in things that are really different. I definitely believe in things that are unusual,” said Lambrix, encapsulating her winemaking philosophy. “I think wine has karma. I think your intentions with it are often reflected in the wine. I know people who are way more conventional winemakers than I am who also believe that wine has karma. They just may not say that publicly.”
The collaborative process with Shaw continued as they worked together on a number of new brands for the Truett-Hurst family of wines. “I really enjoyed working with him,” said Lambrix. “We were emailing back and forth for over a year and we had this really fun synergy where I was coming up with label names and giving him briefs and he was coming up with labels. We did Dearly Beloved, Bewitched, Criminal, The Fugitive. We did a bunch of labels together before we even met, but our emails were always a little bit flirty.”
During that year, they discovered a number of shared interests and backgrounds—for example, both began their careers in chemistry and other sciences, yet both also pursued art. However, they had yet to meet in person and had vastly different lifestyles.
Lambrix was a single mother to a young son, James, who she was raising with the support of his father, who is still a good friend. She had come to Sonoma County years earlier, pursuing a love of Pinot Noir and cool climate viticulture and winemaking, working with Hugh Chappelle at Lynmar Estate and Greg La Follette at DeLoach Vineyards before joining Truett-Hurst in 2008.
For Shaw, life at that time consisted of finely tailored Armani, sports cars, late nights and cross-Atlantic trips between his offices in New York and London. “It’s part of being in the industry. They are always telling me about the latest bar you’ve got to go and take a look at and the latest bottle you’ve got to go and look at and this spirit at some club,” he said. “It sounds great, and it is great the first few years, and after that it just becomes a complete chore.”
Still, Lambrix was intrigued and wanted to finally meet the man she’d been working with so long. “One day, I heard he was in California,” said Lambrix. “I said, ‘You can’t come to California, call someone a witch and not make arrangements to meet her.’ He initially told me, ‘I just don’t have time.’ I was kind of mad. I was sending him all sorts of dark and evil thoughts.”
“You have to understand, we have clients all over the world—Australia, China, Japan, people I’ve never met,” said Shaw. “They just mail things in. It’s completely normal for me. So I thought, maybe if I’m in the vicinity, that’s fine, but…”
“So, 45 minutes later he said fine, we could meet for breakfast,” interjected Lambrix. “We had a two-hour breakfast and at the end of it, he said, ‘I’ll move to California.’”
“No, no I didn’t. You have that all wrong,” said Shaw. “I said that we were clearly going to be mates. I’ve actually got it. I’ve saved every one of our emails. We’re clearly going to be really good friends, that’s what I said. We got on like a house on fire, we just laughed our heads off for two hours. Then it kind of… morphed.”
“You are so full of it,” laughed Lambrix.
“I’ve got the emails! I’ve kept every single email,” protested Shaw.
“I am going to dig out my email from you too, because you definitely didn’t say we’re going to be friends,” said Lambrix. “You are so fabricating!”
“That’s the first line of the first email,” Shaw continued. “We’re clearly going to be best mates. When I got down to LA to the hotel a day later, then it was, ‘I wish you were here.’”
“Let’s just say that he came back three weeks later,” said Lambrix.
When Shaw returned, there was an obvious connection and any debates about whether or not they’d just be best mates or something more were put to rest. Over the course of the next year, Shaw made dozens of long-haul trips back to California as the relationship flourished. At the end of the year, he did indeed move to Sonoma County. In the four years since, Lambrix and Shaw have married, bought a home and added a daughter, Madeline (Maddie), now one and one-half years old, to their family.
“Sonoma County is just amazingly beautiful and really committed to agriculture and a lot of people around here are very forward-thinking,” said Lambrix of why she chose Sonoma County and why her family still calls it home. “Just being so close to the ocean, and the food and the overall vibe is just amazing. My son goes to Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm, where they have 30 acres to run around in. It’s incredible—the level of fitness, the caliber of teaching and the quality of food are magical.”
Moving to Sonoma County, though, was an adjustment for Shaw, who was raised in the north of England but had lived in cities most of his life. “When I first got here, it reminded me of home. The geography and the people seemed to be really friendly and open,” he said. “But I realized this is one of the craziest places I’ve ever been. It has influenced me, though. It’s loosened me up. When I first saw Patrick Amiot’s work on Florence Avenue, I thought, wow. Then there is another guy that I met at Aubergine, he was wearing a kilt. There were all these people who were just kinda hanging out and doing their thing. It definitely loosens you up as a creative person.”
He jokes that Sonoma County can be a “bit of a zoo” and that he now goes to his offices in New York or London to be around the mainstream. “Sonoma County is beautiful. There are a lot of characters here. It attracts people from the outskirts of society, I think. So I felt at home from the minute I got here, I’ve got to say.”
Shaw has definitely adapted, trading his impeccable designer clothes and sports cars for checked shirts “that hide all manner of baby stains” and a family home on several acres.
“There’s been several experiences that have made me laugh,” said Lambrix. “Kevin’s license had expired once so I had to drive my socially-conscious Sonoma County hybrid, and he’s in the passenger seat. And my son James used to call him Kenny instead of Kevin. At one point he just looks over at me and says, ‘This is not my life. I am riding shotgun in a fake Prius listening to country music with a redheaded step-child calling me Kenny.’ And at that very moment, James got carsick everywhere. And Kevin says, ‘This cannot be.’
“It’s been unconventional and crazy and when we were going back and forth, that was tough,” continued Lambrix, as Shaw pointed out he took 44 long-distance plane trips over their first year of dating. “I am so glad we figured it out. There’s a few times when you do long-distance, you question it, but I am so, so glad we sorted it out because, look at what turned out. Look at what happened,” she said.
Lambrix said she and Shaw “both lived pretty fun lives before the kids,” traveling and experiencing the world on their own terms. “Since kids entered the scene, our lives been much more low key. It’s been pretty busy in the last few years, especially with the birth of Maddie,” she said.
But they continue to collaborate. One project the couple is working on together is California Winecraft, one of the latest brands from Truett-Hurst. Currently found in limited distribution, California Winecraft are wine-based, carbonated beverages mixed with organic and natural flavoring. It’s a project that was inspired by the burgeoning craft beer and cocktail movement, and it currently includes a lineup of four related but distinct individual offerings: Norcal Sqeeze, a Sauvignon Blanc with lemon and lime; Sonoma Brew, a blend of red wine and cola; Château Vanille Chardonnay with vanilla flavors; and Mataro’s Punch, a sangria.
“Ginny still comes up with names and we do the traditional wine stuff. I keep doing the crazy new idea things and throwing things in from that side,” said Shaw. “The idea was to take regular drinks and make them out of wine. Initially with this she looked at me like I was the devil. ‘You want to do what to wine? Why?’ Then I went to her office and she’s surrounded by these organic essences and she’s dripping them into wine. She really got into it. These are amazing, you can drink them all day. They are about six percent alcohol and they just taste delicious. They’re all part of a family, but offer different flavor promises.”
“The can project has been really interesting,” said Lambrix. “It probably took me two months of dragging my feet. I thought, you’re kidding me. You want me to take wine, water, CO2, flavor and sugar and make something I might drink? Really? But once I did get into it, what I did was take some base wines that I liked and thought what are the flavors in these wines I could pull up and turn up the volume on and make them entertaining? These have been a labor of love. Even the bases on the red wines are blends of different base things because I liked what that can add, then that and that.”
It’s a project that also appeals to Lambrix because it makes wine be more accessible to a larger audience. “I didn’t grow up with people going, ‘Oh, I get raspberries from this wine.’ I want people to just enjoy the wines and have fun and play and to be comfortable enjoying wine,” she said. “Wine and art can be so intimidating and off-putting. If you say you’re a winemaker and they’re tasting something, they’ll go, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know anything about that.’ They get all tense. I don’t like that, I want people to be happy and really in the moment. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money and my parents didn’t really drink wine. I think wine of a great quality should be available at different price points.”
It’s a project that also appeals to Shaw because it speaks to the heart of his philosophy on wine packaging: moving forward in new and interesting ways.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens with it,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get people trying them. You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope. Wine just doesn’t evolve like the other sectors we deal in, like beer or spirits. They have constant evolution and growth and we’re still using the same wine bottles we used 500 years ago, sticking bits of wood in the top and calling it done. The world doesn’t need 6,000 identical wine products. We’re pushing a little bit in our corner of the world and hope it inspires others to do as well. I’ve got an endless stream of different things to try.” SD