SANTA BARBARA'S NEW FRONTIER
Santa Rita Hills cool climate Pinot Noirs add an enticing new twist.
-- By James Laube
...So what California wines will you be drinking next year? Or five years from now? And who will be making them? After polling a cross-section of sommeliers, retailers and auctioneers to find out who they considered the most exciting winemakers to watch, Wine & Spirits wound up with a short list of repeated names, winemakers who are capturing the attention of those looking for the Next Big Thing. I went for a visit with each to discover what sets them apart and what directions they see for the future of California winemaking. It's a diverse group of young rookies and more established names, like Cathy Corison, whose starts are still on the rise. It's a group whose goals cover the spectrum from making a great ten dollar wine to being next year¹s cult wine homecoming king or queen.
So here is the fruit of our labor: a number of winemakers taking chances and gaining attention. They are the names to keep in your peripheral vision.
GREG BREWER / STEVE CLIFTON
Extreme sites create extreme wines. Just look at the recent upswing of plantings in remote regions with unpredictable microclimates. Wineries such as Flowers, Kistler, Littorai, WIlliams-Selyem and others with bottlings from the Sonoma Coast reveal the assortment of site conditions up on the ridges above the ocean. Likewise, in the western reaches of Santa Barbara County, where soil and weather change from one side of the road to the other, terroir plays a crucial, differentiating role. Elsewhere in the county, there are plantings from bigger, more commercial players such as Meridian, where winemaking style tends to supersede gradations of ground. But nearer to the coast in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, small operations like Ojai, Foxen, Sine Qua Non and Au Bon Climat source grapes to create vineyard-designated wines. These give a portrait of a region where difference rules. Brewer-Clifton, one of the newest and most talked-about outfits in the area, is a case in point.
"We're not about winemaking," says Greg Brewer, who shares this duty with Steve Clifton. "We're absolutely a vineyard-driven brand. It's not about what we do, it's about what we don't do. We just want to deliver the essence of the vineyards as purely and honestly as we can, replicating Burgundy as closely as we can." The Brewer-Clifton team buys fruit from tiny portions--two rows here, five rows there--of vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley and the western, Santa Rita area of the Santa Ynez. At the moment they have released only 425 cases across six wines: four chardonnays and two pinot noirs, each with its own individualized character.
Take their Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay as an example. Chris and Christie Marks grow the fruit in a western outpost of the Santa Rita where hills follow the west-to-east bias of the land, carving our a maritime throat of cold and fog and wet. Sweeney Canyon is the recipient of all things Pacific and inhospitable, and in this county of hot valley days, an unexpected spot.
Overlooking the vineyard, Greg opens a bottle of the '96 Sweeney Canyon for me and pours into glasses perched on the ticking, warm hood of his car. He says, "Our growing season out here is eternal compared to other areas. So we get this piercing acidity." It's a warning as I taste the wine. Part one: luxurious texture like silk hanging in the mouth, and then part two: acid slicing through it like scissors. It's a dramatic experience and not one that everyone is going to enjoy. But the wine is intended to give a direct impression of the land, and so its drama reflects this outpost country: extreme and not for the faint of heart.
Of course, farming grapes in extreme sites is not a bargain business. Brewer-Clifton have a new half-acre planting where young pinot vines in a couple of feet of sand lay in crowded three foot-by-three foot rows. Marine wind bombards the site, and Greg Brewer doesn't expect much fruit: "maybe a pound per vine." he says, shrugging. Experiments in low yields put high prices on bottles, but for now, people are looking to the fringe of winemaking country like here in the Santa Rita to find next year's hot wines. There's distinction in outpost country, and people are willing to pay for it.
-- Reprint with permission of Wine & Spirits Magazine, Issue Date: Oct. 1999, (888) 695-4660