As wine lovers, we hear stories again and again of Pinot Noir’s difficulties in the vineyard and the cellar. Often described as “the heartbreak grape,” it has perplexed and exasperated many a vigneron across centuries. But talk to Nebbiolo producers in California and you soon find out that the “heartbreak” of Pinot is the stuff of puppy love compared to the torrid, depression-inducing love affair that is Nebbiolo. I spoke this week with Steve Clifton, a man who has devoted himself to crafting great Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County, about his long relationship with this maddening grape variety.
“If a producer is not willing to invest in the time and anguish necessary to produce Nebbiolo and be proud of it, don’t bother,” states Clifton. “Ours is at least a 5 year project. I wish I could afford to hold on to it longer. My accountant wishes he had never heard of Nebbiolo.” Steve Clifton’s passion for Nebbiolo is palpable. Taste his various expressions of the grape, from 5 different vineyards in Santa Barbara County, and you can see the meticulous care given to let the site character of each express itself. His passion has even inspired our owner here at the café, Sam Marmorstein, to plant a bit of Nebbiolo for his Bernat project. Marmorstein also is quick to note the obsessiveness required of the grape. “It’s the first to bud and last to harvest in November,” he says. “It’s definitely a labor of love. I don’t think many wine makers will attempt it.”
Of the winemakers I’ve spoken to in the past about Nebbiolo, from the Sierra Foothills and Santa Cruz Mountains to Paso Robles and Santa Maria Valley, one complaint has constantly arisen: the challenge of getting pH to rise. For most, it is not uncommon to pick with pH between 3.0 and 3.2. To provide context, those pH levels are more like what one might see with a very high acid white, or even some sparkling wines; to experience those numbers in a red wine is almost unheard-of. Through his years of farming adjustments, and assistance from the masters of Piemonte, Clifton has been one of the lucky few to get this issue under control. “Those numbers were definitely the case in the early days before we asked for help with farming,” Clifton says. “In 2000, Maurizio Gily, Luciano Sandrone and others gave time to come and help us with farming and changed all of that. We harvest Nebbiolo between 3.4 -3.6 pH and around 23.5 brix now.”
This may be one of the great keys to his success with the grape: the wines have a beautiful balance between generosity of fruit, textural presence, and acid, allowing them to handle long times in barrel and bottle without losing freshness. Clifton attributes this success to forgoing the idea that grapevines have to struggle. “When I was finally taught to farm for health, strength and virility for Nebbiolo, everything changed. I have applied that philosophy to all of our farming and am very happy with the results.” Clonal material has played a major role in Nebbiolo’s New World success (or failure) as well, with the availability of better clonal material in the early 2000s marking a huge shift in quality. “Before 1997 we were working almost exclusively with Lampia and Rosé clones,” states Clifton. “In 1998 we made Michet available. To me 2002 and the first Michet harvests were a major turning point.”
The debate over modern vs. traditional has been a fierce one for decades in Piemonte, much as it has taken hold in Californian wine culture over the last few years. The traditionalists embrace lengthy fermentations with long extended macerations, large neutral casks for aging, and longer stays in barrel and bottle before release. The modernists employ shorter fermentations and may utilize small barrique, sometimes new, for aging, striving for riper and/or fruitier, more generous characteristics in their wines. Clifton proudly falls into the traditionalist camp, deeply inspired by one of my personal idols in Barolo, Giacomo Conterno. “I love that you make reference to Giacomo Conterno,” smiles Clifton. “He is by far the most enduring influence on our Nebbiolo style (not to mention Barbera as well). The highest compliment I have ever received was to be mentioned in Piemonte as a part of the ‘traditional’ group of producers, even though we are New World.” Clifton is also quick to point out that both sides in the modernist/traditionalist debate in Piemonte are moving a bit more toward the middle. “I think the modernist-vs -traditionalist fight has lost its punch recently as most producers have reverted to a more restrained and traditional style over the last 8 vintages.”
Even Clifton’s style has grown and changed a great deal as he has had more experience with the grape. “In the earliest years, I treated Nebbiolo like Pinot Noir because that is what I knew and because I thought the two grapes share a lot of similarities. I was dead wrong. If I ever treated Pinot Noir the way that I treat Nebbiolo now, it would look like apple butter.” Despite the success he had achieved with Brewer-Clifton, he was willing to abandon what was comfortable and start anew in the name of expressing the truth of Nebbiolo. “I had to start at the beginning and learn from scratch. I had to be willing to say ‘I don’t know’. It was very hard. I made many attempts early on with whole cluster Nebbiolo. I don’t show those off.” Clifton has also settled on a relatively stable regime of extended maceration, though even here he still lets the vintage and intuition dictate his decisions. “Extended maceration is typically 32 -46 days. Again, it is all about lengthening the tannin chains. The only determining factor is taste.”
While clearly a lover of great Piemonte Nebbiolo, Clifton is not trying to produce Barolo in California. Like all great New World winemakers, his desire is to capture a singular take on the grape with the unique voice of his own surroundings. “I strive to make translations, not replications,” Clifton emphasizes. “The most profound statement Nebbiolo can make is to reference where it is grown. I feel that it is necessary both that our Nebbiolo is varietally correct and identifiable, but also that it tastes of Santa Barbara and the vineyards that it is from. If it doesn’t, then I have missed the mark. Every great Nebbiolo exclaims where it is from.”
Much like Barolo, where one finds very different wines from the calcareous marl of the west (La Morra, Barolo) and the sandstone of the east (Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba), Clifton finds the soil-driven differences to be very apparent in his Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County. “We have Nebbiolo on both limestone and clay based soils,” says Clifton. “The difference is demonstrably obvious. The limestone base always delivers a lighter, more fragrant wine; the clay a more muscular, hearty wine.” While he currently works with 5 very different vineyards, he still would like to explore additional terroirs within the County. “I want to plant Nebbiolo in the Santa Rita Hills. I think that with proper, extreme farming… It could be amazing…”
Clifton is still exploring and tinkering, always with the end goal of creating his Nebbiolo masterpiece. While many would argue he’s already crafted several, there is a continual push to be greater, to tame this mysterious mistress. “If you fall under the spell of Nebbiolo, your choices are taken away. It’s an obsession. The closer you get to her, the more obsessed you become. Any fleeting brush makes you try harder. I have 20 or 30 years left, maybe, but I will always make Nebbiolo.”
I’m fortunate that I am in a position to taste some amazing wines from around the world on a regular basis. As a result of this, when I assess wines from our area (or any area for that matter), I compare them not just with their local peers, but with my personal benchmarks for great wine on a global scale. Santa Barbara County, I am proud to say, is making the best wines in its history, and it only seems to be getting better. I am consistently pleased and excited by what is coming out of our little corner of the world. Every now and then, however, I taste something that goes a bit deeper, that burrows into my mind and truly blows me away, forcing me to recalibrate the way I view a particular grape variety. This past week I had that experience with the Zinfandel of Eric Bolton.
A graduate of CSU Fresno, Bolton has vast knowledge of the science of winemaking. Yet he is not a mad scientist in the winery; rather, he prefers to focus on bringing in healthy, balanced fruit from properly farmed sites and let it do its thing. Fermentations happen with native yeast, and there are no additions beyond sulfur. Bolton first gained acclaim as head of the winemaking team for the Ambullneo (now known as Greg Linn) label. While these have flown somewhat under the radar locally, they are stunning expressions of Pinot Noir: lots of whole-cluster, alcohols in the high 12s to mid 13s, an incredible array of floral and spice aromatics, and great longevity. 2013 marked Bolton’s first year stepping out on his own, making just around 40 cases of Zinfandel.
“The vineyard source is Tres Niños, right across the street from DePaola Vineyard near Lake Lopez in Arroyo Grande. It’s a rocky clay loam,” Bolton states matter-of-factly. (Okay, so technically we’re in San Luis Obispo County here, but Bolton is making his wine in Santa Maria and he is the essence of SB County’s spirit through and through). Despite being picked quite late in the season, the fruit was just barely/perfectly ripe, clocking in around 13% alcohol, almost unheard-of for modern Zinfandel. Bolton also embraced Zin’s textural resemblance to other thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Grenache and fermented the grapes 50% whole-cluster, a somewhat atypical decision that proved wise. Nick de Luca of Ground Effect recently did the same with his Zinfandel out of Paso Robles and the results were equally stunning. “You don’t really pick up the whole-cluster much now other than texturally. It’s really shifted a lot in barrel,” says Bolton.
The Arroyo Grande Valley may be one of the most underrated locations in the state for great Zinfandel. Colder than many of Zin’s more fashionable locales, yet warm enough to ripen Zinfandel to extreme levels should one choose to do so, it is a perfect spot for more classically balanced Zin. Saucelito Canyon has long produced legendary wines from their estate here, particularly their small parcel of vines dating back to the 1800s. Bolton’s rendition, however, is without comparison. Opening with classic varietal notes of peach and brambly red fruits, it unfolds to more exotic aromatics of wet gravel, white pepper, and violets. Texturally, the whole cluster provides precision and a lithe presence, with an intensely mineral finish reminiscent of chalk. To find Zinfandel in this style, one would have to go back to the early iconoclasts, such as Ridge and Joseph Swan. “I have to say Ridge would be the biggest inspiration,” smiles Bolton. “Those Zins they made in the ‘90s were great. I had an ’87 in 2006 and it was a wonderful wine, still going strong. I also worked with Michael Dashe and liked what he was doing; he’s certainly an inspiration as well.”
Bolton will continue to make this wine in 2014, and hopes to add Sangiovese to his roster in the near future. “I would love to do something that could stand head to head with great Brunello, but I have to find the perfect source,” Bolton says. Given the beautiful wines he’s crafted thus far, I have no doubt that he could do great things with a grape that has perplexed many of California’s best. For now, I’ll be grabbing all I can of his Zinfandel, as it is a singular wine of inspiration and place, and a new favorite.
In the Old World, farming grapevines without irrigation is the standard. Even on the Greek island of Santorini, which averages just 3-4 inches of rainfall per year, the vines are, miraculously, not irrigated. By comparison, Santa Barbara County’s average of 12 inches per year sounds like a deluge. Yet the vast majorities of vineyards in our area, as well as the rest of California, are irrigated. While grapevines require less water than many crops, the issue of water conservation in the vineyard is one that will need to be addressed more seriously in the coming years as our drought events become more frequent and extreme. This week I spoke with two of Santa Barbara County’s dry farming practitioners, Bill Wathen of Foxen and Peter Stolpman of Stolpman, about how they manage the challenges of dry farming and the character of the resulting wines.
The growing conditions at these two sites are strikingly different. At Stolpman Vineyards, in the heart of Ballard Canyon, “we are blessed to sit on a 3 foot layer of moisture and nutrient retaining clay with a 300ft deep slab of limestone beneath,” says Stolpman. “Not only does the clay retain moisture, but it also retains the cold temperatures of the night. The clay makes our land even better suited to dry-farming, as the impact of day-time heat is lessened.” Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard, on the other hand, has much more challenging conditions, with a lot of sand, a soil whose extremely well-draining nature poses one of the greatest challenges for dry farming in Santa Barbara County. “The soil profile at Tinaquaic is a little magical, as in I don’t know how these vines do it every year with only annual rainfall,” states Wathen. “It is a deep sandy loam, unsure of the Series (ed. Note: the USDA soil map says it’s Arnold Sand), with pockets of Careaga sand. In years of normal rainfall the vine canopy can be quite aggressive, so there is a lot of retention. We generally average 2 to 3 tons per acre (3-4 pounds per vine) yields historically.” Amazingly, even in these difficult growing conditions, Wathen is able to get sustainable yields and make it work without water.
Spacing in vineyards where the goal is dry farming is an important factor. When one observes California’s historical vineyard plantings pre-1960s, which were essentially all dry farmed, spacing was very wide, and the vines were often untrellised. As modern farming has looked to top sites in the Old World such as Burgundy and their farming practices for inspiration, California’s vineyards have moved to much tighter spacing, often as tight as meter by meter, occasionally even closer. This poses much greater hurdles for dry farming as the competition for water increases. Stolpman, who has variable spacing on his property, believes that the type of trellis is just as important as the spacing. “Our spacing ranges from 10×5 to 3×3 in the vineyard. The 10×5 blocks certainly adapt the best to dry farming, but we’ve also seen positive results in our 3×3 block,” he says. “Key with the tightest spaced blocks is head-pruning and not expecting much yield per vine. The jury is still out regarding our conventional 3×6 blocks where the six foot rows allow us to trellis the vines. These vines are set up to carry more canopy and more clusters than the tighter head-pruned blocks.”
Wathen’s property has more space between vines, though he believes going even wider from the get go may have been more advantageous. “When Dick (Doré) and I planted Tinaquaic in 1989, we really didn’t think through the irrigation issue. We planted what was high density at the time (8X4), and assumed that water grew on trees here at the ranch,” Wathen states. “We were able to give each vine 1 gallon of water every 10 days through the first two growing seasons. After that, they seemed fine without water, so we changed strategy. Ideally, yet after the fact, we should have gone on a 10X10 or 12X12 planting without a trellis, enabling us to cross cultivate.”
Both sites utilize cover crops, and are very cognizant of the timing in planting and plowing. “We plant cover crop every year for erosion control and green manure,” says Wathen. “The cycle here goes 1) disc and plant cover crop after harvest. 2) Disc the cover crop under early to late spring, depending on the annual precipitation that year; dry years earlier, wet years later. 3) Disc and roll a few times late spring to seal the surface.”
With 3 years of drought, culminating in 2014’s extremely dry conditions, farming adjustments have been made at both sites to make dry farming possible. “We have elongated the weaning periods for younger vines,” Stolpman says. “This year for instance, we gave all of the vines 12 years and under an overnight drink once in January and February to imitate normal rainfall. We gave the very young vines another drink in April and early May. We only irrigate during root days and from our own measurements know that water goes 8-12 inches deeper into the Limestone with less Lunar gravity.” Wathen has also had to shift his approach. “This year has been extremely challenging balancing the canopy,” emphasizes Wathen. “You always need to be thinking about next year. Adjustment farming is the key. The rule of thumb is >20 inch shoot, 2 clusters. 12-20 inch shoot, 1 cluster. Less than 12 inch shoot, 0 clusters.”
So, is the character of dry farmed vines detectable in the glass? Wathen and Stolpman have different opinions on the subject. “We find we get a natural balance from dry-farmed vineyards as the vines regulate themselves,” says Stolpman. “Because of the lack of water, the vines want to go dormant in the fall, and we try to pick while the vine is on its last breath, giving us a perfectly ripe crop. Irrigated vines will continue green and happy, with no sense of the seasons, and winemakers may choose to pick much later at higher sugars.” Wathen has a different take. “I really have not seen any difference in ripening curves vs. irrigated fruit. Believe me though, if I had the water, I would irrigate.”
As a lover and seeker of site character in wine, the issue of dry farming is one I’m passionate about. There is a representation of vintage and place in these wines that can’t be denied. While I love many, many wines that come from irrigated vines, most of whom are also managing their water use meticulously, there is a truth in wines from completely dry farmed fruit that seems to set itself apart. “Balanced vines give balanced wines. Dry farming allows the vineyard to give a truer expression of itself rather than the more modern, homogenous approach of irrigating, green-dropping, and picking late,” emphasizes Stolpman. And when one tastes a bottle of Stolpman’s “Originals” Syrah or Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard Cabernet Franc, it’s hard to argue this statement. I hope that the conversation about dry farming becomes a more prominent one in Santa Barbara County’s future, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.
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