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.
There was a time during the late 1980’s, where winemakers came together with a unified goal– to put Santa Barbara County on the wine map of the United States. Little did they know, but their first steps paved the way for the explosion of our popular Santa Barbara wine region. Winemakers like Jim Clendenen from Au Bon Climat or Brian Babcock of Babcock wines created a culture which enabled Brewer-Clifton and others to find success in their footsteps. These pioneers succeeded in getting Santa Barbara County on the map as a premier California wine destination, rivaling Napa in some regards.
Embracing this spirit of collaboration, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton put Sta. Rita Hills on the map. Together they started their label in the 1990’s before the Lompoc-based Viticultural area even existed. Greg attributes the success of Sta. Rita Hills to the diversity of Santa Barbara County and his team’s ability to focus on the best grapes of the area, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While other local AVAs may focus on Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc, Brewer-Clifton has always highlighted their flagships, which we’re currently featuring this month!
Santa Barbara Roots
At 21 Greg was a French-language professor at UCSB when he found his calling in the wine industry. He moved on from his previous passion for teaching to join Santa Barbara Winery in the tasting room for a meager $5.50/hour. He was hooked!
Greg Brewer met Steve Clifton in 1995 while working at Sunstone winery. Their friendship grew as they fed their desire to be part of Santa Barbara’s burgeoning wine region and soon discovered that their personalities blended well for business as well. Greg and Steve represent the best of the “next chapter” of the Santa Barbara wine story, after the premiere of the old guard. Their first 240 cases of wine came about in 1996, back when even some “established” wineries were still nothing more than young, green vines on a hill. The rest, as they say, is history. Greg considers his work in founding the appellation (which became an official AVA in 2001) his greatest accomplishment.
Back in 2017, Brewer-Clifton was purchased by the Jackson family (of the Kendall-Jackson winery). Greg is still the master winemaker of Brewer-Clifton winery, and considers the Jacksons the “largest champion of Santa Barbara County for decades”. He’s left to make his wines as he sees fit with his own spin on making premier Pinot and Chardonnay wines. If Greg isn’t making wine, he’s focusing on the education of newer, younger winemakers, and promoting the area here and abroad.
Humility & Vulnerability
Greg’s favorite part of winemaking: “the humility that comes with never being able to replicate anything” in his wines. Every vintage has a slight difference that provides a humble aspect to his life’s work. The spirit of Brewer-Clifton comes from transparency and vulnerability, with all wines “raised in a state of neutrality,” using old barrels. Greg’s team handles the wines from vine to barrel, ensuring the Brewer-Clifton touch on each stage of their grape’s lives. As a winemaker, Greg Brewer wants to eliminate his personal bias or prejudice on the wine, “to enable other componentry” to be louder than him in the wine.
Want to learn more about your local Santa Barbara County Winemakers? Read about our other Featured Winemakers here!
Prior to my life in the wine business, I worked for a small record label based in Los Angeles called Plug Research. Operating an independent record label, and putting together a roster of artists that reflect a forward-thinking curator, is in many ways like creating a winery: the vineyards you work with are your artists, and your role in the cellar functions much like that of a producer, guiding your artists to their highest expression without losing the essence of what makes them special. David DeLaski, a veteran of the Los Angeles music scene, understands this concept better than anyone, as reflected in the beautiful wines he is making alongside his wife Anna under their new label, Solminer. I met the two of them at their vineyard and home in Los Olivos this past week to discuss life after the music business, organic farming, and winemaking with an eye toward the natural.
“Music is something you can get deeper and deeper into, with a great community, and there’s a bit of an obsession there,” says David DeLaski. “There are a lot of parallels with wine in that sense.” As both winemakers and musicians can attest, there is an all-consuming quality to these passions; once you’ve got the bug, you can think of nothing else. “I came to wine through my dad,” recalls David. “He was a businessman who enjoyed wine and so I got exposed to it at a very young age. I don’t have a cellar of old dusty bottles, though. I never became a big wine collector; wine was never a huge part of life until all this, until we started making wine. Some people are big collectors of music, but I was never an obsessive record collector; I loved to create it.”
Solminer did not begin with the grand ambitions of becoming the next cult winery or building a 10,000 case brand. Rather, it grew naturally out of the love of the craft of winemaking and the joy of farming. “Honestly, we weren’t quite sure how we’d fit into all this,” says David. “At first it was like ‘well, we’ll be weekenders and make a barrel of Gruner Veltliner.’ But you get sucked into this community in a really wonderful way. So we took a chance on it all, and we’re really glad we did.” The two also fortuitously connected with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton fame to guide the winemaking and help them focus their goals in the cellar. “We got hooked up with Steve because we loved his wines, and I think he was open to what we’re doing because it was something different, Gruner Veltliner,” recalls David. “If we were just another producer making Pinot Noir I don’t know if he would have been interested.”
While their first vintage of Gruner came from John Sebastiano Vineyard, going forward it will come entirely from their estate DeLanda Vineyard in Los Olivos. Their small home vineyard is a beautiful property, with a palpable energy that one can sense upon entering the driveway, originally planted entirely to Syrah when the DeLaskis took it over. Starting with a clean slate, they made the decisions to alter the varietal focus and to farm it organically, in large part because of concerns for their young son Linus. “The bottom line is, it was never a choice, because Linus is down there playing, in the vineyard, in the dirt,” emphatically states Anna. “So we decided from the beginning, if we have to deal with something, it’s going to be done organically.” The couple has also begun incorporating biodynamic practices in the vineyard, a philosophy which, again, grew out of the development they saw in their children first. “Our background in biodynamics comes from the side of Waldorf education, which has opened us up to a lot of ideas and philosophies that Steiner had,” says David. “My older boys go to a Waldorf school, and if our vines grow anything like they have, then maybe there’s something to Steiner’s philosophy.”
Though their vineyard still has quite a bit of Syrah planted, they’ve grafted increasing amounts to Blaufrankisch and Gruner Veltliner. Anna, a native of Austria’s famed Wachau region, guided the couple towards this decision to plant two of Austria’s most noble grapes, rarely seen outside of their homeland. They’re also making the unique choice to create a Blaufrankisch-Syrah blend, the first of its kind to my knowledge. “Adding a little Blaufrankisch to the Syrah is amazing,” smiles David. “Just 5 or 10%, it’s really cool.” Their winemaking, following along the lines of their farming approach, leans toward the natural, utilizing native yeasts, mostly neutral vessels, and minimal sulfur. “We never really made a conscious decision to be ‘natural winemakers’,” states David. “It’s kind of ingrained with the rest of our philosophy. The more I understood about the winemaking process, the more I started to taste the difference in those kinds of wine, and the more I taste them, I find myself drawn to them. I appreciate mistakes or natural occurrences from year to year.” The DeLaskis interpretation still means that there must be a core of deliciousness first and foremost; these wines are natural, but they are also clean, precise, and bright.
Tasting through the current Solminer lineup was a revelation. Their Gruner, utterly distinctive, seemed to marry the lentil and pepper notes the variety is known for with a textural weight reminiscent of Roussanne, as well as autumnal notes of baked apple and cinnamon. Their estate Syrah was also singular, sort of Crozes-Hermitage meets the Langhe in its marriage of iron, pepper, earth, and dried leaf. The star of the lineup, however, was their sparkling Syrah, “Nebullite”. It reminded me of one of my favorite wines on the planet, Camillo Donati’s Lambrusco. There was a living quality to the wine, imbued with the same notes of earth their still Syrah possessed along with extra dimensions of macerated raspberry and a thrilling sous bois, Balsamic character. “As a musician, I was never classically trained. I always liked to improvise, and to me, natural wine has that improvisatory nature, it’s like jazz.” To continue the jazz comparison, that sparkling Syrah was like the first time I heard Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come: You either get it or you don’t, but if it speaks to you, it is an experience like no other.
When I first met Anna and David months ago here at the Café, I noticed their exuberance and air of positivity, qualities that were in abundance on my recent visit. One immediately senses that these are two people in love, living their dream, and that joy radiates through their wines. “The key was meeting Anna and coming here, and falling in love with her and with this place,” smiles David. “And then going to Austria together, and seeing how ingrained wine is in the culture and the community there. When we returned, we realized we had that same community here, and that we could create that same lifestyle in Santa Ynez.”
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