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!
Spear makes full use of the unique coastal geography of the Sta. Rita Hills. In one of the states only east to west valleys, foggy, cool winds prolong the ripening season and define the cold-climate terroir of the valley. Over 60 vineyards dot the AVA, totaling nearly 3500 acres of planted grapes.
Spear vineyard sits on the southern face of the main valley, facing highway 246. As a hallmark Sta. Rita vineyard, the primary grapes they grow are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The vineyard is uniquely one of the highest elevation vineyards in the AVA, topping out at 900 feet above sea level. With a vineyard-forward approach to winemaking and a CCOF organic certification, Spear prides themselves on sustainable, eco-friendly wine farming. Spear wines are made in a gravity flow facility, gently flowing downhill. No oak flavoring, no new French oak. The vineyard was planted in 2013 with a winery and tasting room (appointment only, please!) Wines are meant to be a taste of the whole vineyard, essentially blends of different areas of the vineyards.
Kat Gaffney joined Spear after a world tour, that began in her native Colorado at a hotel wine bar. After a brief stint as a sommelier in training, Kat wanted to take a more active role in the winemaking industry and sought out apprenticeships and harvests to work, going from our Central Coast to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and out to New Zealand for practical winemaking experience in the flourishing Kiwi wine trade.
Humility in Winemaking
After heading back stateside, Kat worked at Spear under winemaker Greg Brewer, before taking over operations as head winemaker in 2017. Kat’s winemaking style is about removing all intention in the winemaking. “I don’t want people to taste the wine and say…’ Kat your signature is all over this wine’… I want the vineyard to be front and center”.
This month, we are featuring three Spear Wines from the high-elevation estate vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. The Estate Chardonnay is Spear’s bread and butter (forgive the pun), sourced from blocks at varying elevations around the vineyard, north facing in sand and clay loam. Spear’s Estate Pinot Noir is one of Kat Gaffney’s first vine-to-bottle creations as winemaker, with blocks from the tip-top of the Spear estate to down near the 246, this all-estate/all-blocks Pinot was 15% whole cluster fermented. Rounding out our Featured Wines, the Spear Syrah is a Jeb Dunnuck 91-point rated estate creation featuring Alban clones and a white pepper and pomegranate nose.
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.” Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills. Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock. However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him. These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else. This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.
The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific. As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall. In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California. “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen. “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.” Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions. The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.
The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam. Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay. The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils. This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power. Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in thesouthernhalf, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.” Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel. I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”
One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar. From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle. Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label. “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer. “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally. Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.” Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s. Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.
For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock. His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area. “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson. “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.” They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent. The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes. The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.
In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed. This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region. Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place. In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.
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