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Wine: A maverick in the Santa Rita Hills

When I was planning my recent visit to Santa Barbara County, I asked several people to recommend winemakers I should visit. While some names came up repeatedly, one in particular stood out, recommended by wine lovers and winemakers alike: Greg Brewer.

I met Brewer early on a Saturday morning at his Brewer-Clifton winery, where he is a partner with Steve Clifton, another highly regarded and pioneering winemaker in the county. (Clifton makes lovely wines from Italian varietals under the Palmina label.) The Brewer-Clifton facility is a spare warehouse in Lompoc (pronounced “Lompoke”), on the western fringe of the Santa Rita Hills appellation. It is a flat area of flat buildings, famous primarily for a prison and for nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. The town is also becoming known among wine lovers for the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, an industrial park in which several wineries share space with the usual auto repair facilities and warehouses for distributors of this and that. Brewer-Clifton grew up in the ghetto, but like children of ambition everywhere, it escaped its humble surroundings – in this case, to a larger facility of its own a few blocks away.

Brewer led me through a spare room of monochrome walls, in which there was only a table in the center with some glasses and wine bottles set up for us to taste, and down a narrow stairway to his production facility. We were the only people in the winery, our voices echoing through the minimalist rooms along with New Age music piped hypnotically through unseen speakers. He opened a door and showed me a barrel room – a fixture of any winery, but Brewer seemed almost embarrassed by the sight of the oak casks. He uses only “neutral” oak – used barrels a few years old – for his Brewer-Clifton chardonnays and pinot noir, he explained, because new oak is “foreign,” an imposition of flavor from outside the grape itself, and therefore contradictory to his effort to capture a sense of place in his wines.

That's when I realized I was speaking to someone different. Let me explain.

Oak is the plaything of winemakers, and wineries around the world design their barrel aging rooms as temples of Bacchus to be displayed reverentially to wine-loving pilgrims. Many winemakers today are scaling back their use of new oak in response to consumer preference for fruit, but I'd never heard a winemaker – at least not an American winemaker – dismiss new oak so categorically.

That was only the first surprise. Brewer showed me to another small table with two chairs, some wine glasses and two fat bottles with white wax seals. These were his Diatom chardonnays, fermented and aged in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, a secondary process that softens a wine's flavors. And whopping levels of alcohol, nearly 16 percent.

“I'm honest with disclosure on the label,” Brewer explained matter-of-factly. “It's only a number. The key is the balance of the wine. If there was any bit of residual sugar or lactic acid, these wines would be a disaster. You need that tension to balance the alcohol.”

Malolactic fermentation, he said, was “something that happens in a building” rather than from within the grape. Okay, I thought: Lots of winemakers are scaling back the ML or doing no malolactic at all. But I had never tasted a chardonnay over 15 percent that was this lively and focused.

Back upstairs, Brewer poured me some of his Brewer-Clifton chardonnay from 2008 from the Santa Rita Hills, and then a single vineyard, Mount Carmel, from the same AVA. While he ages these in used oak barrels to impart some softness, he does not stir the lees (sediment of yeast and other particles), a favorite technique of winemakers to develop richness and complexity in white wines.

“I get a lot of inspiration from sushi chefs,” he explained. “They say that every time you touch the fish, you take something away from it. Stirring the lees would be like banging the fish against the table.”

With his pinot noir, Brewer explained that he does whole-cluster fermentation, meaning with the stems. Most California winemakers remove the stems in order to soften the wines; stems are said to give rough or “green” tannins to the wine. Brewer, however, compares the stems to the grape cluster's spine and nervous system. Whole-cluster fermentation, he said, is like cooking a piece of meat on the bone, for extra flavor.

“The stems bleed color,” he explained, making my head spin once more, since deeper color is usually desired, not sacrificed. “These reds are lighter, and the drying aspect from the tannins in the stems makes them more savory and food friendly. Overtly fruity wines are troublesome to match with food.”

Brewer is also the winemaker at Melville Vineyards, just down Route 246 a stretch from Lompoc. Melville's pinot noir is made in a more conventional style, with just about a third of the wine fermented with the stems. Brewer called that “a little smirk of me in the wine.” The Melville pinot noirs were delicious. But the Brewer-Clifton pinots were a step above. They pulsed with energy in a way that is hard to describe; they were unlike many wines that can be delicious without really being lively.

Several weeks after my visit to Lompoc, I tasted the Brewer-Clifton wines at home. As I dug the worm of my corkscrew through the wax capsules, I felt some trepidation. Had I been mesmerized by that New Age music and the Zen aestheticism of the winery, hoodwinked by Brewer's counterintuitive statements about winemaking? Or would these wines still electrify with their vitality? Would they speak for themselves?

They did.

-- Dave McIntyre

By The Food Section  |  March 25, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre, wine  
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