June 14, 2008

2001 Brewer-Clifton Rozak Ranch Pinot Noir

Deep in the industrial "wine ghetto" of Lompoc, California are a few guys making some extreme and sometimes controversial renditions of Pinot Noir. If you are a lover of California Pinot Noir, I'm sure you've already heard of Brewer-Clifton, and if not, please allow me to introduce you. A few years ago, wine critic Robert Parker did something that was a bit unusual, by proclaiming Brewer-Clifton the "single greatest revelation" of his 2001 tastings, and comparing the wines to one of the most famed of French Burgundies-- Romanee Conti. As you might suspect, this drew loads of attention and many varied opinions from Pinotphiles and score chasers everywhere. If you haven't had these wines before, I'm going to ask you to try to not compare them to anything, except maybe other Brewer-Clifton's...

Greg Brewer and his partner Steve Clifton run the winery, and while I believe they have now moved out of the humble industrial park affectionately dubbed "the wine ghetto," the Pinot is still the same. Pushing the limits, many Brewer-Clifton wines contain alcohol contents close to 16%, using whole or half cluster fermenting (leaving the stems in). The obvious reason for whole cluster fermenting would be that it adds additional texture, aromas, and flavors to the wine, resulting in more complexity. In the attempt to achieve full stem ripeness, sugar levels will be higher, and many times the end result is a high alcohol wine (in simplified terms). This can be risky, and the results can range from disastrous to utterly sublime. Now, the question by many is what happens to the alcohol when the primary fruit fades away? That's a good question and a valid concern. I'm happy to report that I consider myself to have a sensitive palate to alcohol, and while it was slightly apparent in this wine, it wasn't obnoxious or overbearing one bit.

Nearly all of Brewer-Clifton’s grapes come from cool-climate vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills or surrounding regions of Santa Barbara, California. Clos Pepe, Rozak Ranch, Rio Vista, Ashley's, Cargasacchi... Plenty of central coast Pinot producers source fruit from these vineyards, and one of my favorite things to do is line up 4-5 bottles Pinot from the same vineyard but different producer in any given vintage and taste through them, as there can be some distinct similarities and striking differences in the wines. For an interesting perspective, try lining up a bottle of Clos Pepe from both Brewer-Clifton and Arcadian, in any given vintage, and tell me what you think.

As if they didn't have their hands full with Brewer-Clifton, like many winemakers, both Greg and Steve have started their own labels. Palmina is the creation of Steve and his wife Chrystal, a winery born out of a passion for the Italian lifestyle and wines, putting a Santa Barbara spin on Italian varietals. Some of the red wines they produce are Nebbiolo and Barbera as well as white varietals such as Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano, a white wine often mistaken for Sauvignon Blanc.

On top of being winemaker at Melville, Greg's project is named Diatom, and focuses solely on naked, pure, unadulterated Chardonnay. Greg's goal here is to produce wines that transcend grape and place, never putting them through maloloactic fermentation, or oak barrels (at least new oak.. Neutral oak may be a possibility,) and letting the vineyard speak through the wine. These are some of the most radical Chardonnay's produced in California.

I love a good well made stemmy, funky wine, which is probably one reason why I'm a big fan of Brewer-Clifton. These wines still have plenty of fruit, but there are many other intriguing components to them that can be very unique, and so much more interesting to me aromatically and texturally than just bright, simplistic cherries and strawberry.

Tasting Notes
Translucent burgundy color close to auburn near the rim. Lots of dark, rich, almost candied cherry and strawberry buttressed by damp, dank earth and wood spice aromas. Full-bodied palate that is intense and vibrant with lots of spice and earth with dark berry fruit on the back end. There are still quite a bit of drying tannins on the finish. This is a very impressive wine that has years of potential ahead of it. I'd like to revisit this wine in 3 years and see if these tannins have melted away.

Price: $50

Score: 90-93

Alcohol: 15.8%