Brewer-Clifton: Zen & the Art of Winemaking

Posted on May 3, 2017


Brewer-Clifton Winery Santa Barbara

Winemaker Greg Brewer

We pulled up to Brewer-Clifton on a sunny but cool day in January. Outside of the winery stood Greg Brewer, co-founder and winemaker, looking up into the sky, his hand shielding his eyes, as he squinted into the sun. “That is the new Space-X rocket” he said, pointing. “Cool…. I’m Greg” he says as he stretches out his hand in greeting, a broad smile beneath dancing eyes. It turns out that initial moment captured a lot of the personality of the man we were about to spend the next 90 minutes with. Brewer is intellectual, curious about all sorts of things, warm, unusual and one seriously good winemaker.

Santa Barbara county wineWe flew down to Santa Barbara and drove 90 minutes north up to the Santa Rita Hills AVA to do some tastings and meet some winemakers. We had been fans of Brewer-Clifton wines for a long time and we were excited to learn more about just how this winery became one of the darlings not just of this AVA, but of the whole California wine scene.

The winery began in the Lompoc wine ghetto, not far from its present location, in 1996. Steve Clifton got his start in the wine industry in 1991 after leaving his gig as a musician and nightclub entrepreneur. He worked his way up from tasting room employee to cellar rat and finally to winemaking positions at Sta. Rita Hills producers Beckman, Domaine Santa Barbara and Brander.

Sunstone vineyards

Sunstone vineyards

In 1995 he began Palmina Wines, in his basement, as a project dedicated to Italian variety wines.That was the year he met Greg Brewer, who was a part of the production crew at Sunstone, while both were attending a committee meeting for the Santa Barbara Vintners Association. A year later they produced their inaugural vintage of 240 cases, made at the Santa Barbara Winery where Greg was assistant winemaker. The beginnings were humble, and we doubt that either had any inkling that Brewer–Clifton would go on to become one of the most celebrated wineries in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Brewer-Clifton Winery

Greg taking us through the tasting lineup.

After moving around and making their wines within various other wineries that employed them, they built their own facility in the Lompoc wine ghetto just down the street from Sta. Rita Hills pioneer and icon, Rick Longoria. That year was 2000, the year that the Sta. Rita Hills gained their designation as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Fruit for the Brewer-Clifton wines was sourced from local vineyards, as well as (until 2011) from vineyards in nearby Sweeney Canyon. They were able to acquire fruit from some of the best of the best vineyards in the area: Ashley’s, Clos Pepe, Mt. Caramel, Sandford and Benedict, Cargasacchi and Melville. Success came early and a pivotal acclaim came their way when renowned wine critic Robert Parker declared Brewer-Clifton to be his “single greatest revelation” of his 2001 tastings, awarding Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton to be among his “2001 Wine Personalities of the Year”. In bestowing this honour, Parker wrote “The reviews of these wines will not be published for a few months, but the Brewer-Clifton offerings were the single greatest revelation of my 2001 tastings. Their single vineyard Burgundian-styled Chardonnays and extraordinary Pinot Noirs from the cool micro-climates of Santa Barbara, particularly those from the new appellation called Santa Rita Hills, are astonishing. These two gifted winemaker have an incredible future. Quantities are extremely limited, so it is incumbent upon readers to get on their mailing list.”

Melville Winery Tasting Room

Melville Winery

The transition from purchased grapes to 100% estate vineyards, was slow, purposeful, methodical and meticulously planned. The process got underway in earnest in 2005 when Brewer-Clifton created their own farm team (excuse the pun) under the aegis of Francisco Rameriz. Francisco worked alongside Greg in the development, planting and building of the Melville Winery, where Greg was winemaker until just recently. Melville’s star shines as brightly as any within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The purpose back in 2005 was to get the type of control in the vineyard that would ordinarily only exist for estate owners and thereby attain the quality and the exact expression they wanted from their fruit.

Sta. Rita Hills

Greg pointing out the vineyards the winery sources its grapes from.

By 2012 the transition to 100% estate fruit was completed. The estate now owns 60 acres across 4 vineyards within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. 3D Vineyard was planted to 10 acres in 2007, mostly Chardonnay on its sandy soils. Clones 4, 76, Hyde, Mount Eden and Sea Smoke are planted in equal portions along with smaller parcels of Swan, Pommard and Dijon 667 Pinot Noir clones. Machado Vineyard focuses on Pommard, Merry Edwards, Mount Eden and Dijon 459 Pinot Noir Clones with just a bit of Chardonnay in its 15 acres. Hapgood Vineyard is planted to the Mount Eden Clone of Chardonnay with a mixture of Pinot Noir Clones. Acin Vineyard is planted to the Dijon Clones 828 and 458 along with Wente for the Pinot Noir and Mount Eden and 96 for the Chardonnay.

Brewer-Clifton WineryAs Greg tours us around the winery we are struck by its minimalist look and feel. Greg explains that within the winery he wants to get rid of the sense of time. This is aided by soothing music piped into the winery and an absence of natural light. He explains this in his gentle voice, thoughtful as he carefully chooses his words. You can almost sense a Zen-like quality emanating from Greg’s gentle manner and his minimalist philosophies that permeate his winemaking decisions. There is a most interesting, meditative quality to Greg, and it manifests in the easy and natural flow of the winery. Consistent with this aspect of his personality, the winemaking at Brewer-Clifton is simple and straight-forward. Only two grapes are vinified: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. All wines are raised in the same way. This is by design so as to let the vineyard(s) speak, not the winemaker’s hand. Grapes are picked early in the morning while temperatures are coolest and trucked the short (less than 10 miles) distance to the winery. For 30 – 45 days the grapes undergo a cold soak and extended maceration before pressing. Whole clusters are gently pressed and carried via gravity to stainless steel fermenters. The grape must is left alone, no malolactic fermentation, no battonage. Elevage is in used oak barrels.

Santa barbara wine

2007 Brewer-Clifton Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir

There is certainly a Brewer-Clifton signature. These wines are intensely flavoured with fuller bodies. But we did notice a difference from some of the earlier Brewer-Clifton wines we have tasted (going back to 1998). Today’s Brewer-Clifton wines are not as big, not as impactful as those first wines we tasted. True to the common sentiments of today’s wine consumer, Brewer-Clifton has backed off, a bit, from the power of his first releases. By and large we think this is a good thing. Not that we felt any need to criticize those earlier more powerful expressions, but to our tastes Greg has taken things a step up with this new direction. His wines still remain powerful but they now show even greater balance, a little more poise. As the following tasting notes will show, the consumer is the big winner for it.

A note on ageing: we have drank both his Pinot Noirs and his Chardonnays at age 10. The wines had gained complexity and were still vibrant and fresh. Both varieties showed they could be aged longer, the Pinots perhaps a decade longer.

Tasting Notes

santa barbara wine

2012 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay

2012 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay

Blended from grapes from 3D, Acin and Machado vineyards. Deep yellow/gold colour. Citrus aromas are joined by tropical fruit notes. The body is medium + and brings forth an alluring collection of apple and mango with a zesty, orange-rind note on the crisp finish.

Excellent  – 2015 vintage currently sells for  $40 at the winery

Lompoc

2013 Brewer-Clifton Machado Chardonnay

2013 Brewer-Clifton Machado Chardonnay

Similar in appearance to the Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay, but here there is a bit more intensity. White peach together with citrus notes are delivered on a medium + frame. Perhaps the most restrained of the single vineyard Chardonnays, it shows plenty of poise and confidence in its slightly understated style. The mineral notes we detect on the finish add complexity.

Excellent – US$ 75 at the winery

Santa Barbara wine county

2013 Brewer-Clifton Hapgood Chardonnay

2013 Brewer Clifton Hapgood Chardonnay

Wow! This is just what we look for in California Chardonnay. Made from the Mount Eden clone that was started from budwood that Paul Masson brought back from France nearly a century ago. This wine has a focused intensity coupled with tremendous purity. Pear mixes with notes of honeyed almonds. The body is medium + but the intensity is so great that if you are not paying close attention you could think it was full bodied. The finish goes on and on with notes of citrus intertwined with minerals and a hint of caramel. All the dials were turned up, and in a good way.

Excellent +  US $75 at the winery

Santa Barbara wine county

2014 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

2014 Brewer Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

Dark cherry gets added lift from baking spices on this medium-bodied wine. Mineral notes add to complexity. Gentle acidity punctuates the finish. There is a wonderfully smooth texture. While not as complex as other wines in the lineup, it charms immediately will satisfy a wide array of palates. Grapes come from 3D, Machado and Acin.

Very Good/Excellent  US$ 45 at the winery

Santa Barbara wine county

2014 Brewer-Clifton Hapgood Pinot Noir

2014 Brewer-Clifton Hapgood Pinot Noir

Just eight barrels were made of this utterly delicious Pinot Noir. Among the very best New World Pinot Noirs we have tasted, this wine delivers the goods on all accounts. Big and broad shouldered with plenty of ripe tannins, this is the wine in the group that wants to be laid down as this is clearly on the way up. Already complex, we detect brown spices, earth, woodsy notes on a dark cherry driven full bodied frame. The long finish gets focus from the acidity and is mineral infused. $95 is a lot to ask for a New World Pinot Noir. We bought some.

Excellent +  US $95 at the winery

Santa Barbara wine

2013 Brewer-Clifton Machado Pinot Noir

2013 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado

This Pinot is all about the fruit which takes command of the tasting profile. Plums and dark cherry combine with spice notes that evolve into black pepper notes on the finish. There is fullness in the body to this wine but it does not possess the abundant and sweet tannin of the  Hapgood.

Excellent US$ 90 at the winery

Santa Barbara Wine

2013 Brewer-Clifton 459 Pinot Noir

2014 Brewer-Clifton 459 Pinot Noir

This wine is sourced solely from plots of Dijon 459 clone from the Machado Vineyard. Perhaps this is the wine that most harkens back to the early days of the winery where a more full throttle expression was the house style. But that power remains in proportion and keeps the wine balanced. Black cherry flavours combine with vanilla and baking spices and cracked pepper. The finish is long and savoury.

Excellent  US$ 95 at the winery

Brewer-Clifton

329 North F Street

Lompoc, CA 93436

805-735-9184

 

www.brewerclifton.com

4 Comments

  1. andrewdwelch@outlook.com'

    I recently had my first bottle of the Brewer Clifton wines, the Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, and remember it being extraordinarily lively and a great contrast the Pinots I normally drink from Oregon or France. I am happy to know the maker of such nice wine is a quality fellow. Thanks for putting a personal touch on it!

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    • We couldn’t agree more Andrew, much different than the Oregon & France Pinots but fantastic new world Pinot. Highly recommend stopping into the Lompoc wine ghetto to visit the tasting room!

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  2. Robin@Crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    I love the Brewer-Clifton wines. We had an amazing tasting there several years ago and the balance on the wines is amazing. I remember them speaking about ripening the stems with leaf management, since they whole cluster press. This keeps that greenness from underipened stems out of the wines. I found this vineyard management detail fascinating! I do think that his Zen nature reads in the wines. Thanks for sharing these insights on this amazing winemaker!

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    • Couldn’t agree more Robin! We fell in love with his wines years ago and it is always such a treat to get the winemaker insight. Cheers!

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