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.
We 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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 $40 at the winery
2013 Brewer-Clifton Machado Chardonnay
Similar in appearance to the Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay, but here there is a bit more intensity. White peach together with citrus notes are delivered on a medium + frame. Perhaps the most restrained of the single vineyard Chardonnays, it shows plenty of poise and confidence in its slightly understated style. The mineral notes we detect on the finish add complexity.
Excellent – US$ 75 at the winery
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 $75 at the winery
2014 Brewer Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
Dark cherry gets added lift from baking spices on this medium-bodied wine. Mineral notes add to complexity. Gentle acidity punctuates the finish. There is a wonderfully smooth texture. While not as complex as other wines in the lineup, it charms immediately will satisfy a wide array of palates. Grapes come from 3D, Machado and Acin.
Very Good/Excellent US$ 45 at the winery
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 $95 at the winery
2013 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado
This Pinot is all about the fruit which takes command of the tasting profile. Plums and dark cherry combine with spice notes that evolve into black pepper notes on the finish. There is fullness in the body to this wine but it does not possess the abundant and sweet tannin of the Hapgood.
Excellent US$ 90 at the winery
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
329 North F Street
Lompoc, CA 93436