Late last year, Wine Enthusiast named Greg Brewer its Winemaker of the Year. The nominees he beat out included South Africa’s first black lead winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela; Gary Farrell Vineyard winemaker Theresia Heredia; David Ramey (of Ramey Wine Cellars and formerly of Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd); and Patria Tóth, the Hungarian-born winemaker at Planeta who is driving significant quality improvements in Sicily, one of the wine world’s hottest things these days. So, it’s not like he beat a bunch of chumps. If that weren’t enough of a reason to care, there’s this: he effectively re-gifted the award to the Sta. Rita Hills wine region, and that’s a bit unusual. We ought to take notice.
It’s Not About Greg Brewer
Brewer launched Brewer-Clifton in 1995 with Steve Clifton and $12,000 in the (then and, to a certain extent, now) little-known Sta. Rita Hills, a small wine growing region about an hour and half north of Los Angeles. His response to the award has been to give credit to Sta. Rita Hills, going so far as to say the award is actually for the region, not Greg Brewer. It’s a gracious response to be sure, but isn’t grace how a winner is supposed to respond? Is he actually serious?
Yes, he is. “I was born there, professionally,” Greg told me when spoke not long after the award was announced. “I started in the tasting room at Santa Barbara Winery, by chance, when I was 21. I fell in love with it on my first day and new it would be my profession. And I’ve loved it every day since.”
Specifically, he’s loved Sta. Rita Hills winemaking. “I’ve been working a four mile stretch of road for 30 years. It’s kind of like breathing: very straight forward. I don’t know it all, but I’ve been able to focus. I’ve only worked in Santa Barbara [the hub of Sta. Rita Hills], and only will.”
Greg has had opportunities to branch out geographically, but has always passed. “I’ve been tempted with fruit from other places, but it feels like a one night stand to me: the fruit should remain where it is with someone who lives among those vines. It’s just not me.” Feeling that Sta. Rita has everything a wine region could hope to offer, and being in love with its fruit, wines, and people, he’s remained steadfastly focused on showcasing what it does all on its own by removing himself from the equation to the greatest extent possible.
At Brewer-Clifton, “the core ethos and energy is steeped in a Japanese mindset; I don’t see myself as that important, more as a steward of a place. I’m like the 80-year-old Japanese sushi chef with an apartment in the outskirts of Tokyo and a bike I ride to the fish market where I drink tea, buy fish, and then spend the day doing everything I can to present all of the fish’s inherent beauty. That’s Brewer-Clifton’s engine.”
“We don’t see ourselves as making anything. We’re deliberate in the location of our vineyards, their clones, spacing, farming, but at the winery it’s about removal of self, maintaining a quiet voice. Everything is raised in neutrality. Barrels are 15-20 years old. Everything is raised the same each year, so no prejudice from vineyard to vineyard, block to block. We don’t blend [among parcels]. Who am I to be the judge [of which sections should and shouldn’t go together]?”
To be clear, though, Greg does “understand that mindset [of blending]. It actually makes more sense than what I do. Adam [Lee, a mutual friend] is a great example. He’s seeking the best in things, and he’s done it beautifully at a whole host of wineries and appellations because he can see those beautiful attributes that can be separated or combined. But I’m not comfortable with [doing] that [myself because] it makes me a bigger part of the process than I’m comfortable with. That’s why the [Winemaker of the Year] award is about this place, not me. All I’m doing is displaying Sta. Rita in a very vulnerable, naked, barbaric kind of elementary way.”
Greg’s approach “might be restrictive” to some, but he finds it liberating. “When you truly espouse yourself to a person or vocation, you have confidence in that thing. Then you put a ring on it. That’s what I’ve done in Sta. Rita. I find it liberating, giving into it and being vulnerable, [because] you make decisions based on benefit of doubt, flexibility, and trust.”
Although Greg hasn’t been in the Sta. Rita Hills since they began growing wine there, he’s been “pretty embedded in a lot of the evolution over time. Seeing it go from four or five vineyards in the early 1990s…[I’ll put it this way:] in terms of the wine world it’s the opposite of dog years, no time at all. To see that, the awareness [of the region] globally swell up this quickly is really exciting. It’s a testament to the place, the people, the diversity of the people there, the kind of unanimous qualitative goals that people there have. That’s really it, that’s what this award is about.” Put another way, if the “place wasn’t so special,” he “wouldn’t have won the award.”
It’s About the Sta. Rita Hills
When Brewer-Clifton launched, they “never blended vineyards. We only did designates. However, starting in 2007 we began doing the appellation blends of pinot noir and chardonnay, but those wines have never been built using wine pulled out of designates. They’re made using the best stuff we have because they have to be smoking good ambassadors [for the region]. They’re the most important wines we make.”
Putting the region’s best foot forward has been so critically important because “wines have never been better, and there’s never been more of them. People’s attention span is generally become more abridged; access to information, the media, people check in on something and move on quickly because there’s more of everything and it’s easier to access.” For Brewer-Clifton, putting out wines that showcase the specialness of Sta. Rita Hills is their secret sauce for success. Greg’s “main emphasis is making very singular things” that stand out in this challenging market.
Part of Brewer-Clifton’s approach to showcasing the Sta. Rita Hills is to keep it affordable for people. “I don’t come from money or industry, I’ve always been a scrapper. I’ve been able to do wine and make it work financially with very little. Our [viniculture and winemaking] systems have never been better, and our pricing is lower than ever. That really excites me because ten years ago [the wines] were more expensive, and not as good.”
Brewer-Clifton’s appellation pinot and chardonnay sell for $40 and $36, respectively, on the winery’s website, and are competitive in quality with other appellation wines from pinot and chardonnay regions like Sonoma, Willamette Valley, and Burgundy. “I love picturing a couple in their 20s or 30s: one is an accountant, another an engineer, and they’re into wine,” Greg told me. “I love to see these people go into a store and connect with Sta. Rita Hills because the quality is high and price point is reachable; it’s not nothing, but it’s not $80, either. That part of the market is exciting because I can still give the full Brewer-Clifton experience and encourage people to trial us and hopefully generate some repeat customers if people like it, like a special occasion wine.”
In 2005, Greg launched a separate brand himself called Diatom, a reference to a fossil common in the soils of Sta. Rita Hills. Diatom is an exclusively chardonnay project aimed at producing “a more stark exploration of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay. Old vines, raised in a pent-up fashion – picked ripe, steel aged, blocked malolactic [fermentation], etc.” It’s an attempt “to capture a wave before it breaks.” Diatom’s line up starts at $32 and doesn’t go north more than $10 from that, offering a different style of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay still financially feasible for that lovely couple he envisages (pre-COVID) meeting at the store after a hard day’s work on their way home to make dinner.
Won’t you try it?
When we were setting up the interview and samples for this article, I requested that Greg pick the two to three wines that he felt would give people the best introduction to his wines so that if I liked them, I could say “and if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first.” (By the way, if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first).
I didn’t have the backstory outlined above before I received the samples, so I didn’t know what to make of the selected wines when they arrived. Knowing what I know now, it makes perfect sense that he would choose his Brewer-Clifton appellation blends and a Diatom as those that give a good representation of what he does in the wine world: he dispatched his ambassadors.
I’ve spent just a single day in Santa Barbara, which is also the entirety of my physical experience in the Sta. Rita Hills. I visited the tasting rooms of Au Bon Climate and Jaffurs Wine Cellar, finding wines at each that I really enjoyed, especially the former (whose nebbiolo, made under the Clendenen Family name label, is an undercover gem). I’ve also had the incredible pleasure of tasting the wines of, and with, Michael Benedict (Sanford), wrote recently on the new Beau Marchais project, and tried a four-bottle suite of The Hilt wines (look for an upcoming profile). All told, I’ve probably tried no more than two cases’ worth of Sta. Rita wine. This means I was an open slate for these wines, no preconceived notions or biases.
After trying them, I can say that I’m eager to try more. While I’m not in love with either chardonnay, I do want more experience with body of chardonnay work of Greg Brewer. As far as $40 pinot noirs go, I’m not sure it gets better than the Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills appellation blend. Where I felt the appellation chardonnay’s quality outshined its depth (the structure is quite good, building desire for an extra layer of depth that ultimately didn’t show up), such a description would be unfair for the pinot.
My favorite element of the pinot noir was while it gave a very inviting and salivating illusion of fruit-forwardness, the actual amount of (gorgeous) fruit was restrained in a way that framed the terroir-specific elements that Greg is so focused on delivering in his wines. I just didn’t get the same sensation from the chardonnay, though I would not be surprised if that’s a function of the wine’s relative youth; perhaps another year or two would be enough time for that hinted-at depth to emerge.
Meanwhile, the 2019 Diatom Bar-M presented as a challenging wine. Meant to be a stark representation of Sta. Rita chardonnay, it is certainly a stark wine: prolific acid, bitter flavor overtones, and damp earth. It is certainly not for everyone. I do wonder if youth is a factor in my mixed reaction to it: I couldn’t bring my attention away from the acid that I felt hadn’t integrated, an unfortunate circumstance given the appealing bouquet and flavor profile of the wine. I would be very curious to try it again in three years.
Both Brewer-Clifton and Diatom make a range of wines, and certainly what I tried for this article has piqued my interest in both labels. They also continue the streak, albeit limited, of great wine I’ve had from the Sta. Rita Hills. Greg Brewer is certainly a leading figure in the region, and his Winemaker of the Year title lofts him to perhaps the very top of his peer group, a position he seems unlikely to enjoy. Rather than celebrate his own achievement, he’s made the effort to leverage it to boost the region’s notoriety. It helps that his own wines show he’s worthy of being an ambassador himself.
2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – This pours beautifully ruby and translucent. The bright nose includes aromas of plum, cherry, mulling spice, white pepper, and scorched earth. Medium-bodied with smooth, velvety tannins that envelope the mouth with smoothness pair well with a nice core of restrained but bright acid. The structure is spot on. The flavor profile leads with brilliant strawberry, blueberry, and red and black plums, but the wine doesn’t give the sensation of fruit-forwardness. There’s a touch of black pepper and licorice as well, and kiwi skin on the finish. Drinking really well now with a short bottle decant. 93 points. Value: A.
2018 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay – The nose wafts a dessert table of caramel apple, lemon meringue, and graham cracker crumble. Medium bodied with slightly crisp acid nestled nicely in the center of a lush palate. Flavors include green and Opal apples, lime sorbet, gravel minerality, and white pepper. It finishes on orange marmalade. A nicely profiled and structured chardonnay, the quality outshines the depth. 91 points. Value: B.
2019 Diatom Bar-M Chardonnay – The high-toned nose features of honeysuckle, caramel, chamomile, and lime pith. Medium bodied with lightweight, juicy acid that flutters about, refusing to integrate with the structure; even on the finish it remains apart. May be a sign of youth. Flavors include slightly bitter green apple, lemon verbena, damp earth, and white pepper minerality. It finishes on a sweet orange note. I’d love to revisit this in two or three years because if that acid integrates, this improves dramatically. 90 points. Value: C+.