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Brewer-Clifton Recent Retrospective

The Brewer-Clifton label represents the partnership of two outstanding winemakers, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton. Clifton developed a passion for winemaking while working as a buyer for a restaurant in San Diego in the late 1980s. He moved to Santa Barbara in 1991, staying with a family friend and working as a cellar rat in a number of Santa Barbara County wineries. He moved up the winemaking chain quickly, first becoming assistant winemaker at Rancho Sisquoc Winery, followed by a stint as winemaker at Beckmen Vineyards. He hooked up with another young winemaker, Greg Brewer, who became the winemaker at Melville Vineyards and Winery when it was formed in 1997. Brewer’s originally came into wine from an academic background, working as a French literature professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The pair decided to dedicate their new label to single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at a time (1996) when many Santa Barbara wineries were concentrating on varieties blended from multiple sources. They started with their combined meager savings, without assistance from family or investors, and began producing their wines in the unglamorous Lompoc “Wine Ghetto.”

They hit pay dirt in 2002 when Robert Parker, Jr., reviewed their wines from the 2001 vintage, and proclaimed the Brewer-Clifton wines to be “the single greatest revelation of my 2001 tastings.” The wines have always been crafted in a full-throttle, neuvo California style that Parker espouses, driven by very ripe prodigious fruit, high alcohol, and healthy tannins. Vineyard sites in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation have always been carefully chosen and emphasis has been placed on the vineyard as the ultimate determination of wine quality. A vineyard management team has been assembled under the direction of Francisco Ramirez and is currently farming Mount Carmel and Huber vineyards as well as 3-D Vineyard which they planted and developed.

The winemaking regimen is aimed at extracting the maximum amount of flavor. 100% whole cluster fermentation is extended, consisting of a 7 day cold soak, followed by a 2 week fermentation, and at least 10 days of extended maceration. Barrels are sourced from the Sirugue cooperage in Nuits-St.-George. All racking is by gravity and timed with the beginning of the waning moon following Summer Solstice when the wine is most settled. The bottles are capped with an attractive red wax seal. The owners recommend driving the corkscrew through the wax into the cork, but I found cutting the wax on top with a serrated corkscrew knife much easier. The wines are sold in standard-sized Burgundy bottles which are easy to rack and handle and I applaud them for this.

Brewer-Clifton has continued to evolve. With the 2007 vintage, they are offering an “appellation” blended Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which are handled in the winery identically to the other bottlings. These two wines will be bottled with Diam cork with the goal of converting all the vineyard-designate wines to Diam cork closure within a few years (Diam corks are produced with a high pressure carbon dioxide cleansing process which eliminates the risk of cork taint). Brewer-Clifton has also moved into a new winery production facility in Lompoc.

2005 Brewer-Clifton Rio Vista Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.5% alc., 720 cases, $46. This vineyard is owned by the Thorne family and is farmed by Buona Terra Farming on the eastern extreme of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. · Clones 667 and 777. The aromas become quite enticing with time in the glass showing off bright cherry and strawberry fruits with a touch of barnyard and pencil lead. Red fruit-driven with a hint of oak char, this is a simple but tasty wine with soft tannins lending richness and structure and marred only by slightly hot finish.

2005 Brewer-Clifton Ashley’s Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.1% alc., 911 cases, $48. Ashley’s Vineyard was owned by the Parker family and named after Fess’s daughter, Ashley. It was subsequently sold to Demetria Estate and renamed Gaia Vineyard. There are still bottlings carrying the Ashley’s name. This wine is from two blocks planted on steep clay-loam slopes to cones 114, 115, and Pommard. · A cherry-driven wine with flamboyant aromas of fresh black cherries carrying over in the mouth with hints of red licorice and oak. Rich and long, with a creamy texture and admirable balance.

2005 Brewer-Clifton Cargassachi Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.5% alc., 576 cases, $56. From a two acre section of clone 115 planted in clay loam soil replete with calcareous deposits and diatomaceous earth. · Lighter in color than the other 2005 bottlings. Reticent but enticing redder fruits complimented by spice, new leather, funk and dried herbs on the nose. The demurely spiced and savory herb-toned red fruits are losing the tug-of-war with drying tannins that overwhelm. The aromas trump the flavors now and this may or may not blossom in the future as the tannins soften. Tasted twice.

2005 Brewer-Clifton Clos Pepe Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.9% alc., 264 cases, $56. This 30- acre vineyard is owned and farmed by the Pepe and Hagen families. This wine is sourced from a section of the vineyard planted to Pommard 5 clone. · Intriguing nose of black-fruited jam on toast with a touch of chocolate. Surprisingly light-weighted for a Clos Pepe bottling, the earth-toned dark fruits are softly textured and encased in silky tannins. A hint of alcohol peaks out on the start and dry finish but is not obtrusive.

2005 Brewer-Clifton Mount Carmel Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.6% alc., 911 cases, $60. Mount Carmel was originally planted in 1991 by Paul Albrecht and Ron Piazza. This 20-acre vineyard, planted on Botella clay, diatomite and limestone, is now farmed by Brewer-Clifton’s vineyard management team. Clones are Dijon 115 and Mount Eden. · The nose offers darker fruits enhanced with floral notes, green veggie scents and new-mown hay aromas with a hint of alcohol. Linear dark fruit on the palate which is earthy and nicely balanced by lively acidity. On the lighter side and appealingly smooth with soft tannins and a clean finish.

2005 Brewer-Clifton Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., 240 cases, $64. Clone 667 planted on a steep south facing slope replete with limestone. Owned and farmed by Bill Foley. · Dark reddish-purple in color. A wine crafted from what seems like overripe fruit with a nose of stewed, syrupy fruit, and chewy, thick flavors of raisin grapes. A Pinot Noir masquerading as a Syrah with none of the charm of Pinot Noir.

2004 Brewer-Clifton Cargasacchi Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.1% alc., 168 cases. · Shy cherry, forest floor perfume with mineral accents. Black currents and blackberries are featured but although there is prodigious fruit, there is very little taste impact. Noticeable fine tannins carry the dry finish which is also a touch astringent.

2004 Brewer-Clifton Clos Pepe Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.5% alc., 504 cases. · The lightest in color of the 2004 Pinot Noirs tasted. Very attractive aromatics featuring crushed black cherries, red berries and spice. Very ripe fruit flavors tending toward raisin. Smoothly textured with a moderate tannic backbone.

2004 Brewer-Clifton Melville Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.6% alc., 144 cases. From vines planted in 1997 on clay-loam soil with clones 114 and 115. · Grapey nose with hints of smoky oak. Decent cherry and raspberry fruit which is subdued and rustic. Big-boned but not showy and one-dimensional. Much like a smoky grape popsicle. The tannins arrive with a rush at the end.

2004 Brewer-Clifton Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

15.1% alc., 240 cases · Reticent aromas of black cherries, strawberries and oak char. Loamy fruit with notes of tar and tea, mild grainy tannins, a smooth texture, and a dry finish with a citric tang.

2004 Brewer-Clifton Rio Vista Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

16.0% alc., 192 cases. · Appealing scents of dark fruits, oak, herbs and Xmas spice. Powerfully flavored red and black fruits with mildly dry tannins, and a clean, citric finish.

As a lark, I combined the Cargassachi, Rio Vista and Ashley’s in equal parts to produce a blend. The resultant wine was as least as good as any of the single-vineyard bottlings. Alluring aromas of red fruits, spice and sandalwood with delicious rich red fruits and an appealing soft texture. I do this frequently, but the jury is still out, as blends may or may not trump the single-vineyard bottlings.

The high alcohols are generally quite well integrated in the wines. Balance is decent, but with acidity lacking in some instances. The wines are ripe fruit-driven and concentrated, but can be linear and lacking in nuances of taste. There definitely is a consumer base for this style of Pinot Noir and Greg Brewer likes to point out that the alcohols listed on his wine labels are accurate, unlike some producers, whose wines are significantly above 14.1%, but fudge in portraying a true listing of the alcohol percentage (a 1% margin of error is allowed).

Brewer-Clifton wines are sold primarily through a mailing list. There is a spring and fall release. The wines used to be highly allocated, but with more production now (between 4,000 and 6,500 cases), availability has increased and buyers may choose among the offerings on a first come, first serve basis. The website is and the winery’s address is 329 North F Street in Lompoc. 803-735-9184. Greg Brewer is also the winemaker for his own label, diatom, and Melville Winery and Vineyards. Steve Clifton produces highly regarded Italian varieties under his label Palmina and is the winemaker for Tritono, an Argentine producer of Malbec.

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