Grapelive Latest: Brewer-Clifton 2008 Releases
By Kerry Winslow
Brewer-Clifton Wine Lunch at Spruce, in San Francisco, April 12, 2010
It doesn’t get much better than this, sitting next to Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton Winery, the hot and highly prized Santa Rita Hills Pinot and Chard producers, and having his wines with an amazing lunch at Spruce Restaurant in the City, I mean these are the kind of food and wine events you dream about. I had never been to Spruce, though I had heard great things, and it lived up and surpassed the high praise it receives, no question. As for the wines, well, let’s just say they were near perfect and the word fantastic comes to mind. Plus, the bonus was that the staff at Spruce was warm and professional, they deserve to be mentioned in the highest regard for their quality and manner. The food was beautiful and tasted out of this world, so if you haven’t been to Spruce in San Francisco, go, and there is no doubt in my mind you’ll love the food, the place and the people. Sometimes we get jaded, I mean, I get to a lot of wine lunches, tasting and dinners, more than my fair share I’m sure, it though sometimes gets to be all the same and it is hard to not get burnt out on them once in a while, but I am so glad I braved the pouring rain and traffic to attend this lunch. Not only was it a lovely and interesting selection of wine and terrific food pairings, I really learned a lot and time just flew by.
Brewer-Clifton started in 1996, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton, friends, winemakers and partners found a way on a shoestring budget to form a new winery and craft some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot on the Central Coast. From the start they shared a vision and made a plan to focus on the region, which would become known as the Santa Rita Hills, or Sta. Rita hills if you want to obey copyright laws! With the help of the Santa Barbara Futures program through the famed Wine Cask Restaurant and Wine Shop in Santa Barbara, Greg and Steve were able to showcase their talents and build their brand, and getting the money up front helped secure them as a viable operation, in fact as Steve tells it, they had to sell their wine on futures from the barrel, because they had no money for labels, corks or for grapes! And that is why they did the wax capsules and still do, they couldn’t afford the set up costs.
Very quickly, word of mouth and restaurants had Brewer-Clifton rolling and these two stars were born and the area soon was the rage and everyone was buzzing about the Santa Barbara and especially the new Santa Rita Hills region. Before these guys, there was a few names that got press and nice reviews, these included Sanford, Byron and Ojai, now only Ojai is in the quality league as both Byron and Sanford got taken over by big wine companies that just wanted them as labels. This was before the movie “Sideways” made the Santa Rita Hills the most sought after wine area in the world, but of course the extra hype after “Sideways” was icing on the cake for Brewer-Clifton and they have never looked back.
Greg Brewer also is the head winemaker at Melville Winery and Vineyards where his talents again have made them almost as famous, and maybe even more, While Steve and his wife Crystal have their own project making some of the best Italian style wines in the States under their Palmina label. But it is the Brewer-Clifton wines that is the core of their passions and the region that holds them true, they now source only from the top sites in the area and have a bigger say in the farming, which really shows in the latest wines and gives them more security for the future.
I met Steve and Crystal about ten years ago, and have been luck to have had most every vintage of Brewer-Clifton since 2000, when they were able to release enough, wine not bought in futures, to get them out on the market. They as people, Greg, Steve and Crystal, and as winemakers have always impressed me, with the Brewer-Clifton label ranking right up there with Rochioli in my personal favorite wines.
Around the 2000 vintage, they got the stunning endorsement of famed wine critic Robert Parker and have regularly seen 90-95 Point rating from him, making them very exclusive wines to find and help push them to the top of their field. None of their overwhelming success has gone to their head(s), in fact they all seem even more down to earth and playful than ever, and are very easy to talk to and eager to learn about their own wines and how everyone sees them. Steve and Greg have changed next to nothing about how they make the Brewer-Clifton in the last 10 years or so, except a tweak of yeast and going from 25% new oak to zero new oak in the barrel regime, it has really been focus on the vineyard that has been where they have done the most. I guess you’d call them traditional in their approach, and certainly it is far from modern to not use new oak, and in most cases the kiss of death in the ratings game where lots of sweet toasty new oak gets more attention and better reviews. But, sticking to their core values and wanting to show the fruit over oak and terroir over the latest craze has worked for these guys. Now they have been modern in terms of high alcohol, in fact they have had Chardonnays topping out in port like range, at well over 16%, though with their new found control of the growing side of these the percentage of alcohol has been dropping by a big margin, with the latest wines closer to 14%, and I am loving the wines even more. This crop management has done wonders, allowing better overall ripeness of the grapes and stems, plus balancing the naturally high acidity from this very cool climate region, and I believe this will take Brewer-Clifton to the next level and lead them to even greater things in the future.
Brewer-Clifton’s Mount Carmel vineyard is the ace up their sleeve, it is a top site and it is all their own, they are the only ones that get fruit from here and they control the whole thing. This “Monopole” is the wineries showcase, like Kistler Vineyard, Maracassin Vineyard, or Pisoni Vineyard (even though Pisoni sells some of his fruit of course), these vineyards are like the American Grand Cru super sites, producing top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir together. In Burgundy, there are only two Grand Cru vineyards that give both Grand Cru white and red, Musigny and Corton, so it is rare for a single vineyard to produce such high quality of both the grapes, even though Pinot Noir and Chardonnay enjoy the same climate and soils, and most often grown close to each other, but we are talking about the best of the best here. Mount Carmel is a challenging place for growing grapes and gives a few hair-pulling moments, according to Clifton, but it really gives fantastic fruit and I can attest to the sublime and deep flavors the wine shows year after year. I can say I have tasted many Mount Carmel Chardonnays that rivaled or reminded me of Batard-Montrachet, one of the greatest Chardonnay vineyards on earth. This for sure is a special vineyard, and I find the Pinot Noir almost as exciting as I do the Chardonnay from Brewer-Clifton’s Mount Carmel. The combination of exposure, soils, which include limestone and botella clay, steep slopes and unique clones all play a part in making Mount Carmel the magical spot it is.
The 2008 vintage seems to be somewhat overlooked so far and underrated, but in most cases, in the best areas, I am finding them even better than the stellar 2007’s with more perfume, deeper complexities and more vibrant flavors. This goes especially true in the case of Chardonnay, as the 2007 seem fat or sweet, somewhat dull when compared to the 2008 vintage. Maybe the 2008’s didn’t show well in the barrel? I can only tell you they are coming on strong now and the Brewer-Clifton wines across the board are all, in my opinion, much more interesting than the last two or three vintages and I firmly believe will just get better over time. Both Steve and Greg (who was not present at Spruce) echo this on their own and Steve thinks 2008 was his best year and line up to date, even though he is sentimental for his early efforts, as anyone can well understand. Overall 2007 was excellent with big rich wines, I’m not knocking it, I have plenty stored away myself, but I am a big fan of the 2008 vintage for Pinot Noir on the Central Coast, from the Santa Lucia Highlands to the Santa Rita Hills, while their was some fire problems in the North and customers will have to really be careful of some areas like Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast, no such worries for Brewer-Clifton that is for sure.
Brewer-Clifton also has two sublime value wines available, a cuvee of selected vineyards for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both were taken from their finished single vineyard selections and blended, these coming from the best lots, nothing from seconds or barrels that didn’t go into the single vineyard wines. These under $40 wines are as good as anything they do, though they maybe lack a bit of the unique quality of the single site terroir, but that said I bet most people would like these as well if not more in most cases. So far Brewer-Clifton has released a select few of their 2008’s, and what I tried today (April 12, 2010) were the spring release: 2008 Santa Rita Hills Chard & Pinot, 2008 Sea Smoke Chard, 2008 Sweeney Canyon Chard, 2008 Mount Carmel Chard, 2008 Ampelos Pinot, 2008 Mount Carmel Pinot and the 2008 Melville Pinot. All of which topped 90 Points in my notes. It was hard to pick a favorite wine of the day, but I narrowed it down to three wines from the 2008 vintage: The Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay, the Mount Carmel Pinot and the Melville Pinot. That was tough, as all the wines were amazing and who knows, I may end up rating them different the next time I try them! When all is said and done, the vintage was a huge success for Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton, with stunning and pure wines and an even better future to look forward to in the coming years, these guys aren’t going anywhere but up.
Quick Wine Notes
2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills.
White flowers, lemon curd, fig and kiwi all going nicely with core peach and pear fruit. Bright, perfumed, tangy with citrus notes, subtle oak and mineral. I was quick to rate this wine, and after going back to it, I might be well served to raise the score, this is a very pretty and complex wine that is only going to fill out in the next year…. Note to self, revisit soon…
($36 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay “Sea Smoke” Sta. Rita Hills.
smoky, with nice oak notes, hazelnuts, rich apple and pear fruits, lemon cream, full-bodied, nice mineral edge and some fig. Needs time to show all that is here…. Maybe I should give it a better score?
($53 Est.) 92+ Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay “Mount Carmel” Sta. Rita Hills.
Lemon, verbena, lime tree, white peach, pear and apple with touches of clove, spice, mineral. Rich and full, but vibrant and racy. I can’t wait to try this beauty in the years to come, it should get lots better still, but it is so good now…
($57 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay “Sweeney Canyon” Sta. Rita Hills.
steely with honeysuckle, jasmine, apricot, pear, mineral spices. Edgy and bright though opens up with time to reveal apple and lemon, with brioche and quince. I love this wine, might just be my personal favorite, I could easily rate it a few points higher..
($57 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills.
whole cluster spicy with grenadine and rose petals, black cherry, red plum and berry fruit, silky and round with long finish. Will great potential to get better!
($36 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Ampelos” Sta. Rita Hills.
Biodynamic, sweet and funky to start, but opens up nicely with lovely texture with pomegranate, currant, plum and raspberry plus a red cherry fruit core. Some Asian spices, and a long lingering finish. 828 clone, unique and intriguing.
($53 Est.) 93-94 Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Mount Carmel” Sta. Rita Hills.
A perfected mix of clones gives real depth and complexities, floral perfume, rich body, pretty color, hints at violets, roses, black cherry, plum with bright lively flavors, all vibrant with hints of apple skin, spices. Long fruit sweet finish.
($57 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive
2008 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Melville” Sta. Rita Hills.
bold, intense, young and layered with black and dark fruit all through, rich palate, great depth, plum, cherry, currant, black fig, firm structure, but very long on the finish. Wind swept site planted to 114 and 115 clones, long hang-time adds complexities and the wine seems darker in color.
($57 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive
*On a side note, I want to thank Spruce and its staff for the extra care and personal service, it just added to the wonderful food that dazzled us at the tasting, and a thank you to Steve and Crystal Clifton for their time and effort in presenting the Brewer-Clifton wines. They also opened three library wines from their own stash, a 2000 Marcella’s Chardonnay (93-94), a 2002 Mount Carmel Chardonnay (94) and a 2004 Cargasschi Pinot Noir (95), all showed well, great in fact. I am most grateful.
3640 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94118
Full notes and ratings to follow