Fashion

A Special Region Near Santa Barbara, Chardonnay Thrills and a Little Eastern Philosophy Define This Complex Winemaker

We're Talking Grapes With Greg Brewer

BY // 06.11.21

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

The tasting was scheduled for 10 in the morning, on a Saturday, so the drive to Los Olivos from Los Angeles began a little after 7 am. At that time of the day traffic is usually light — a weekend bonus — and the journey was relaxed and pleasurable. I never tire of driving along the Pacific, seeing the sun rise from the waves and the rolling hills glide by.

I was headed north to meet with Greg Brewer, of Brewer-Clifton, diatom and Ex Post Facto, at his label’s tasting room in Los Olivos. I was familiar with his Brewer-Clifton wines, and appreciated their purity, but had never sampled diatom or Ex Post Facto wines, so I looked forward to the encounter.

Brewer, who was named Winemaker of the Year in 2020 by Wine Enthusiast magazine (one of the categories in the publication’s Wine Star Awards), is a product of the Sta. Rita Hills  AVA region. When one discusses wine with him, the soils and vineyards and geography of the appellation come to life, and tasting with the Los Angeles-born former French instructor (UC Santa Barbara) is a sensuous and intellectual tour of the region.

“The winemaker of the year award is much more about the Sta. Rita Hills than it is about me,” he told my tasting companion and me as we tasted the 2018 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay. “The people here, the land and the environment, those are the stars.”

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Brewer founded Brewer-Clifton with Steve Clifton in 1996, and diatom, focused on “starkly raised” Chardonnay, was born in 2005. Ex Post Facto, dedicated to cold-climate Syrah, followed in 2016. In addition, beginning in 1999 and continuing through the 2015 harvest, Brewer co-founded and served as winemaker at Melville Winery.

Brewer, whose labels became part of Jackson Family Wines in 2017, began his career in wine at Santa Barbara Winery, in 1991. He worked in the tasting room, and soon discovered a passion for production, a passion that continues today.

Greg Brewer and James Brock post-tasting at the Brewer-Clifton tasting room in Los Olivos, California. (Photo by The Brockhaus)

Conversing with Brewer was a refreshing experience, one that took me back to my Eastern philosophy classes and seminars. Ego; the self; humility; chop wood, carry water; process; the razor’s edge: those words and phrases came to mind on that Saturday morning as we talked about the appellation and its attributes and Brewer’s approach to winemaking (and life). He’s someone I would gladly sit with over a three-hour meal.

A Chardonnay of intense purity.

In addition to the Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay, the tasting lineup included the 2017 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, the 2016 diatom Machado, the 2017 Machado Pinot Noir, the 2018 Ex Post Facto Syrah, and the 2009 Brewer-Clifton Mount Carmel Chardonnay. All show sense of place in a remarkable manner, and demonstrate Brewer’s method, which, though highly personal, has been honed to ensure integrity and longevity no matter what life brings.

“I could be hit by a bus, and our wines would live on,” Brewer told me, referring to the way he has trained others on his team to make these wines.

Here’s Brewer in Wine Talk:

James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?

Greg Brewer: The pandemic has, as with many, caused me to become quite nostalgic and increasingly sentimental. I have embraced this opportunity to reignite direct correspondence with our community as a means of intimate connection during times of quarantine and lack of social interaction. While I hope that the outreach from me has been welcomed by them to remain engaged, I have also benefited greatly, as the exercise has been very nourishing and restorative for me.

While initially resistant to virtual events, I quickly dove into that platform, which proved to be very rewarding. My initial hesitancy was rooted in a fear of not connecting as well as in person, yet I quickly realized it was far from inferior and simply different. There can be tremendous intimacy and comfort when interacting in this manner, particularly when all participants are as focused and vulnerable as possible.

As I find ultimate identity through my work, there is really no differentiation for me on any level between personal and professional. For the mere attempt to segregate the two would lessen my core devotion to the craft and industry.

“Gentle hands and pure intent … “

JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one? 

GB: Everything is appropriate, worthwhile and timely. I gravitate towards wines raised by gentle hands and pure intent, and am particularly inspired when one has the confidence to explore an aesthetic which is singular and relevant. Brander Au Naturel Sauvignon Blanc and Captûre Tradition Sauvignon Blanc are excellent examples of that ethos for different reasons. Larmandier-Bernier Champagne is another reference point that comes to mind. All three are singular while maintaining a very specific point of view and not alienating others. Unique and inclusive. Deliberate and still very aware of surroundings.

If a certain wine and dish are pleasurable, they will always make a good pairing. Composure and pleasure eclipse the stress that can frequently accompany a pursuit to replicate expected and almost cliché pairings. The alignment of dynamics can be great, as can be exploring contrast. It closely resembles any other personal relationship. As soon as one embraces the risk and fear of an atypical rapport, the world opens up to myriad possibilities that may have otherwise been overlooked. Gender, race, sexual orientation, careers, hobbies, favorite colors and zodiac signs. If one is confined to a cage, there is never a chance to engage with the other animals.

JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.

GB: While I ultimately love all wines, there is really nothing I envy. There is a time and place for everything, and I fear that seeking something out would lessen the relationship I would have with the object. Who am I to have something in my keeping when it might offer more pleasure to someone else?

Many of the wines that I have possessed have been very valuable to me and their subsequent consumption has been the best way to honor them. Such would include last vintages from inspirational mentors who have since passed away or last vintages from colleagues whose families have asked me to finish their work upon their sudden passing.

JB: What is your favorite grape variety, and why?

GB: I don’t subscribe to the notion of favorites, but were I to work with only one grape, it would unequivocally be chardonnay. I cherish its purity, nobility and its capacity to convey place.

This wine reveals itself in a patient manner.

JB:How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? 

GB: From our collection of wines, I would suggest diatom chardonnay. It is not only something that wouldn’t be expected, it is by far and away the longest-lived wine that we steward. As it is raised in a virtual vacuum, it is very slow to unveil what lies beneath, and as such would hopefully be compelling for someone at year 10, 20 or 30.

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?

GB: My wife and I both work long hours every day, and a “go to place” outside of those two venues is somewhat foreign. My ideal scenario would be for us to stand in our home together with nice glassware and sexy deep house trance music — preferably with female vocals.

Greg Brewer is a philosophical creature of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. (Photo courtesy Brewer-Clifton)

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

GB: My hope and goal throughout my entire career has been to help others feel more comfortable with wine. There is a tremendous level of fear, apology and permission that accompanies many individuals’ relationship with wine. It makes me sad and I always turn myself inside out to try to assuage that insecurity in others.

The word “should” has been imbedded in millions of questions posed to me about wine, which is tragic, really. When should I drink this?  What should I drink it out of?  What temperature should I, etc.? The fear abridges the ultimate understanding and pleasure that wine can offer. It is an extremely primitive and elementary beverage that has essentially been around as long as water and fire. People can quickly recognize they know WAY more about it than they realize it as soon as they link the fundamentally simple elements of it to other areas of life with which they have more confidence.

Music, fashion, art, design, gravity, a teeter totte. . .  It’s all virtually the same once you allow it.

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

GB: There are two that stand out that both occurred quite early in my career, which I suppose is obviously inherent based on the question! Sorry!!). One was tasting a 1987 Williams-Selyem Rochioli Pinot Noir for the first time, and the other was 1987 Calera Jensen Pinot Noir. In addition to the monumental nature of both wines, the setting and company elevated the experience to a different level.

Both were beautiful lessons that the environment in which something is experienced plays such a vital role to every aspect of the experience. No matter how coveted the object or experience, the enjoyment will prove meaningless if one feels uncomfortable, distracted, or under duress.

JB: What has been the strangest moment or incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career thus far?

GB: I don’t think anything has been that strange, ultimately. Fun coincidences, synergies and surprises, but nothing that seems too far outside of this realm.

Baudelaire had a special relationship with wine.

JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

GB: The poem, “Enivrez-vous” by Charles Baudelaire. I love the notion of arresting time through wine, poetry, or virtue. I love how those elements can suspend time, which is not only something we all possess in equal measure, but the one thing that is the most fleeting. . .

“Enivrez-vous” — from Le Spleen de Paris (1869)

Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là: c’est l’unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.

Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.

Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d’un palais, sur l’herbe verte d’un fossé, dans la solitude morne de votre chambre, vous vous réveillez, l’ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l’étoile, à l’oiseau, à l’horloge, à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est; et le vent, la vague, l’étoile, l’oiseau, l’horloge, vous répondront: “Il est l’heure de s’enivrer! Pour n’être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous; enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.

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One must always be drunk. That is the heart of the matter. So as not to feel the horrible burden of Time crushing your shoulders and bending you toward the earth, you must get drunk without rest.
But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue; you choose. But get drunk.

And if, from time to time — on the steps of a palace, in the green grass of a ditch, in the doleful silence of your bedroom — you awaken to find your drunkenness has dissipated or disappeared, ask the wind, the waves, the stars, the birds, the clocks; ask all that flees, or wails, or rolls; ask all that sings or speaks; ask what time it is, and the wind, the waves, the stars, the birds, the clocks will answer you: “It is time to get drunk! So as not to be Time’s martyred slaves, get drunk, get drunk, and never rest! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue; you choose.” (English translation by Emily Leithauser)

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out his Mise en Place.

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