Monthly Archives: January 2013


I am going to confess something. I’ve been trying to write this two post series on meeting Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith for almost a month. There are some people I have such appreciation that the challenge becomes wondering what I could possibly say. Rather than stall any longer, I thought I’d post photos of my first visit with them, and keep working on the write up in the meantime. They really are both enjoyable, remarkable people.


Visiting Lagier Meredith, Mt Veeder

Looking through the fog into Napa Valley

The day Stephen and Carole initially met with me was foggy. Standing on the lower porch we are looking East here into Napa Valley. Highway 29 is below hidden in the fog.

Looking into Carneros

The Mt Veeder appelation is unique to the region. It is one of several Mountain appellations within the larger Napa Valley, but Mt Veeder sits the furthest south, overlapping Carneros. As a result, Mt Veeder is also the coolest AVA in the Napa Valley benefiting from the marine influence with fog and cool air moving Northward from San Pablo and San Francisco Bays.

While the other Mountain AVAs rely on more volcanic soil, Mt Veeder hosts primarily sedimentary, former seabed earth. The Lagier Meredith Vineyards grow from sandstone and shale, both of which fracture allowing roots to grow deep and more readily access water.

The Mondeuse portion of Lagier Meredith Vineyard

Carole’s work in grape genetics heralded an understanding of genetic relationships of vines. While she also helped establish worldwide lab partnerships in order to build a genetic map of grape types, her passion was in determining the parentage and relationship between different vines. The first such breakthrough established Cabernet Sauvignon as the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Her success in this discovery led to heritage vineyards in France allowing her to use their vine collections to research further. She went on to establish the origins of Syrah, Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligote, Pinot Meunier, and Zinfandel, among others.

Partially in celebration of her work, the Lagier Meredith Vineyards grow Syrah (a good match for the cooler climate, elevation, shallow soils of Mt Veeder), Zinfandel, and Mondeuse (“the crazy uncle” of Syrah).

Stephen and Carole planted Syrah first. After having dinner at their home with Jean Louis Chave, the 15th., a former student of Carole’s, the couple mentioned they were considering planting Syrah on the site. Chave looked out into the Napa Valley and agreed, “Syrah loves a view.”

Carole had a cast metal telephone art phase

My favorite part of all this? Meeting the unique character of people. Carole had a cast metal telephone art phase. The handle lifts up. She also made a wall mount version.

Stephen had a ceramic frog art phase

The couple’s interests paralleled even before they met. Stephen had a ceramic frog art phase. This one with a cap and cigar, others with other accoutrement, and different postures.

The friendly kitty

the curious kitty

They make wine and olives

They make wine, and their own olives from trees planted in the 1880s. They’re delicious (Rachel ate a whole jar of them almost in one sitting).

Syrah was unusual for Napa Valley when Stephen and Carole planted vines on their then brand new vineyard in 1994. At the time the region was planted almost entirely with Cabernet Sauvignon. Lagier Meredith Syrah was also one of the first from the region to be described by the media as showing a more restrained European influence.

Carole and Stephen

Stephen and Carole manage all aspect of the business–vineyard maintenance and planting, winemaking and marketing–themselves, but he is humble about the project at the same time.

When I ask him about the European comparison of their wines he responds, “It is a reflection of this place. That was not our goal. Our goal was to reduce our influence on the wine.”

Carole adds, “we are fortunate. We have a cool site, with shallow soils, that produce focused wines with complexity.”

Stephen continues, “we are just pleased this place makes this wine we enjoy, and people enjoy. It allows us to make a living.” He pauses, “so pleased.”

The couple had their first press in 1996, originally having planted vines for their own appreciation and use. When they tasted what the wine had to offer, however, it far outpaced their own expectations. So, they shared it with friends, who had a similar response. Their first release was in 2000, and was received almost immediately with good critical response, and a quickly loyal mailing list.

The shy kitty

the shy kitty

The shy kitty purr-meowing

Original concert posters

These concert posters are originals from shows Carole attended.

Thank you to Carole Meredith and Stephen Lagier for hosting me.

More to follow!

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


The following is the second of a two-part series, guest posts written by Tyler Thomas, winemaker of Donelan Wines.

To read the first of Tyler’s guest posts:


Donelan Wines

tasting Donelan Wines, summer 2012

It is a privilege that Wakawaka Wine reviews has invited me to post as a guest.  Elaine and I have spoken much of philosophy and approach to winemaking, partly because of the very important role I place on “wine worldview”: i.e. how we think about wine informs actions of the way we end up producing that wine.  What follows is somewhat of a personal winemaking philosophical statement that I apply to our efforts at Donelan Family Wines where we make Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.


While obtaining a B.S. and M.S. in Botany and Plant Molecular Biology, I was fascinated with plant physiology: how a static organism could adapt/interact so well to its environment. Winemaking is a wonderful professional avenue to enjoy the fruits of such interaction in a way that brings pleasure to so many people. In this industry my focus has almost exclusively been with producers who sought to maximize wine quality (and hence, your pleasure) by maximizing our understanding of any particular place and bringing forth that expression with deft work in the cellar. My desire is to produce wines of great and special character consistently and efficiently each vintage.

I’ve learned in my tenure as a winemaker that unique vineyards, great equipment, proper education, and excellent cellar techniques are only part of the story.  First and foremost I believe that one must develop quality leadership, a quality team of people, and a quality winery culture to produce peerless wine vintage in and vintage out.  My experience in winery upheaval and transition has emphasized the importance of leadership, philosophy, and vision combined with patient communication in order to develop substantive change.  We must cultivate wine, but also people.

With an excellent team in place, making great wine vintage after vintage is a result of two places: the vineyard and the mind.  While inimitable wine presumes inimitable fruit, the role played by the mental juggling of variables involved from vineyard to glass are less easily delineated.  I’ve read once “don’t learn the tricks of the trade, learn the trade.”  Knowing how to clean a barrel doesn’t necessarily make me a better winemaker, but knowing the language of winemaking (another way of saying the science and art) and understanding how people handle different challenges might.  Deciphering how another individual thinks about wine – their philosophical approach to making a wine, to balance, to quality; understanding these elements from one person or culture can be integrated into handling the fruit from your own region, climate, and vineyards.

This is exactly what I have taken away from each opportunity in the industry.  Experiences in the Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma, Napa, New Zealand, and across Europe were paramount to developing my own perspective on wine production.  These experiences evolved my mental approach to wine production.  Concepts like balance, importance of extraction, emphasis on mouth feel over flavor, the tool of patience, and perhaps most importantly: how wine was esteemed in each culture.

I will always remember having a candid discussion about acid and bubbles with a winemaker in Champagne when a light bulb went off about the greater role of acid in texture and wine let alone great Champagne.  That informed my time as an Assistant Winemaker with HdV Wines in Napa and altered the angle of my view of California wines ever since.  Who knew the halls of a corporate cafeteria in France could be so informative for a boutique winemaker!

Across cultures the purpose of wine is pleasure.  My goal is to make wines that please by their compelling nature.  That is you find yourself both hedonistically and intellectually compelled to go back to the wine over and over again.  It calls to you, and you answer.  Many wines can draw your first glance, but can they sustain your desire?

I find that both cuvees and single vineyard wines can achieve this goal.  The hope of any cuvee is to utilize all the parts, all the colors, to paint a picture or present an offering that is greater than any of the individual parts.  Vineyard designated wines ought to stand alone as complete wines (complexity, depth, length, structure) but generally offer a certain unique something that is sine qua non.  They ought to have a unique, intriguing aroma profile as a result of their place, but also a balanced texture and complexity to deliver both pleasure and distinction.

I believe that the greatest wines (cuvees or single vineyards) are not made but discovered.  While many say that great wine starts in the vineyard (and it does), my goal is also to discover and distill what truly makes an impact to the governing components of wine and only do those things (okay, that’s also because I’m a little lazy and don’t want to create extra work for myself!).  For example, by segmenting vines as a result of natural variation within even the smallest of sites we can capture only the best of the best in a vineyard.  This assists in learning more about small sections of vineyards, and about essential and nonessential parts of the production that influence how a wine tastes from that site.

Perhaps this is disappointing.  Perhaps you would prefer a recipe or some other secret to our vineyard and winemaking approach.  Well, maybe I make it out to be simpler than it is, but as my old mentor used to say: “don’t forget, it’s just wine.”  We look for good people, create good culture, make wines we enjoy, and hope you will esteem them.

I’ll sum it up this way.  Just the other day I was telling Joe Donelan that I found a vineyard that would make the best Mourvedre in the state.  We could make one acre, 4 barrels, and drink it all ourselves!  Wouldn’t that be great!  People, passion, pleasure.

The foundation to achieving this is laid on the quality and knowledge of the team corralled.  Establishing a quality vision and culture, and uncompromisingly executing the details will in the end produce the most satisfying of all the beverages: transcendent wine.


Thank you to Tyler Thomas for his work writing these posts to share here. I am grateful for the opportunity to share his ideas, as conversations with him have consistently proved insightful and engaging. I also admire the quality of his wines.

To read more from Tyler, you can follow the Donelan Wines blog here:



This summer I had the privilege of meeting winemaker Tyler Thomas. We talked for several hours about the intersections of science and faith, winemaking as art versus craft, as well as philosophy and what it means to be human. It’s a conversation I’ve returned to again and again in mind since. Tyler Thomas is head winemaker at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, California, producing high quality Rhone and Burgundy varieties from Sonoma County. Previously, he also served as assistant winemaker alongside Stéphane Vivier at HdV.

After continued conversations with Tyler about minerality and plant health, making Chardonnay, and the 2012 vintage, I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post to share here. I am grateful to share two. The first, is Tyler Thomas’s reflection on faith in winemaking; the second, tomorrow, elucidates his winemaking philosophy.


Tyler JN Pic (2)

Tyler Thomas (photo courtesy of Donelan Wines)

One of the elements of winemaking I enjoy is how its production employs our humanness.  This topic is difficult and very broad so I’ll try to remain on task.  We could start by discussing wine’s transcendence.  Wine transcends its original material.  It points to – no – engages the imbiber into an experience of enjoying flavors other than what would be expected from tasting its original components.  Cherry wine tastes like cherries, but grape wine doesn’t taste of grapes.  And while I think, just as NYU President John Sexton argues, that baseball implies a larger transcendence and the same could be said of wine, here we’ll leave that windy path for someone else to travel.  But there are plenty of other reasons beside wine’s transcendental nature that invoke our human experience, not the least of which is the way it draws our pleasure and gladness of heart.

Wine is incredibly complex yet simple, regal yet rustic, crushed for goodness, real and ethereal (at times), known and mysterious, physical and transformed.  Its purpose seems primarily set toward pleasure.  For me, wine is analog for life…and Life; and not only in wine’s final state but in its production too.  “Analog for life,” you might think, “did he just write that?”  Yes!  One of the reasons is because my worldview has led me to feel that faith, hope, and love are core elements of life.  And in wine production we exhibit elements of faith, hope, and love; and we do so frequently.  I’d like to examine how wine can help one gain an understanding of the faith elements of life.  To do this I’ll presume that faith, hope, and love are indeed integral to our humanness.  I’ll also assume winemakers care about wine, and just as we live life as if our decisions have meaning, we interact with our grapes with a similar passion and verve for their meaningful outcome: yummy vino.

Certainly faith has strong religious connotations.  So much so that many people consider the word faith synonymous with the qualifier blind faith.  Perhaps some have already stopped reading as a result!  I like this definition: a confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.  Do we employ faith when definitive explanations fail us and quality and artisan greatness beckon us?  Not blind faith, blind to historical experience and science, but real faith that incorporates experience and science.

For a winemaker like me the scientific knowledge we’ve gained over time is critical in that it gives us a confident trust in a specific cellar or vineyard practice.  However there is also an interesting narrative that leads many to refer to winegrowing as art, and us as artists.  Empirical knowledge provides confident trust, but there are also quite a few creative gut calls that I believe require faith, or the confidence in knowledge beyond ourselves.  Winemakers don’t often admit this but – here’s the news flash – we don’t know everything about producing inimitable wine, yet we hope our decisions have tremendous importance.

It’s true!  While we may not know things exhaustively, we can still “know” even amidst the mystery.  We strive to obtain more knowledge about winegrowing so we can use it to optimize our viticulture and enology and ensure we make the best wine possible each vintage.  But without a complete road map to how this flavor in that concentration responds to an 83 degree (not 86!) ferment with 3 punch downs a day and then bounces into another compound to produce a given sensory effect…you can see it gets complicated.  Without knowing all that definitively, producers often hope in their intuition and then examine the result asking: “do I like this?”  This often leads wine producers to rely more on faith developed over time.  Or can I say we employ a confident trust in the truth of a particular practice to give us the desired result?

OK skeptics call it intuition mixed with science if the word faith sends shivers down your spine and your eyes rolling.  But if you have an aversion to a word because it conjures too much religious context (which would be a guilt by association fallacy), I encourage you to take what you know from your production techniques and reexamine what it means to employ faith.  Can we admit we make decisions without full knowledge of how our desired outcome is achieved?  Can we admit that we deeply hope those decisions have meaning?  “No Tyler,” you might say, “you are talking about intuition.”  Fair enough.  I admit it is difficult to separate faith from intuition in the discussion of wine.  But I would maintain that there is something about the passion with which we pour ourselves into the process, something more personal and emotive about it, some part of our sincere desire for this decision to be right and true that takes these decisions beyond mere intuition.  Intuition is visceral and doesn’t involve the same hope.  Intuition is not as supremely pleased when right or devastated when wrong.  If we were to consult the Bible (don’t hate me for it!), it offers an alternative definition of faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.  Do we not often feel assured in the hope we have that the decisions we make improve our wines?

When we are enjoying a wine 5 years removed from its production and pat ourselves on the back for handling a challenging situation for which we had yet to have a reference and glow in the pleasure of the sips.  When we do that, do we simply say “nice gut call”?  Isn’t there something more?  More of an expectation, more hope, more risk, more reward, more meaning?

Clearly my presumption is that faith and hope are core human elements.  Perhaps you disagree.  But if you grant me that presumption I think it difficult to deny that winemaking employs elements of our humanness and this should be recognized and embraced.  The challenge is to distill what is really true, what really worked, from an anecdote associated with success.  How do we wade through knowledge and embrace the mystery?  Is faith, the confident trust in the trust worthiness of a practice the answer?  The goal of any lifelong pursuer of peerless wine should be to find good answers.  And this takes time, effort, and…a little faith.  I submit that those who can embrace the science and the mystery will have the greatest opportunity to make the best wine.  Those who love and understand empirical knowledge and belief have – I believe – the best chance to discover something great and be a part of producing an inimitable wine.  It requires faith in certain actions that transcend your current understanding of the winemaking world to provide meaning to your final goal: a wine that produces a glad heart.


Thank you to Tyler Thomas.

To read more about Tyler’s work with Donelan Wines:

Donelan Wine Website:

Tomorrow will host another guest post by Tyler Thomas on his winemaking philosophy.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

Goodland Wines

Goodland Wines

unreleased Goodland Wines portfolio

Ballard Canyon

looking into Ballard Canyon AVA

Ruben Solorzano

Ruban Solorzano, Vineyard Manager, Goodland Wines partner

Limestone Soils, Harrison Clark Vineyard

Ballard Canyon Limestone Soils

Matt Dees

Matt Dees, Winemaker, Goodland Wines partner

Chris Snowden

Chris Snowden, Goodland Wines partner

Harrison Clark Vineyard

Harrison Clark Vineyard Syrah, Ballard Canyon AVA

Matt, Chris, Ruben, long term friends

Star Lane Vineyards & Wines, and Dierberg Wines

Star Lane Winery

Star Lane Winery, Happy Canyon AVA

1500 ft elevation Cabernet Vineyard, Happy Canyon

Star Lane Vineyard, 1500 ft elevation Cabernet Sauvignon

Andy Alba

Andy Alba, Winemaker Star Lane & Dierberg Winemaker

Star Lane Vineyards, looking into Happy Canyon

Looking over Star Lane Vineyards, the oldest Vineyards in Happy Canyon; Looking into Happy Canyon AVA from 1500 ft

Gravity Feed Winery, Star Lane


Star Lane Winery Gravity Flow Winery

Star Lane Wines

Star Lane Wines

Dierberg Wines

Dierberg Wines

Sta Rita Hills Pinot Noir Cluster (full size, not a wing)

Sta Rita Hills high elevation Pinot Noir cluster (photo by Andy Alba): actual cluster size (not a wing)

Rusack Vineyards & Wines

Rusack Vineyard

Rusack Vineyard, Ballard Canyon AVA

Rusack Vineyards, Ballard Canyon

Looking into Ballard Canyon AVA, Rusack Vineyard

Rusack Winery

Rusack Winery

Rusack Wines

Rusack Wines

Rusack Wines, Catalina Vineyard Project

Rusack Wines Santa Catalina Island Vineyard Project

Terroir Selections, and Sandhi Wines

Terroir Selections Wines

Terroir Selections Wines by the glass, The Watering Hole Tasting Room

Sandhi Wines

Sandhi Wines


Thank you to Matt Dees, Chris Snowden, and Ruben Solorzano.

Thank you to Andy Alba, Sarah Hunt, and Jim Dierberg.

Thank you to Steve Gerbac.

Thank you to Nat Gunter.

Thank you to Sao Anash, and Lacey Fussel.

opyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

Santa Barbara Wine Country

Andrew Murray Wines

Andrew Murray Roussane Grenache Blanc

2011 RGB, Roussanne Grenache Blanc

Andrew Murray

Andrew Murray

Andrew Murray Wines, RGB, Syrahs, GSM

Andrew Murray RBG, Syrahs, Esperance GSM blend

Andrew Murray's new label E11even

Andrew Murray’s new label, This is E11EVEN, Unplugged white blend, Pinot Noir, Big Bottom red blend

Andrew Murray

Andrew Murray

Fess Parker Vineyards & Winery, Santa Ynez AVA

Fess Parker Vineyards

Fess Parker Rodney Vineyard

Fess Parker Ranch

Looking out over Fess Parker Ranch from the Mesa

Vino Vaqueros Horses

Fess Parker Ranch’s Vino Vaqueros Equestrian Vineyard Tour Horses

Fess Parker wines

Fess Parker Viognier, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Red blend

Epiphany wines

Epiphany Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Red blend

Riverbench Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley AVA

Riverbench Vineyards

Riverbench Vineyards

Riverbench Old Vines

Old Vines in the midst of replanting at Riverbench Vineyards

Riverbench Winery

Riverbench winery

Santa Maria Valley Round Table Winemaker Tasting, hosted by Riverbench

Jenny, Kevin, and Laura

Jenny Williamson Doré, Kevin Law, and Laura Mohseni

Dieter Cronje, Presqu'ile wines

Dieter Cronje, Presqu’ile Winermaker

Richard Dore, Foxen Wines

Richard Doré, Foxen Vineyards

Kevin Law, Luminesce wines

Kevin Law, Luminesce Winemaker

Jenny Williamson Dore, Foxen wines

Jenny Williamson Doré, Foxen Vineyards

Clarissa Nagy

Clarissa Nagy, Riverbench Winemaker

Riverbench roundtable tasting

Presqu’ile Sauvignon Blanc, Luminesce Pinot Noirs, Riverbench Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Foxen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Dinner with Casa Dumetz Winemaker, Sonja Magdevski

Sonja Magdevski, Casa Dumetz wines

Sonja Magdevski, Casa Dumetz Winemaker

Casa Dumetz wines

Casa Dumetz Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, Gewurtztraminer


Thank you to Andrew Murray and Kristen Murray.

Thank you to Ashley Parker-Snider and David Potter.

Thank you to Clarissa Nagy and Laura Mohseni.

Thank you to Richard Doré, Jenny Williamson Doré, Kevin Law, and Dieter Cronje.

Thank you to Sonja Magdavski.

Thank you to Sao Anash, and Lacey Fussel.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


Santa Barbara Wine Country: Photos from Day 2

Pence Ranch, Sta Rita Hills AVA

Blair Pence

Blair Pence, Pence Ranch

View from the top, Pence Ranch

View from the top, Pence Ranch looking out over Sta Rita Hills

Francisco Ramirez

Pence Vineyard manager, Francisco Ramirez, working with the Pence Vineyard crew in freezing temperatures

Pence Ranch Guard Dog

Pence Pinot Noir

Pench Ranch 2010 Pinot Noirs

Presqu’ile Vineyard and Wines, Santa Maria Valley AVA

Santa Maria Valley Succulents

Presqu'ile Wines

Presqu’ile Wines: Pinot Noir Rosé, Chardonnay, Pinot Noirs

Pensqu'ile Vineyards

Presqu’ile Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley

Matt Murphy

Matt Murphy, visiting the new Presqui’ile Winery site

Dieter Cronje

Presqu’ile Winemaker, Dieter Cronje

Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley AVA

Old vines planted in 1973 on own rootstock, Bien Nacido

original Bien Nacido vines, planted in 1973 on own rootstock

Bien Nacido Vineyards

looking into Santa Maria Valley, from Bien Nacido Vineyards

Chris Hammell

Bien Nacido Vineyard manager Chris Hammell

Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Wines

Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah

Nicholas Miller

Nicholas Miller, Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Winemaker

Evening Wine Tasting

J. Wilkes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

J. Wilkes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Nagy Wines

Nagy Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir

Byron Wines

Byron Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs

La Fenetre Wines

La Fenetre Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs

Qupe Wines

Qupe Roussanne and X-Block SyrahAu Bon Climat Wines

Au Bon Climat 30th-Anniversary Chardonnay and Pinot Noir


More notes, photos, and write-ups to follow.

Thank you to Blair Pence, and Francisco Ramirez.

Thank you to Matt Murphy and Dieter Cronje.

Thank you to Chris Hammell, Nicholas Miller, and the whole Miller family.

Thank you to Vidal Perez, Johnathan Nagy, Clarissa Nagy and Josh Klapper,.

Thank you to Sao Anash, and Lacey Fussel.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

Visiting Melville Vineyards & Winery

Melville Winery

Melville Winery, Sta Rita Hills AVA

Sta Rita Hills appellation starts at the opening of a valley running East from the coast. The point of the landmass at which the valley begins marks the Southern reach of an Alaskan current ushering cool water temperatures from the North. Moving East, the inland reach of the mountains’ opening absorbs warmer temperatures. Between the cool Pacific side of the valley and the inland point of it, then, a kind of breathing effect occurs. The fog air off the ocean is pulled from the Sta Rita Hills across the Santa Ynez Valley during the night, with the warmer temperatures pulled West through the day. The result is a generally reliable temperature band through the course of a day during a long growing season. In the 2012 vintage, Melville harvest began September 1 and finished December 1. It is also not unusual for budbreak to occur on Valentine’s Day.

Melville Pinot Noir Vines

Established in 1997, Melville Vineyards and Winery sit within the cool Sta Rita Hills AVA. The wines are made with entirely Estate fruit, growing primarily Pinot Noir, then Chardonnay, with some Syrah, and a touch of Viognier. With very little rainfall, fruit grows in incredibly dry conditions. Melville Vineyards choose to plant restorative cover crops during the winter months to help enrich the nutriets of the soil.

Pinot Noir Planted in Sand

In Sta Rita Hills much of the ground is sand, with a high plankton and seabed concentration, and clay in very low concentration only in certain areas. On Melville’s Estate, the Syrah is planted entirely in sand, the Pinot grows in primarily sand with some clay showing in a few blocks. Through the appellation, testing has shown sand as much as 20-feet deep in some locations.

Through the growing season irrigation is required, with amounts determined block by block by weather, depending on both the varieties planted, their age, and the particular soil variation of the exact site. As explained by Greg Brewer, without rainfall or irrigation there is not adequate water to support vine health. He explains, even older established vines in the region do not survive on dry farming.

Greg Brewer

On a rather cold late afternoon, winemaker Greg Brewer showed me the Melville Vineyards and Winery. Brewer has worked with Melville as winemaker since its inception, helping too to design the winery and its location. His work over his career has also included scouting both new and established vineyard sites. Over time, Brewer has come to realize he prefers what he describes as protected vineyards in extreme conditions, like “being in the bosom of something.” On a cold day, what is huddled against the chest is kept warm. The combination for vines encourages reduced crops that grow without excessive struggle. The resulting fruit brings a concentration of flavor in a focused structure.

The Wind Effect in Front of Melville Winery

The West-to-East angle of the Valley leads to high winds. Here, the trees growing in front of the winery show the steady tilt of the air currents. The winds keep the Valley’s fog from holding humidity against the grapes, thus also preventing issues with mildew. The Melville Library

The Melville Winery includes a library room with complete verticals of the wine reaching back to the first 1999 vintage.

Melville Chardonnay and Pinot, 2011, 2010, 2004

Greg Brewer tasted me on 6 Melville wines–the 2011 Inox Clone 76 Chardonnay, 2011 Estate Chardonnay, 2004 Estate Chardonnay, the 2010 Estate Pinot Noir, 2011 Estate Block M Pinot Noir, and the 2004 Estate Pinot Noir.

Brewer explains he likes to pick ripe to allow for the richness of flavor offered. Though Sta Rita Hills has its growing challenges, compared to a much cooler and more changing climate like Champagne, Burgundy, or Willamette Valley, Brewer sees his AVA as more reliable and warm. With the less challenging climate of his region, then, he sees his job as winemaker as offering a kind of restriction in the final wine. Such constraint is found in the winemaking itself. As an example, Melville has always been minimal with its use of new oak (using only 10-15% in previous vintages), but since 2009 the winery uses only neutral oak with many of its barrels still from the original 1999 vintage. In this way, Brewer’s goals in winemaking, then, rest in the idea of presenting a stripped down style–wine “with fewer components.”

Discussion of riper fruit would at first appear to counter the current trend common to geekier wine speak that claims ripeness is overdone, and higher alcohol levels cannot generate balance. Brewer’s wines, however, have proven both finesse, and the ability to age well.

Brewer’s balance is found in what he calls creating tension between the architecture and flavor, found even with riper vintages or higher alcohol. Examining Brewer’s wines suggests our ideas of balance in wine do not depend on numbers (such as ‘only alcohol below 14%’) as many in the wine world currently claim, but instead on overall style.

To generate tension in whites, Brewer relies on Malic acid, intentionally stopping malolactic (ML) fermentation in the Inox Chardonnay. The Estate Chardonnays, he explains, he does not stop ML but the wines rarely go very far through it because of the conditions of the area. In reds, he uses stems to generate architecture, using between 25% and 50% whole cluster depending on vintage for Melville Pinot Noir.

Brewer his wines in relation to what it takes for a stereo system to play with excellence. As he puts it, “you need enough treble to balance the base. It’s about both.”


More notes on the Melville wines tasted, and on meeting with Greg Brewer in a future post.

We were also able to taste Greg Brewer’s Diatom, a Chardonnay that is genuinely exciting to drink. I will post about Diatom separately.


To read more on my visit with Greg Brewer:

Thank you to Greg Brewer for taking time to meet with me.

Thank you to Sao Anash, and Lacey Fussel.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


Santa Barbara Wine

This summer included several days of a quick tour of Santa Barbara wine country. Katherine and I started on the coast of the city, and drove north through wine in Lompoc, Los Olivos and Los Alamos, Happy Canyon, all the way up towards Arroyo Grande. This week I return for a week visiting some of the wineries and winemakers Katherine and I weren’t able to meet.

Santa Barbara wine country takes its fame originally from rich, while focused Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, but it has also succeeded at delivering strength in Rhone wines, and more recently started to show good quality Bordeaux varieties as well. This week I’ll be able to taste from each of these.

photos from this summer’s visit with Katherine

Coastal Succulents

Succulents along the coast in Santa Barbara itself

The region of Santa Barbara celebrates proximity to the coast, a unique East-West Valley orientation, significant elevation, coastal fog, and warmer inland temperatures, resulting in a variety of wine growing conditions. As a result, the area registers a handful of AVAs, with new ones still developing. Already established are: Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Sta Rita Hills and Happy Canyon AVAs. Currently in application are Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon AVAs.

Venturing into the hills of Los Alamos

Heading into the hills near Los Alamos

The area also stretches at least fifty miles from North to South, demanding ample driving time between wineries or tasting rooms, though several areas host a nice cluster of tasting venues for easier access to particular styles.

Santa Maria Valley AVA

The first officially recognized AVA in the Santa Barbara region, Santa Maria Valley pushes from the coast as an open funnel shaped valley heading directly East, pulling the ocean fog inland along the valley floor. Valley floor vineyards begin at 300 feet in elevation, with plantings reaching up the slopes to around 800 feet. The combination of warm day time temperatures, with cooling fog, and little rainfall offer long slow growing conditions for fruit, leading to an easy complexity in the grapes.

Los Alamos Valley Region (not an official AVA)

Sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley AVA to the North, and Santa Ynez Valley AVA to the South, Los Alamos Valley offers a big temperature swing between warm days and cooler nights. Still, the overall heat range falls between the two with Santa Ynez generally considered around 10 degrees warmer, and Santa Maria 10 degrees cooler than the middlin Los Alamos Valley. The soils through the zone are generally well drained, but with a lot of variation in its geography, Los Alamos Valley shows genuine range in the varieties it can grow. This valley currently plants primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there are numerous smaller crops of Italian varieties dotted throughout the area.

POST EDIT: Word on the street here in Santa Ynez is that the Los Alamos AVA application has actually been approved but not announced yet!

Looking out over Los Olamos

The hills of Los Olivos

Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon proposed AVAs

With the diversity of conditions through the Santa Barbara region, new AVAs continue to be developed. Currently Los Olivos AVA and Ballard Canyon AVA are undergoing the application process to be recognized for their unique growing qualities. Part of Los Olivos application showcases the subzone’s ability to grow Bordeaux and Rhone varieties in particular, with a moderate temperature range, and good drainage supporting vine health. Ballard Canyon AVA carries a similar focus as the Los Olivos district, with the argument of differing quality and soil types. Ballard Canyon has recently been described as showing a comparable potential as the Southern Rhone regions of Chateauneuf du Pape or Gigondas.

Visiting Coastal Tasting Rooms

Flowers growing in the cooler, moister Western reach

Sta Rita Hills AVA

Part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Sta Rita Hills AVA features a cool micro-climate created from the rush of ocean fog cupped by surrounding hills holding the fog close against the plants. With its orientation towards the ocean, the AVA also receives ocean breezes bringing a mix of cool air, a steady drying of the fruit mixed with a sense of humidity that keeps the plants from burning in sun. The AVA is known, then, for its cooler variety success.

Vineyards of Santa Ynez Valley

Vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon

Santa Ynez Valley AVA

Santa Ynez Valley AVA nestles in the inland section of Santa Barbara wine region, also part of the Central Coast AVA. Santa Ynez Valley carries the highest concentration of wineries for the region, as well as a great variation of grape varieties planted. To the West (the Sta Rita Hills overlap) the region is known for Chardonnay, but as it moves East the climate warms allowing for a higher proportion of Rhone varieties, and other warmer temperature grapes.

Happy Canyon AVA

Happy Canyon AVA is one of the newer subzones of Santa Ynez Valley. The region has shown wonderful conditions for Bordeaux varieties, and is also known for producing elegant Grenache. It offers hotter temperatures than other areas of Santa Ynez valley, as well as more protection from the ocean influence, and the soil of the Canyon is considered a unique mineral effect on the wines grown in the still small subzone.

Vineyard Flowers in Northern Santa Barbara County

Vineyard flowers in Northern Santa Barbara County

I’ll be posting photos and sharing tasting notes from visits throughout this week. My itinerary will be busy, with a collection of 12 hour days visiting wineries and winemakers. Tuesday I get to wake up to an ATV vineyard tour.


Commercial fishing in Naknek, Alaska, Summer 2001–from left: cousin Ceara, me, Jr age 18 months, niece Melissa

Having growing up racing around the rock beaches of Naknek, Alaska on 4-wheeler I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to jump back on a little tractor for a quick jaunt through vines and farmland. Cheers!

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The southeast portion of Alaska rises as a host of islands from the Gulf. In the midst of these rests the state capitol, Juneau, a town that booms in the summer with tourism, and in the winter with politics. The settlement wraps about the base of mountains diving into the surrounding bays and channels. It crosses too over Gastineau Channel onto the neighboring island of Douglas. My sister Melanie and her family live on the Juneau side.

In the course of our few days it has rained, but even so we have watched whales breaching, porpoises swimming in massive pods, both sealions and seals, and a few eagles too–there is an eagle nest in my sister’s front yard. Here are some photos, sea life not included.

The city of Juneau

The city of Juneau

The city of Juneau from Douglas Island

Looking across Auke Bay from St Terese Chapel

Auke Bay

Looking across Auke Bay from the North side of Juneau Island

Looking across Auke Bay from the Douglas side

Looking towards the island of Juneau from the island of Douglas

Looking across Auke Bay from the North end of Douglas Island, towards St Terese Chapel on the island of Juneau

Mendenhall Glacier

Looking up Mendenhall Valley and Glacier (on Juneau Island) from Douglas Island

The backside of Eagle Crest

the backside of Eagle Crest

Happy New Year, everyone!

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