Visiting Melville Vineyards & 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.
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.
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.
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 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 Winery includes a library room with complete verticals of the wine reaching back to the first 1999 vintage.
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.
Thank you to Greg Brewer for taking so much time to meet with me.
Thank you to Sao Anash, and Lacey Fussel.
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