Meeting Greg Brewer
My first step into the vineyard with Greg Brewer I collapse into a puff of sand. The ground is so soft I’ve sunk several inches lower than anticipated and I can’t help but laugh at the surprise.
The Sta Rita Hills are dominated by sand, the entire region previously oceanic bed now full of diatomaceous soils. Diatoms, I learn, are small phytoplankton with cell walls made of silica. As they die they fall to the seafloor and fossilize into sedimentary rock. In the ocean retreating from the Sta Rita Hills, the soils made of these algae were left behind. Now we are walking through their history.
Brewer takes me up to the vines and explains what he appreciates about this vineyard. It is a flat section of land in the midst of a cold, sea blown appellation. The trees lining the front of the winery are taller than the building’s roof, and lean East, a sign of their growing in a persistent inland wind. Common discussion prizes hillside vineyards, and in their proper place they do challenge vines in a desirable way. But Brewer is describing to me the advantages of what Ted Lemon also emphasized, protected vineyards in extreme areas. Brewer adds his own spin to the notion, “it’s like being in the bosom of something. It’s cold outside and warm against the chest.” The vines on these flats, then, are held dear in the midst of otherwise harsh conditions. The sand provides little water or nutrient on its own. The wind pushes against the plants almost continually, and cools what is already a cool climate. With such circumstances the extremity of a slope side is unnecessary for pushing the vines.
The relationship expressed of protection within challenge is the first glimpse of a dynamic I’ll later come to recognize as definitive for Brewer. He loves the subtle complexity exemplified through a delicate circumstance–apparently differing ideas acting in harmony thanks to the right context. The focus on context reveals what seems to me a fundamental value for him, the importance of difference. He comments on this as we look at the winter vines. When it comes to wine “there are so many beautiful approaches,” Brewer tells me. “I like a celebration of difference.”
For Brewer the question of quality wine is not as simple as what your alcohol levels come out at, or if you use new oak. Instead, it’s a matter of a person’s “execution of intent.” That is, new oak or alcohol levels might be a matter of stylistic choice. Within any particular style a winemaker can create quality or not. Brewer turns the attention instead to choice and belief. “If [winemakers] believe in what they do for the right reasons, chances are it will turn out well.” Behind this view is a conception of alignment between intention and action. If a person really means what they do it comes more naturally.
Preparing to Taste Diatom
Two weeks later I’ve returned to Santa Barbara. There are a few people I want to do follow up visits with but it’s Greg Brewer that has stuck in my head. In our first meeting he’d described his winemaking techniques as subtractive in nature. The statement has been echoing for me.
Before meeting with Brewer again I am again researching the Sta Rita Hills and diatoms, the silica based algae. Brewer’s personal label is named for these creatures, an intentional homage to the place from which the wines are grown.
The silica-based ground is of the ocean, now only miles from it. The climate of the appellation is dominated by the ocean as well. Both climate and ground find their origin there in the water. Suddenly I am struck by the intensity of that–in any literal sense the ocean has retreated from the Sta Rita Hills, finding refuge in the deeper places, yet it remains throughout by its vestiges of earth, air, temperature, atmosphere. The region, then, answers a strange riddle–what would it look like for the ocean to retreat and yet remain?
Though they are atypical in their manner of doing so, Diatom wines are a deep representation of the place in which they find providence. It is respect for this oceanic dependence that I believe both characterizes the Sta Rita Hills AVA, and Brewer’s expression of it through his label Diatom.
The next morning I wake up early before my meeting with Brewer and begin eating seaweed.
The History of Diatom
The earliest influences of the Diatom project for Brewer connect to his work with Melville. There he began making an austere, highly focused rendition of Chardonnay called Inox.
In many winemaking traditions the best fruit gets the highest treatment, being given new oak, more aging, a closer consideration of technique in order to be bottled as Reserve wine. Lesser quality fruit, then, would be bottled with less attention to be sold for less. Brewer’s thought though was that in a California climate, where even in a cooler region the vines offer genuine fruit character, the better quality bunch could be left to speak for itself.
In making Inox, then, Brewer keeps the fruit from oak influence, fermenting and aging it instead in stainless steel, and also avoiding malolactic fermentation (ML), a process that in Brewer’s view takes fruit through a secondary stage further from its original form (It isn’t that Brewer is against ML. He uses it elsewhere. He simply doesn’t use it in these more subtractive approaches to Chardonnay). What is left is stark, primary fruit flavor resounding with acidity. The Diatom project carries some family resemblence to Inox.
In the genesis of the Diatom project is a recognition of place. “The landscape is stark. I wanted the wines to be stark.” Connected to that idea of barrenness is Brewer’s view too of the wines architecture. In making Diatom, the goal is to offer “structure found from within, not imposed from without.” The idea is one he compares to sushi. “I like doing something pure and stripped down. With sushi, the fish must stand on its own.” In Brewer’s approach to these wines the idea is to let the fruit stand on its own.
Brewer considers the history of California Chardonnay. Many understand it as a neutral grape, with older winemakers still sometimes calling it a blank canvas. They were able to show their technique intentionally on the fruit. Reflecting on the artistic metaphor, led Brewer to a different insight. What would happen if instead he left the canvas blank?
In this way, Diatom is an attempt to directly experience subtle differences. The art of Udo Noger could be seen as an analogy to Brewer’s wine project, and indeed Brewer himself names Noger as inspiration. Noger focuses on an intersection of light and space to investigate what is possible with something as simple as the color white. The recalibration of awareness offers insight into simplicity. Something otherwise seen as minimal becomes obvious.
In Diatom, Brewer approaches Chardonnay as a parallel to Noger’s method. The wines are fermented slowly and cold for the first months, then warmed only enough to allow fermentation to complete. The process, and aging occur in stainless steel. In such an approach, the wines offer austere presentation with significant structure. The alcohol levels are often high, as is the acidity.
With their focused style, the wines deliver a snapshot of Brewer’s aesthetic of silence and open space. As winemaker, he understands these wines are his particular expression, and names some of the roots of his inspiration in foreign cultures and artists. But standing in the sandy vineyard with him, only a few miles from the ocean, it’s clear his aesthetic is also rooted in the barren places of the California coast. And it’s that conscious intersection in Brewer’s work that fascinates me. He comments, “an important part of site display is allowing the human element to be there.”
Remeeting Greg Brewer
We have gone inside and are tasting Diatom wine. We begin with two from 2011.
The wines are so focused it is hard for me to think words at first. I taste instead impressions. Wind blowing over flat land. Sand. Resonant silence. As flavors unfurl so do feelings. The wines carry emotion. The wines feel at home in silence to me, as if they are focused elsewhere and at ease in solitude. They are structurally lean and energized. The Kazaoto giving flavors of winter forest, pine and menthol opening finally to pink and white grapefruit, followed by a long sandy seaweed finish. All blowing and cool in the mouth. The Miya comes later in winter when the cold is lifting but it is not yet Spring–silent, distant, and focused as well, but wind blowing with a softer voice of white sage and evergreen lifting into pear and hints of beeswax.
We follow our tasting into two from 2006. They are more lush and open, carrying a richness the 2011 does not entertain. Still, to call these wines rich is to mislead, as they may be broader than the 2011s but are still focused and taut on the palate. The wines taste of late summer when we have not yet begun to think of Fall. On the Clos Pepe, citrus oils fall into tall grasses and very light mint. The Huber is slightly hotter with more acidity, carrying dried white herbs alongside dried soils, dried flowers, citrus oils and methol. With these two wines I am grief stricken and honestly feel that pain in my chest. They are a reminder. Summer reaches its zenith only to curl back down to winter.
I turn back to taste again the 2011s and it occurs to me.
Greg Brewer’s work is the answer to a fundamental question. What would happen if we took what we love, what we want to do, seriously and made that love our life?
Thank you to Greg Brewer for taking the time to meet with me.
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