Steve Clifton is an Italophile in a Francophile world. The creator of Palmina Wines, Clifton discusses his career with a humble ease that makes it seem as if he never shed a bead of sweat along the way from producing 100 cases in the now-extinct Wine Cask warehouse on Haley Street to today making 18,000 cases of the most successful Italian-style wines on this side of the world. He’s also remarkably casual about his decision to focus on Italian varietals, which other winemakers would call crazy, for it’s hard to sell Italian wines in a county where consumers know much more about their cabernets and pinots than their dolcettos and savoias.
“I never really thought there would be so much resistance to Italian wines,” he admitted recently. “I just never really thought about it being that different from French things.”
Clifton’s viticultural studies gave him the initial hunch that Italian varietals could work well in Santa Barbara County; the Pacific Ocean’s cold influence against the central valley’s heat works analogously as in Northern Italy, where the Alps’ cool air meets heat from the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas.
Still, getting people to pick sangiovese poses a unique challenge, so his wife, Chrystal, has also brought an educational component to the winery. Palmina strives to demonstrate not only that our region has the ability to produce these varietals but also that doing so does not have to be an emulation of Italy.
“Every time you taste syrah, you don’t compare it to the best côte-rôtie you’ve ever had,” Clifton explained. “But people will taste a new California nebbiolo, and compare it to the best bottle of aged Barolo they’ve ever had.”
And there may be more to come, like a Palmina restaurant. “I think we’ve taken more of a culinary approach to the wines,” said Clifton, “and I think the wines kind of reflect that food affinity.”
Try some Palmina Wine at their tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, 1520 East Chestnut Court. Call 735-2030 or see palminawines.com.