Greg Brewer warned everyone he might cry, and a minute later, he was verklempt and misty, overwhelmed by the crowd that had assembled at the Wine Cask last Thursday to toast the 20th anniversary of Brewer-Clifton.
Sharing the dais with Brewer — who started his region-defining brand with Steve Clifton back in 1996, which makes the current 2015 releases the 20th vintage — were regional pioneers Richard Sanford, Richard Longoria, Bryan Babcock, and Bruce McGuire as well as respected youngblood Matt Dees (Jonata, The Hilt, The Paring). In the crowd was everyone else, from Doug Margerum (whose Wine Cask played classroom for a generation of vintners; its ceiling pattern is emblazoned on the Brewer-Clifton label) and Mitchell Sjerven (who hosted the first Brewer-Clifton tasting back in 1996 at his Meritage restaurant on De la Vina Street) to sommeliers, bottle shop owners, writers, winemakers, Brewer’s high school/cross-country buddy Colin Wolfe (who went on to make beats with Dr. Dre), and fans of the brand, which showed the world what pinot noir and chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills were all about.
Brewer, who folded all of the origami birds at each seat himself, had kind words for all. But he was perhaps most poignant for McGuire, a gentle, humble giant of a winemaker who’s quietly mentored countless vintners-to-be at Santa Barbara Winery. “I couldn’t siphon water out of a bucket,” said Brewer, who was a 22-year-old UCSB professor when McGuire hired him. “All I do now is what Bruce taught me.”
Much has changed since 1996. A few years ago, Clifton was bought out of the brand (and wasn’t in attendance), and the winery was acquired by Jackson Family Wines in 2017, which is when Brewer came back to the project full-time. But the wines, as evidenced in the 2007-2010 chardonnays and pinot noirs shown at the luncheon, are as relevant as ever, virtual lighthouses for those seeking to make tense, racy chardonnay and whole-cluster-powered pinot noir from the Sta. Rita Hills. Said Brewer of whole-cluster fermentation, in which the stems are tossed in with the grapes, “It’s akin to cooking protein on the skeleton.”
The conversation flowed over scallops, duck, and short rib, plus more wines from the invited guests, including the 2008 Fe Ciega pinot noir by Longoria and 2016 No Limit Radian Vineyard chardonnay by Babcock. “These are emotional wines, and these are emotional winemakers,” said Sanford. “It’s so interesting to taste the person making the wines.”
By Matt Kettmann