There are so-called “rock star winemakers,” and then there’s Steve Clifton, who was, in fact, a lead singer in a successful touring and album-cutting San Clemente band called The Movement back in the late 1980s. By 1991, the USC-educated, musical-theater-trained, coulda-been-a-Broadway-star Clifton shifted his artistic pursuits to making wine in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he started his Italian-varietal brand Palmina in 1995. The following year, he and Greg Brewer started Brewer-Clifton, which rose to be Santa Barbara’s shiniest success story, winning widespread critical acclaim and, just last February, selling a majority stake to a Chicago-based wholesaler.
When that happened, both Brewer and Clifton promised nothing would change. But by this past fall, Brewer had left his winemaking job at Melville to focus on the new B-C, while Clifton and his wife, Chrystal, were effectively out. Was it amicable? “Not at all,” Steve admitted to me honestly over lunch with Chrystal at Wine Cask last December. But this man with the golden smile and cherubic cheeks was more upbeat than ever, explaining that he preferred focusing on his own projects rather than doubling down on the new B-C partnership. “I’d rather invest in myself,” said Steve.
When you see and taste the Cliftons’ new La Voix wines, you’ll see why that’s a happy investment. Adorned with attention-grabbing but artistically contemporary labels, each bottle is an ode to one of their favorite songs while showcasing the best wines that can be made in the region. The three available pinot noirs — Reflektor, Rebel Rebel, and Satisfaction — are single vineyard and mostly single clone, and the She’s Crafty rosé, which is Chrystal’s baby, makes no bones about being a full-bodied, pinot-packed pink. There are two chardonnays, one syrah, and a cabernet-merlot-malbec blend on the way.
“People now understand that Santa Barbara is a good place to grow grapes,” said Steve. “What doesn’t have success here? We want La Voix to speak to that question. We can do it all — but in specific places and with meticulous farming.”
Farming is in Clifton’s blood. Though his truck-company-owning dad landed them in San Clemente by his high school years, his parents both come from cattle-ranching families in Frederick, Oklahoma. “My dad did everything in his power to make sure I didn’t go into agriculture,” said Steve.
So he was a musical theater major at USC and joined the ska band Secret Service when the other members saw him in a production of Bye Bye Birdie at Saddleback College. That band morphed into The Movement, which opened for Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and was a soundtrack to early ESPN surf videos.
But after seven years of rock ’n’ roll, he visited his Milan-living sister as a 24-year-old in 1990 and fell in love with wine. “It changed my perspective on everything,” he said, so much so that he worked as a wine buyer for a Long Beach restaurant and then began visiting the Santa Ynez Valley to see actual vineyards. “It just grew into a sickness, and I decided to chuck everything.”
His first harvest was with Stephan Bedford in 1991 — the year Bedford lost his thumb in a winery accident, incidentally — and four years later, Palmina was born to prove Steve’s bet that Italian grapes could thrive in the Santa Ynez Valley, whose cool-ocean-to-hot-mountain geography reminded him of Italy’s cool-Alps-to-hot-seashore layout. In 1996, in came Brewer-Clifton, because the two men couldn’t convince anyone to make wines in the style they liked. “Palmina was born out of determination,” said Steve. “Brewer-Clifton was born out of frustration.”
As La Voix attests, though, Steve never strayed too far from music and now sings lead in a classic rock band called Mojo, which you can often see at various wine-country events. Palmina remains a major company for the Cliftons, producing as many as 15,000 cases per year of 27 (!) different bottlings, but they are throwing big weight behind La Voix, which had about 1,700 cases in its first release. Though their winemaking is as particular as ever, the Cliftons want La Voix to be as easy to like as your favorite song.
“You don’t need to know how to play all the instruments to enjoy music,” said Chrystal. “It’s the same with wine — we want you to enjoy tasting like you were going to a concert. At the end of the day, what’s on your playlist?”
La Voix wines can now be tasted at the Palmina tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. The Cliftons will also be pouring at the World of Pinot Noir (wopn.com) on March 4-5 at the Bacara Resort, and Chrystal will be part of the Women Winemakers of the Central Coast symposium at the S.B. Museum of Natural History on March 20 (sbnature.org). See www.lavoixwinery.com.