The tasting took place at the Santa Barbara Club. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Few properties in Santa Barbara County exude as much mystery and magic as Mount Carmel, where vines were first planted in 1990 just as a cloister of nuns tried to erect a massive monastery on the hillside. 

The latter dream failed in 1993 when the money ran out, leaving a partially finished, 40,000-square-foot building. The ghostly remains are frozen in mid-construction to this day, home to rodents and mountain lions rather than the devout. (I wrote a cover story about this saga back in 2014.)

The vineyard, however, became an icon of the Sta. Rita Hills, as the appellation surrounding it would come to be known. Thanks to the sticky fog, persistent wind, hardscrabble soils, and other environmental pressures, its pinot noir and chardonnay became the juice of legends, examples of how stunning, singular wines can emerge when pushed to the edge of survival. 

To honor this legacy and check in on how these wines are holding up, Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton Wines, who made many wines from Mount Carmel from the early 2000s into the 2010s, and Matt Dees of Mail Road Wines, who makes most of the wine from there today, invited about a dozen people to the Santa Barbara Club on June 5. Under the banner of “Two Decades of Mount Carmel Chardonnay,” we tasted eight Brewer-Clifton chards (2003, 2008-2011, plus the 2010 Diatom) and seven Mail Roads (2012, 2014, 2017-2021). 

Among others in attendance was Bryan Babcock, whose father was close to the men who planted the vineyard back in 1990, Paul Albrecht, and Ron Piazza. Albrecht died in 2013, but Piazza still holds a long-term lease on the vineyard. He’s involved with Mail Road and also produces Mount Carmel wines under his label Piazza Family Wines.

Babcock was one of the first to bottle Mount Carmel wines, inspiring people like Brewer to follow in his footsteps. His work also revealed the area’s special terroir, which is why the surrounding landscape is now home to Sea Smoke, Rita’s Crown, and other coveted vineyards. 

He attended despite having hip surgery just a few days earlier, and was visibly moved by the tasting, as was everyone in attendance. “These are beyond sentimental for me,” said Babcock. “This is the kind of thing that tells us what our potential is going forward.”

The wines were all unique and rather fantastic, revealing an electric acidity all the way back to the 2003, which Brewer classified as being in his “Confident Exuberance” stage. “It was very Studio 54 in a lot of ways,” he said of the bigger wine styles of the early 2000s. “We were getting over our skis a bit.” 

He put the 2008 in a flight by itself that he called “Spherical Calm,” which was probably my favorite, fresh as a lily and aromatic like one too. That wine caused Babcock, who was seated next to me, to shake his head and mutter, “Oh my god, shit …” Brewer labeled the 2009 to 2011 flight as “Cold & Tentative,” a nod both to the weather and to his divorce and other life challenges at that time. I was a big fan of the 2011, enjoying its lemonade-like lines. 

“There’s nothing else in the world like these wines,” said vintner Pierre LaBarge of LaBarge Winery, who was our club host for the evening. 

The younger Mail Road chards shined as well, with refreshing acidity and tightly wound frames, which relate to the vineyard’s challenging conditions and extremely low yields. “It’s a pain in the ass, but it makes ethereal, otherworld wines,” said Dees, who was also inspired by Babcock’s Mount Carmel wines when he came to town in 2004. 

Through genetic testing, Dees discovered that there’s another secret to the site: about six to eight percent of the chardonnay is actually chenin blanc. “It turns out that if you harvest underripe chenin and put it in the chardonnay,” he said, “it’s a wonderful thing!”

We finished the evening with the Santa Barbara Club’s three-course menu — the parmesan crusted sea bass was fantastic — took some group photos, and then went on our ways. The next morning, a flurry of thankful emails went around. 

“Terroir is a funny thing. We gather to honor a piece of dirt. That’s kinda weird,” wrote Babcock. “But last night was one of those moments when you realize, wow, it really does exist. It was a moment that took us all from the honoring a vineyard, to the honoring of a craft, and the realization of our still young potential; an exalted moment that serves as a super fuel for each of our individual journeys.”

The lucky Mount Carmel tasting crew. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Premier Events

Get News in Your Inbox


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.