Anyone can make Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. All it takes is a boatload of cash. The real challenge is found on the winemaking outskirts, exploring underappreciated regions and grape varieties. That's how winemaker Ian Brand looks at it, anyway.
"Lompoc has the Wine Ghetto, well we're in a real ghetto," the 37-year-old Brand said of his warehouse winery in Salinas, a blue-collar town 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay on California's Central Coast.
Brand is doing interesting work with two different labels: Le P'tit Paysan and La Marea. Le P'tit Paysan focuses on the grapes of France and value, for example the Le P'tit Pape San Benito County 2012 ($22), a Rhône red blend that impressively mixes Old World and New. The label also has one of the best dry rosés in California, Le P'tit Pape Mourvèdre San Benito County Rosé Pierre's Pirouette. The 2013 was outstanding and the 2014 is just out.
La Marea takes its inspiration from the Spanish heritage of Monterey with wines like the Grenache San Benito County Spur Ranch 2012 ($30), which is light on its feet and has notes of raspberry and smoky herb.
Brand has only a few vintages under his belt—his first vintage of Le P'tit Paysan was 2008—and he came to winemaking in a roundabout way. The Connecticut native majored in environmental studies in college and then bounced around, working for the Peace Corps in Ecuador and living in Alaska for a while. He spent a lot of time surfing. "I drove to Santa Cruz and ran out of money," he said.
That was 2003. He applied for a job as a cellar rat at Bonny Doon and worked there in 2003 and 2004. "I really wasn't into wine but fell in love with it," Brand said. After Bonny Doon, he worked on the winemaking team at Big Basin and took on other projects.
Today, Brand has settled down. His wife, Heather, who has winemaking experience of her own, works with Brand, and the couple has 3-year-old twins. Brand focuses on his two labels, a few consulting jobs and a custom-crush business that shares his facility.
Overall, the facility produces 16,000 cases a year and about a third of that is Le P'tit Paysan and La Marea. In all, Brand works with 64 different grape varieties, many of which fall into what he calls the "What the hell is that?" category.
Brand admits he's drawn to idiosyncratic grapes and what he describes as "great vineyards at the edge of sensible farming," remote sites with meager soils, lots of sunlight and coastal breezes. His vineyard sources are mostly obscure locations in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties south of San Francisco.
"We saw this opportunity here to tell the stories and make wines that suit the place and the people," Brand said in typical philosophical fashion.
What Brand is doing may not be for everyone. But I get the feeling that no matter what he does, it's going to be interesting.