Greg Brewer is a nimble thinker who might have been a French literature professor. Or a sushi chef. If he hadn't caught the wine bug.
He speaks in rapid-fire bursts that convey his enthusiasm for making wine. But he doesn't especially like the word "winemaker" to describe what he does, because he thinks it suggests excessive intrusion. "The whole idea," he says, "is to be a non-winemaker."
He has, in fact, a model of discipline in his mind. "I equate what I do with [what] a sushi chef [does]," he explains. "You procure the purest, freshest fruit -- or fish if you're a chef -- and work on getting it into the bottle, with as little interference or compromise as possible."
The self-trained Brewer, a 33-year-old father of two daughters, works two jobs -- one with Brewer-Clifton, one with Melville Vineyards -- and taps new vineyards in Santa Barbara County's cool-climate Santa Rita Hills. It's a big change for Brewer, a former French instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who left that position in 1991 to work part-time pouring for visitors in the tasting room at Santa Barbara Winery.
That was where Brewer began to appreciate the full life cycle of wine -- from vineyard to winery to consumer. "I was slowly seeing that first harvest and I really became enamored [with the whole process]," he says.
Soon he was working as an assistant winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery, doing odd jobs and learning viticultural and winemaking techniques as he went. In 1995, he met fellow young winemaker Steve Clifton, who was working at Beckman.
In 1996, Brewer and Clifton pooled their resources, raising $12,000, and crushed their first grapes under the Brewer-Clifton label. Their 1996 Sweeney Vineyard Chardonnay, tasted in April of this year, was tremendous, very rich and perfumed, with complex, maturing fig and nectarine flavors. Its success convinced the partners of the potential in the Santa Rita Hills. By 2001, all eight of their wines -- five Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs -- hailed from the region.
"For me, this is the first real appellation in Santa Barbara County," says Brewer of this western part of Santa Ynez Valley, referring to its limited size. "Most of our emotion is in the vineyard. It's not us doing any wizardry. It's the site."
Brewer employs a minimalist approach at both his own winery and at Melville, allowing the distinctive terroirs to shine.
For Melville, he makes two styles of Chardonnay. Inox is made in stainless steel with no oak or malolactic fermentation, producing a flinty wine with vibrant acidity. The estate wine is more Burgundian, barrel-fermented with partial malolactic.
Brewer's approach to Pinot Noir features whole berry fermentation with ripe stems, which he thinks gives the Pinots a firm foundation. Both the Melville Estate and Melville Carrie's bottlings are intense and concentrated, with vivid berry, spice and floral aromas.
There's a tiny overlap between the two wineries; Melville sells Brewer-Clifton enough grapes to make 120 cases of Chardonnay and 190 cases of Pinot Noir, both of which are exceptional.
Brewer-Clifton's five single-vineyard Chardonnays are individualistic yet similar in quality; in 2001, they range from the rich, silky Melville (91 points, $40) to the austere, understated Mount Carmel bottling (91, $40), with mineral and citrus blossom nuances. The Sweeney Canyon (91, $50) is the most complete, combining rich peach, floral and citrus flavors in a broad, creamy texture.
Among the 2001 Pinots, the Clos Pepe (88, $40) is intense, with a firm berry and spice core, while the Rozak Ranch (88, $42) has more tannin supporting its rich core of plum and blackberry fruit. The Melville (92, $52) shows an earthy raspberry character and a long finish.
Brewer-Clifton operates in a tidy warehouse in Lompoc. The partners aim to reach 2,500 cases. "Above that, we couldn't keep on top of things the way we want to," Brewer says. Besides, the chef in him figures he can only serve so many tables without compromising quality.