More than 40 years ago, I spent a college summer in Santa Barbara, by day studying postwar Italian cinema and at night immersing myself in the local New Wave music scene, which drew on punk rock, surf rock, reggae and even tiki. Many of my peers sheared their hair and dyed what was left purple. It felt like a time of cultural revolution.
I drank student-grade wine and beer, oblivious to another kind of revolution that was fomenting—the one that would turn Santa Barbara County into one of California’s most freewheeling wine scenes.
Over the years, as my standards have improved, I’ve sampled better and better, lively and delicious wines from Santa Barbara County. This spring I was eager to return—from my adopted home in Italy—to discover Santa Barbara’s part in a new wave of Italian-inspired wines from California.
Even before I crossed the ocean, I learned a new vocabulary word to get the lay of the land: “transverse.” As in the Transverse Ranges of Southern and Central California—notably Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Mountains—that run west to east, instead of northwest to southeast, with valleys fanned by cool Pacific winds.
This unique geographic situation results in a mosaic of microclimates in which about 60 wine grape varieties are planted, from cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to heat-loving Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon to a quirky Northern Italian bunch—the one that interested me.
“I thought this was the perfect place for Italian varieties like Nebbiolo, Barbera and Sangiovese, because it’s not too hot and not too cold,” says Louis Lucas, a still-spry 80-year-old pioneering grower who owns many vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Lucas was my first stop for good reason: The man knows grapegrowing. Back in the 1970s, before the crowds arrived, he planted thousands of vineyard acres in Central California. He has sold grapes and wines to big names in Napa and Sonoma such as Beringer, Chateau Montelena and Kendall-Jackson.
In the 1990s, he and Royce Lewellen formed Lucas & Lewellen and started making their own wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône varieties.
And there was what Lucas calls in his characteristic drawl, “the Italian thing.”
In 1996, the partners bought the two-decade-old Los Alamos vineyard from their famously eccentric neighbor, grower Joe Carrari, who had planted Northern Italian varieties (many from cuttings carried over in suitcases) ranging from Nebbiolo to Freisa to Pinot Grigio. After struggling to sell most of his grapes at a profit, Carrari blended some unsold bulk Zinfandel, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon together and infamously retailed the result for $1.99 a bottle as “dago red.”
Lucas and Lewellen stuck with the “Italian thing,” creating the Toccata label for part of their crop from Carrari’s old vineyard. Led by winemaker Megan McGrath Gates, Toccata now sells about 4,000 cases annually, direct to consumer, including single-variety bottlings of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Pinot Grigio and Malvasia, as well as some unusual Franco-Italian blends.
“Today it’s anything goes here,” says Lucas. “But like Syrah and Merlot, you have to plant most Italian varieties in interesting places to make interesting wines.”
A generation younger than Lucas, Steve Clifton, 57, is a different style of pioneer—a winemaker who owns no vineyards but is all about interesting places.
Clifton earned his wine celebrity as half of the Brewer-Clifton winemaking duo who helped put Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the map starting in the late 1990s.
Seven years ago, when he and Greg Brewer began selling their shares in Brewer-Clifton (now owned by Jackson Family Wines), Clifton turned to what he’d long kept as his parallel “soul project”—his Northern Italian–inspired brand, Rancho Sisquoc. He worked in a wine shop and, in 1995, landed a winemaker post at Beckman Vineyards.
After meeting Brewer, a former French professor, this odd couple of winemakers launched Brewer-Clifton in 1996 on a shoestring budget with purchased grapes. For a while, they rented space in a glorified industrial park, joining a growing movement of boutique winemakers in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.
But with the 1995 vintage, Clifton had already begun Palmina, experimenting Italian-style at home with a ton of Sangiovese he bought from Joe Carrari. “They were the only Italian grapes I could get,” he recalls. “It wasn’t very good, and I blended it with Merlot.”
Two vintages later, Clifton got hold of some Nebbiolo and made 72 cases in Lompoc. “I was in heaven,” he says. But heaven came with a steep learning curve, as Nebbiolo defied most of the rules he knew about red winegrowing and production.
“Any direct sunlight bleeds the color right out of Nebbiolo, and then you have super tannic rosé,” he says. “Nebbiolo is not for the faint of heart.”
In 2000, Clifton’s Nebbiolo education got a boost when U.C. Santa Barbara’s Italian Studies Department invited him to participate in an event and tasting program focusing on Nebbiolo.
“I remember carrying a couple cases into the place on my shoulder, and when I get there I see Luciano Sandrone and Roberto Conterno,” Clifton remembers. “These guys were my idols.”
Clifton struck up a friendship with both Barolo icons and, over the years, they shared traditional techniques for farming, vinifying and aging Nebbiolo.
Today Palmina makes about 7,000 cases a year, using grapes from across the county, with agreements to farm or purchase the crops from about a half-dozen vineyards. Its harvest season stretches from August (for Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano) to November, when Nebbiolo and Lagrein are picked.
Clifton’s current Nebbiolo releases include a 2016 Santa Barbara blend and three single-vineyard selections (priced at $60 to $70) that are released after at least a decade, including his deep and brooding Nebbiolo Sisquoc, his lighter and more floral Nebbiolo Honea and his mid-weight Nebbiolo Rocca.
Palmina may not have gotten the same acclaim as Brewer-Clifton, but Clifton’s Nebbiolos are among the most Old World–styled wines I’ve tasted in the New World.
“A lot of times when people make wine from Italian varieties, they just dabble in it,” muses Clifton. “But there’s a whole different mindset to Italian varieties. They are wines meant to be drunk with food. They’re not wines meant to be drunk with other wines.”
For more on the new wave of Italian varieties in California, read Part 1: A Slice of Southern Italy in Paso Robles, Part 2: Bringing the Mediterranean to Northern California, and Part 3: Capitalist Kevin and Doomsday Dan.