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Santa Barbara Terroir - I get it!
updated: Dec 04, 2010, 9:00 AM

By Marc Liberts

(Event at Soho by WineHound on 12/01/10)

Wine is agriculture. Wine is chemistry. When the agriculture and chemistry come together, you have art. One of Santa Barbara's biggest current superstars and wine artists is Greg Brewer of Melville & Brewer-Clifton & Diatom. Brewer has garnered the attention of wine uber-critic Robert Parker, and earned some impressive scores, accolades, and recognition from Parker and other wine critics in the past few years.

The first time I found Diatom wine at the WineHound in Santa Barbara, I wasn't sure what it was, who made it, or what it was about. I remember that Bob Wesley told me that it was stainless steel Chardonnay, which I was interested in at the time. One of my favorite wineries is Dierberg Star-Lane on Drum Canyon Road in the Sta. Rita Hills. I noticed that one of the Diatom wines was from Drum Canyon, and I bought it primarily because of that. I remember tasting it and thinking that it was well made, but very salty and acidic. I remember it being very different from the oakey and buttery Chardonnays that I was accustomed to.

I had the pleasure of meeting Greg earlier this year at a Chardonnay tasting in Santa Barbara, where he introduced and featured his Diatom wines to us. Unfortunately, he also remembered the article I wrote about the experience, and he teased me about liking a buttery and oakey Chardonnay from Northern California best that night. In my own defense, I liked that wine that night best based on what I was in the mood for and what I was enjoying drinking at the time. I respected Greg's Diatom wines and I thought they were well made. Unfortunately, I didn't understand enough about his wines at the time to appreciate them as much as I could have.

Shortly after the aforementioned tasting, at the urging of my wine mentor, I attended a wine tasting featuring wines of the Alsace region of France, and fell in love with those wines. The Rieslings, Gew├╝rztraminers, and Pinot Gris from the Alsace were mineral-y, acidic, aromatic, and delicious. I was surprised because the same wines from local vineyards and wineries were never that enjoyable to me. Most of the local Rieslings and Gew├╝rztraminers I had tried in the past few years were always too cloyingly sweet or just plain not enjoyable. The Alsatian wines however had the 'umami' factor I had been looking for, and were just downright delicious. I came to learn that those Alsatian wines were heavily 'Terroir' driven - meaning that the wines were expressions of what the grapes had inherited from the sun, rain, land, soil, elevation, and geography of the Alsace. The Alsatian wines were made in a simple style meant to allow the expression of the 'Terroir' of the region. After that, I experienced 'Terroir' driven wines from Burgundy, and then finally Bordeaux and Napa Valley. It took a while, but I was finally starting to get it.

In the past year, I've tried hundreds of wines, mostly from France and California. Most of the California wines I've tried and reported on have been from Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands, Napa, Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley. After trying all those wines, I'm beginning to understand what 'Terroir' is, what it tastes like, and the 'Terroir' characteristics from different regions. My tasting partner, Melissa Martin and I both immediately commented on the salty, briny notes in Greg's Brewer-Clifton Chardonnays. Melissa commented about the wines having nice 'umami', which finally flipped a switch in my thick skull. We were tasting the salty, oceanic inspired sedimentary soils of Santa Barbara County through the Brewer-Clifton wines. I bring my tasting partner Melissa with me to many of these tastings, because she has a superior sense of taste and smell to mine. She is able to sense ethereal aromatics and experience subtle nuanced flavors and then describe them in accurate ways that I can't. Even though I am nearly twice her age, and even though we are diametrically opposed in philosophical and political ideologies, we are able to enjoy wine together, and I benefit from her unique insight. Melissa is a culinary student at Santa Barbara City College, and she also brings that knowledge and experience to bear when we taste wine and pair it with food.

That being said, Melissa helped me realize and understand that Greg Brewer's wines are indeed heavily 'Terroir' driven, focusing on Santa Barbara County, and specifically in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. His Diatom wines are possibly the most 'Terroir' driven wines he makes, and are receiving great accolades from the critics. I remembered my old diatomaceous filter for my fish tank. I read about the diatomaceous soil of the Sta. Rita Hills. I learned about the history of the diatom and the ocean. I realized and remembered that what I was tasting in Greg's wines were the salty, briny, marine influences that have been infused into the land, been transferred into the grapes, and then vinified into the wines. Greg's philosophy revolves around using winemaking processes that preserve the honesty and purity of the fruit without adding any distractions. When you taste Greg's wines, you are experiencing the 'Terroir' of Santa Barbara County.

So, tonight, at Soho in Santa Barbara, Bob Wesley's Winehound held their second annual Brewer-Clifton/Melville Extravaganza, featuring the winemaker Greg Brewer. I realized how full-circle this all is while writing this article. We started with 4 sparkling wines from Scharffenberger and Roederrer, and then had 2 Champagnes from Louis Roederrer. After that, we headed up to the wine table and tried the Melville wines first. We began with two un-oaked Chardonnays called Inox, which reminded me of the Diatom wine mentioned previously. We then moved on to the Brewer-Clifton Chardonnays, which were even more saline and pure. That's when it really hit me that I was tasting the diatomaceous earth of the Sta. Rita Hills. I found the 'Terroir'! Thanks Greg! Keep up the good work!


A. SCHARFFENBERGER BRUT - yeasty and grapefruit-y. 85 points.
B. SCHARFFENBERGER BRUT ROSE - strawberry bubblegum & yeast. 86 points.
C. ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT - nice, plush, mineral-y, refined. 89 points.
D. ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT ROSE - nutty, plush, toasty. 88 points.
E. LOUIS ROEDERER BRUT - toasty brioche, nutty, bright. 91 points.
F. LOUIS ROEDERER EXRA DRY CARTE BLANCHE - nutty & deep. 91 points.

1. MELVILLE 2006 Inox Chardonnay - very crisp & clean with nice minerality and soft acid. 91 points.
2. MELVILLE 2009 Inox Chardonnay - nutty with citrus and orange-peel notes. 87 points.
3. MELVILLE 2002 Estate Chardonnay - light, pleasant and acidic. 87 points.
4. MELVILLE 2008 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Chardonnay - citrus & minerality. 88 points.
5. BREWER-CLIFTON 2008 Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay - hints of orange and briny. 90 points.
6. BREWER-CLIFTON 2008 Gnesa Charonnay - acidic, briny, citrus. 93 points.
7. BREWER-CLIFTON 2008 Mt. Carmel Chardonnay - great minerality & acid. 92 points.
8. BREWER-CLIFTON 2008 Sweeny Canyon Chardonnay - nutty & spicy & fruity & acidic. 94 points.
9. BREWER-CLIFTON 2009 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir - vibrant, cherry cola, plush. 90 points.
10. BREWER-CLIFTON 2008 Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir - heavy, gamey, spicy, fruity. 92 points.
11. MELVILLE 2004 Estate Pinot Noir - Nice age, spicy, balanced, Burgundian. 94 points.
12. MELVILLE 2009 Estate Pinot Noir - young & big & spicy & fruity. 88 points.

WINNER: BREWER-CLIFTON 2008 Sweeny Canyon Chardonnay!

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