With La Voix, California winemaker gets to play a new tune
By Esther Mobley | October 1, 201
This year’s minuscule grape harvest has most California winemakers bummed out. Not Steve Clifton.
“To be honest, it’s a perfect year to reorganize,” Clifton says.
Last February, Clifton and his business partner Greg Brewer sold a majority share of their BrewerClifton winery to a group of investors. From the outside, it looked like a shocking move: Approaching its 20th anniversary, the pioneering label of single-vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay had grown to 10,000 cases, had finally achieved its goal of all estate-grown fruit and was glowing with adulatory press; two months earlier, Wine Spectator had named a Brewer-Clifton one of its top 10 wines of the year.
Why let such a good thing go?
Brewer-Clifton fans get an answer this week. Clifton and his wife, Chrystal, are releasing a new line of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, called La Voix — and it represents everything that Brewer-Clifton wouldn’t let him do.
The name La Voix refers not only to Clifton’s new freedom of self-expression, but also to his actual voice: He’s a singer. In the late 1980s, Clifton was in a band that kinda-sorta made it big, doing soundtrack work for a new cable venture called ESPN, and even on one occasion opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Just when everything seemed to be solidifying, the whole band fell apart,” Clifton says. “After years of pursuing something, when you finally get it, sometimes people freak out.”
Wine — which Clifton says he had originally studied simply to raise his tip averages while waiting tables — became his new pursuit, and he got his start by apprenticing with Stephan Bedford at Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County). Stirred by a visit to his sister’s home in northern Italy, Clifton started an all-Italian-grape label, Palmina, in 1995, which he and Chrystal still own. Today, at 15,000 cases, Palmina continues to make a compelling case for the high-quality potential of Italy’s grapes in California; try their sparkling Barbera.
But there was this one wine that haunted Clifton: Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay, from a vineyard in far-west Santa Ynez Valley. “It was a heart-stopper,” Clifton says of the wine. The area in Santa Barbara County, which became the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 2001, “just felt really different from Santa Maria,” which is the valley to its north.
“Maria is really broad; Sta. Rita is a lot more funneled and focused,” Clifton says. “Within that smaller, tighter aspect, there’s a lot more variance of soil, of exposure.”
Today’s greatest wine-marketing ploys — single-vineyard, site-specific, terroir-expressive — were, in 1996, marketing pains. Why make four single-vineyard Chardonnays from different sites in Santa Barbara County when you could just make one Santa Barbara County Chardonnay? Lafond Vineyard versus Sanford & Benedict Vineyard: Isn’t this what Freud would call the narcissism of small differences?
Yet this was the radical premise of Brewer-Clifton: The vineyards in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills are so exceptional and distinct from one another that they justify wines that express their terroir as precisely as possible. To achieve this, Clifton and partner Greg Brewer would treat every single wine in exactly the same way, so as to eliminate all variables other than the vineyard.
“The wines were made in a completely static fashion,” Clifton says. “Same yeast, same type of barrel. The wines had to be racked on the same day. We eliminated any signature or personality stamp. If somebody gravitated toward one wine over another, it would be because of place.”
“The idea was to remove the winemaker’s ego,” explains Chrystal Clifton.
This intellectual exercise yielded beautiful wines. Cold-soaked and whole-cluster fermented, these were rich and fleshy Pinots, expressing Santa Rita’s cool-climate elegance.
“The restrictions had a lot of meaning in the beginning, but now they just feel constraining,” says Clifton. While Brewer’s personality is better suited to that wine-making practice, Clifton felt like a wild-inside Jerry Lee Lewis playing the same version of “Great Balls of Fire” every night.
“After you’ve played the same song a lot of times — once you know the basic format — the only thing left is to try improvisation,” says Clifton, who currently sings lead vocals in the rock band Mojo.
The La Voix wines have been in the works for a couple of years; one wine, the 2012 Reflektor, was sourced from Brewer-Clifton’s Machado Vineyard when Greg Brewer was taking a little bit of Chardonnay for his own private label, Diatom. It was only equitable that Clifton should take some Pinot for himself, too.
Now that Clifton has stepped back from Brewer-Clifton, he’ll no longer have access to Machado, so the Reflektor cuvée will come from John Sebastiano Vineyard, which like Machado is planted to the Mount Eden clone — an old California heritage Pinot Noir clone that produces inky, dense, brooding wines.
The musical analogy is not exactly subtle. Reflektor is named for the Arcade Fire song, and the names of the other two wines in the current La Voix lineup hardly need attribution: Satisfaction from Kessler-Haak, a classic vineyard expression of Santa Rita; and Rebel Rebel, defiantly from just outside Santa Barbara County, in San Luis Obispo County’s Quinta del Mar vineyard.
Every vineyard is a song, but unlike Brewer-Clifton, La Voix wants to riff on it. And it’s already veering into other genres: Chrystal has made a La Voix rosé; Chardonnay and Syrah are ahead.
“I don’t have the same apprehension that I had in the beginning of my career about whether things will work,” Clifton says. “Now, it’s like knowing the chords really well and just playing the ones that you want.”