For more than two decades Steve Clifton has exerted a palpable influence on the Santa Barbara wine scene.
In 1995, Steve began the planting, farming, and vinification of Northern Italian varietals in Santa Barbara County. He then launched ‘Palmina’, the label which brought together his love for Italy, wine, food, and family. Palmina’s wines have flourished on the Central Coast ever since!
His partnership with Greg Brewer, Brewer Clifton, invigorated the area between Solvang and Lompoc that would later earn AVA status as Sta. Rita Hills with vineyard-specific bottlings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In addition to these two projects, Steve’s winemaking talent has been employed by dozens of successful wineries throughout the region.
Now, with the launch of La Voix, Clifton’s first solo project dedicated exclusively to French varieties, he’s hoping to shake up the status quo again. This time, by letting the voice of each wine take center stage – with strong backup from Steve to guide them to their fullest expression.v
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Steve Clifton by journalist Caroline Helper in which Steve explores the motivation for starting La Voix.
CH: Why did you decide to start La Voix?
SC: La Voix is our opportunity to do the classic French varietals. It also represents a pretty significant departure from the wines I’ve been making for the last 20 years. Palmina has always been a very open free playground to experiment – but always within the bounds of tradition that comes with those Italian varieties so as not to be dismissed as “too Californian”.
With Brewer Clifton, when we started in 1996, almost no one was doing exclusively single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Our approach to the wines was to make them in a very regimented and controlled way – everything was done exactly the same for each wine so we had the opportunity to learn the purest expression of each of our vineyards. It was almost like a lab experiment – so we had to be very strict in our practices. With La Voix, I want to do whatever I want to do! I want to look at each vineyard and look at its entire makeup – from the clones to the soils to the microclimates – and then take it wherever it wants to go – wherever I want it to go!
CH: How is your winemaking style for La Voix different?
SC: For me, the way I think about my 20 years in the Santa Rita Hills, it’s like knowing a song so well you know all the changes, you know all the chords, you know the structure of it and so now you can start deciding what notes you want to play and you can start improvising. I see everything about my 20 years of experience with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as learning the absolute foundation and now I get to riff on that.
With La Voix, I get to be the conductor – I get to take the piece and decides how it’s played – even though it’s still the same song! My approach is as minimal as it can be – it’s all about how it’s grown. These wines are made using spontaneous fermentations and almost no new oak. I’m not trying to stamp something on them – I’m just steering them differently.
CH: So tell me – where do you want to take these wines? What is the driving philosophy of La Voix?
SC: Long long story short I had a music background and a career that I left almost completely to go into wine. One of the things I did was I performed professionally with a group for a little over 7 years as a singer and I also worked in the studio. For the last 25 years, whenever I think about blending wine or any wine that I’m making I think about a big recording studio mixing board and it’s all about lows and mids and highs and moving levers and turning knobs and bringing the volume up here and bringing it down there and when I’m making a wine, I think about it the way I think about recording and mixing music. I always have a bass, and treble, and mid and all that on a sensory sort of level.
CH: So what does the name of this new project mean for you both?
SC: For me, every vineyard and every vintage is like a song that’s been written and that needs to be sung – it just needs a voice. There’s the voice of the vineyard, there’s the voice of the grape, there’s the voice of the clone, there’s the voice of the winemaker, there’s the voice of the vintage. I get to bring all of those elements together to convey emotion and sensation.
CH: Each of the La Voix wines has a song that’s associated with it – how does each wine relate to the song it’s named after?
SC: We wanted it to be this kind of vortex or conjunction of wine and music. Our goal was to create wines that would represent these many different voices coming together and encourage people to just have a good time and let the wine be the defining moment in that. You don’t have to know how to play a synthesizer or a drum machine to get up and dance – you just feel it.