Greg Brewer is winemaker and co-founder of Brewer-Clifton Wines in Santa Barbara, CA. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Brewer stayed on as a French instructor, until he answered an ad for a part-time tasting room clerk at Santa Barbara Winery in 1991. The following year he began working in the cellar, ultimately becoming assistant winemaker. During that time, he met fellow winemaker Steve Clifton with whom he would launch Brewer-Clifton in 1996. In 1997, Brewer met vintner Ron Melville for whom he designed and built the Melville winery, and acted as winemaker through the end of 2015. As a pioneer vintner in the Sta. Rita Hills, he also helped to map, define and establish the appellation, which was granted AVA status in 2001.
Learn More about Greg from his Written Interview below:
Karen MacNeil: In your early days, who was your most important mentor in wine?
Greg Brewer: In my early days, my most important mentor in wine was unequivocally Bruce McGuire at Santa Barbara Winery/Lafond Winery & Vineyards. Not only did he offer me a huge opportunity with when I had virtually no production experience, his patience, trust and guidance are without equal. From him I learned about all facets of production, tasting, organization and anticipation. He also unwaveringly took huge risks while maintaining tremendous composure which serves as our core winery culture today.
KM: You and Steve launched Brewer-Clifton to focus on single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at a time when many Santa Barbara wineries were concentrating on varieties blended from multiple sources. Why was that important to you?
GB: Steve and I were intrigued by relaying the voice of place in a very singular fashion. It was also important that we raise all of the wines in the exact same manner without bias or prejudice so that the only differentiating element would be provenance. I suspect that because we worked for wineries that largely blended multiple sites, it makes sense that we would seek to explore the deconstructed element. It was also motivated by seeing producers such as Au Bon Climat and Babcock doing the same and essentially we just followed their lead. Interestingly, ten years later in 2007 we elected to start producing our Sta. Rita Hills bottling of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (Evolution not revolution!). We realized that we had only told the story of the appellation through segregated voices, and it was then appropriate to harmonize, congregate and tell the story in unison. Those two wines are now the vast majority of our total production and I love how they convey a cohesive story of place.
KM: You built your own winery in 2000 in what would become Lompoc’s “Wine Ghetto.” How did it get that name, and what was your experience there like?
GB: We built our first winery in 2000 in what would become the “Wine Ghetto”, were following the lead of Rick Longoria who was the first to plant a flag in this industrial park which was predominantly auto repair and plumbing shops. He let us know that the landlord was building a few more spots and we quickly took advantage as did Sea Smoke and Presidio wineries. Kris Curran and Bruno D’Alphonso at Sea Smoke named it somewhat in jest and it obviously stuck! We loved being there. While there was tremendous camaraderie, we all also had our own buildings and environments which differentiatesd that our compounds from many other custom crush operations. In the early years, we all got together with frequency, printed communal Wine Guetto Ghetto harvest shirts, etc. It was really cool and I wouldn’t trade that chapter for anything in the world.
KM: You don’t strike me as someone who is obsessed with wine critics, yet a remark by Robert Parker almost 20 years ago accelerated the trajectory of Brewer-Clifton. Tell us about that.
GB: In the December 2001 Wine Advocate, Robert Parker wrote in his year-end summary that “The wines of Brewer-Clifton were the single greatest revelation of all of his 2001 tastings.” I was initially not aware until I looked at my cell phone and realized I had fifty new voicemails by 6:00 am and my voicemail box was full. I spent the next few days with legal pads transcribing names and addresses as fast as I could so as to clear my voicemail to allow others to be recorded. I then ordered a few extra boxes of our thank you cards/envelopes so that I could write thank you notes to everyone acknowledging their interest. Not only was the flattering commentary an accolade of a lifetime, the timing was really beyond perfect, coming on the eve of the appellation being granted and with the nature of mailing lists during that time period. While it was of course incredibly advantageous for us, it was also very bolstering for the county as a whole to have such a prominent voice of confidence for our landscape.
KM: You’ve never worked anywhere but the Sta. Rita Hills. What do you love most about the appellation?
GB: I love the Sta. Rita Hills. With every passing year I am touched with increasing frequency that people associate me with the area. With that, I also love wines from all over the world with a particular fondness for California. When I reflect on why I am so enamored, I think there are really three key elements. First, I was professionally “born” here and am likely provincial in a way that is historically perhaps more commonly a European trait. I also reflect on the intimacy that can be achieved when one truly and completely espouses oneself to another person or place in this case. With profound trust and confidence, one can truly let guards down and succumb to the other. Next, while there were epic wines being produced here by many producers well before us, the area was still tiny and relatively unknown at the genesis of our timeline. It has been very rewarding to play a small role in the evolution during these initial chapters of its life. Finally, the ocean influence and unprecedented climatic predictability allow for wines to be raised in a very vulnerable and carnal fashion which is rewarding. Conveying the juxtaposed circumstance of the savage and serene nearby Pacific is a thrilling lifetime pursuit.
KM: For 18 years you purchased fruit from around Santa Barbara county for Brewer-Clifton, but gradually began acquiring your own vineyards until you were exclusively making estate wines in 2012. Why was that important to you?
GB: We formed our farming team in 2005 after we assumed management of the Mount Carmel vineyard. We never anticipated being growers when we started the winery with our whopping $12,000 and were totally happy with the négociant model. There came a time, however, when we needed to better secure our fruit sources to preserve the business, particularly during that era when everything was moving with such a brisk cadence locally. As scary and financially challenging as the undertaking was, the more concrete commitment to place is also very appropriate for us. It has been additionally very satisfying to globally promote the names of such beautiful farming families such the Machado’s who have ranched here for over 100 years and from whom we lease some land. Additionally, as you are well aware and for better or worse, when we embark on something we are 100% in. As such when our own sites provided enough fruit to fuel our objectives, we relinquished stunning contracts with the likes of Mount Carmel, Cargasacchi, and Melville Clos Pepe—after the 2011 harvest. In a sense we stopped “dating” at that point and “got married”, albeit to three different vineyard sites. I’ll leave that alone from there.
KM: It’s common for young talented winemakers to be offered small amounts of grapes from other appellations. Have you ever been tempted to make wine from grapes grown in Northern California?
GB: I have indeed received very flattering offers to work with fruit from outside of Santa Barbara. I admit that I always get caught up in that endorphin rush much like when someone asks one out on a date – always accompanied by imaginations of how things may transpire and what the results might be. With that, I have always maintained the discipline to sleep on it and the following morning have appreciatively declined the offers. The reason for so doing is that I don’t deserve to work with that fruit. There will always be someone there, a young assistant or cellar worker, who merits that access. Sure I could leverage a relationship or phone in a favor with likely academic and financial gain but at the ultimate expense of taking from another which I have steadfastly avoided. I have really been tested in that regard recently as I have almost unlimited access to so many prized vineyards owned by Jackson Family. While the immediate rush is certainly still there, I remain wedded to Santa Barbara and truly find liberty and freedom within the confines of its borders.
“The ocean influence and unprecedented climatic predictability [of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA] allow for wines to be raised in a very vulnerable and carnal fashion, which is rewarding. Conveying the juxtaposed circumstance of the savage and serene nearby Pacific is a thrilling lifetime pursuit.”
KM: You remained the winemaker after Jackson Family Wines acquired Brewer-Clifton in 2017. Even if it was the right business move, was it also a challenging transition?
GB: The transition into the fold of Jackson Family has been the best experience of my career, which is saying a lot based on the amazing trajectory I have enjoyed. Never have I felt so trusted, supported and appreciated as I do now. I have the privilege of working with an incredibly talented and driven group of colleagues throughout the entire organization who motivate and inspire me every day. It is also a true testament to how the Family and Executive Team manage in that the wineries have never felt more “mine” than they do currently. While I had co-owned three different operations for decades, the autonomy that they encourage every day enables me to operate the business with deliberate, calm, and confident hands. It will be an absolute privilege to work in their service for the remainder of my career, where I look forward to furthering the message of our estates in Santa Barbara, to nurturing younger colleagues and to supporting the Jackson Family enterprise as a whole.
KM: You make a wine called Ch.igai Takaha, that is market predominantly in Japan. Can you tell us about the project and how it came about?
GB: Since I was a little kid, I was absolutely fascinated with Japan. The aesthetic and ethos of our household growing up was also congruous with that intrigue which has only deepened with time. I have dear friends named Takahide and Miyoko Sugimoto who are amazing advocates and promoters of California wine in Japan. We made a barrel of Chardonnay together in 2006, loosely following the diatom concept and the project has evolved into something more significant now. There were years where we produced several examples of Chardonnay and Pinot; we have now polished the offerings down to just one of each. They are both specific blocks and clones every year, but the main priority here is to arrive at a designation that is emotionally motivated in addition to site.
KM: If you hadn’t seen the ad for the Tasting Room in college and ended up a winemaker, what would you be doing?
GB: If I hadn’t answered the ad for the tasting room job, I would likely be teaching something, somewhere. That facet of my respective roles is the most meaningful to me and there is nothing that I cherish more than presenting in front of others. Whether it be a couple in the tasting room, an eager restaurant team (my favorite) or 1,000 people in a banquet room it all feels the same and I covet every single moment.
KM: What other wine region inspires you and why?
GB: I am honestly inspired by all regions. From the rugged high Sonoma Coast to Chablis to the Katsunuma Valley of Japan – there is so much to learn from all of them.
KM: Do you think wine can be sexy?
GB: Wine can definitely be sexy. And beautiful. I love encouraging others to allow themselves permission to enjoy wine for what it is. With too much frequency I think people sometimes are preoccupied by what they “should” taste, how they “should” serve, how they “should” age. It is sad that they bring such a spirit of asking permission which ushers in a sentiment of right and wrong. Congruous with our own vision of self, that preoccupation is frequently an impediment to true enjoyment and satisfaction. Wines, then, can deliver a very sexy experience to their recipient if said person is open and willing to drop their shoulders and celebrate them in such fashion.
KM: What’s the last wine book you’ve read?
GB: The last wine book that I have picked up again to read intermittent excerpts is Vintage Talk by Dennis Schaeffer (1994). I remember reading it voraciously cover to cover upon release as he interviewed all of my local heroes. It has been a great reminder of how stylistic pendulum swings will always occur and how much of the current discourse from new and edgy producers so closely resembles other eras in the past.
KM: If your house was on fire, what object would you save?
GB: If our house were on fire, I would attempt to save a ceramic bowl that my cousin Kimberly made for my Mom when she was 19. We were very close. She was tragically murdered at the age of 26 and I would prioritize that bowl so that I could always hold close an object crafted by her hands.
KM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
GB: There are two very informative pieces of advice on which I reflect. One is from a recent conversation with Diane von Furstenberg. When I asked her how she maintained the stamina to endure decades of highs and lows in her world, she quickly replied, “Always be true to your brand. That is all that you have.” Priceless guidance. The other is from my Mom who always preached in a very puritanical way that the key to a happy life is purposeful work. It is a blessing and a curse. It has guided me through an extremely fulfilling career and there has also been some collateral damage as it relates to family and relationships. Work is my refuge, escape and ultimately my identity.