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Tête-â-Tête with Greg Brewer
By W. Blake Gray
Feb 8, 2011
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Greg Brewer and I jousted over alcohol, and made up over haiku.

Brewer, who makes wine for Brewer-Clifton and Melville Vineyards as well as his own Diatom label, keeps his Lompoc winery as pristine and stark as an art gallery, with trip-hop music serenading the very slowly fermenting grapes. 

"I want things to be more and more raw:  More pure, honest and sincere," he says.  "From a chef's perspective, to present a single carrot is more challenging than a recipe with many ingredients."

But spend a couple hours with him and you can tell that he needs Zen trappings to keep his emotions in check.

That became apparent at the end of our tasting, when I said that even if I like the taste of a 17% alcohol Chardonnay, I wouldn't knowingly buy it because that's not the way I like to use wine.

It's a sensitive issue for Brewer, who attracts brickbats at Central Coast events from some of the area's longtime winemakers for his super-ripe wines.  He inhaled sharply, frowned and grimaced, and the atmosphere in the room dropped about 20 degrees.

The thing is, I agree with just about everything Brewer says.  He's as much of a purist as any winemaker I have met, and his obsessive treatment of the Diatom wines makes them intellectually fascinating.

Here are a few things Brewer does that set Diatom apart:

* After the grapes are picked, he stores them in a room between 30 and 35 degrees for at least a day.  Why?  He feels for them.

"At harvest, you're severed from your life source.  It's very disorienting for them," Brewer said.  "They can chill out here.  Diatom is fermented about as cold as something can ferment -- 35 degrees for about a month."

* Brewer makes wine from different vineyards but usually treats them all in exactly the same way, the better to highlight the differences in terroir.

"My wines are used a lot by sommeliers in training," he says.

Yet even though his 1,000 cases per year of Diatom are vineyard-specific, with the 2010 vintage he has begun giving them Japanese names like "Kodo" and "Miya," rather than listing the vineyard on the bottle.  "Kodo" means "heartbeat" and "Miya" is a friend's name that means "beautiful night," and that's what Brewer wants the wines to convey. 

"The concept of the name is what I have in my head," he says.

(Whether it's the name or his purist Japanese aesthetic, Diatom wines may be more popular in Japan than in the US.  I tried googling "Diatom Samurai Beauty" and came up with 26 pages -- 25 of them in Japanese.)

* While he used neutral oak for his first Diatom Chardonnays and still does at Brewer-Clifton, he now makes Diatom Chards only in stainless steel because he thinks it makes them more austere.

"Alcohol's fat," Brewer says.  "Fatty things have to be presented in a very exacting way.  Steel is helpful for getting away with a higher alcohol level.  If you're picking in Chablis at 19 brix because it's hailing, you ferment in oak because you want the girth that alcohol can deliver."

The Santa Rita Hills appellation is the reason Diatom wines are, well, like pork belly.  Climactically, it's one of the great wine regions of the world -- if you don't mind high alcohol.  With a long, cool growing season and little threat from rain during harvest, Santa Rita Hills grapes can hang until November, developing intense flavors without becoming raisins.

"The Santa Rita Hills are only an 8-mile stretch," says Brewer, a Los Angeles native whose family moved to the area when he was tiny.  "I was trained within it, I was weaned on it.  I don't work out of this sandbox at all.  I'm very proud of this area and very defensive of it."

Indeed, Brewer, who taught French at University of California-Santa Barbara before taking a tasting room job at Santa Barbara Winery, is a big fan of the concept of terroir, and thinks winemakers should not try to obliterate it -- which, in this case, he says they could do by picking too early.

"The briny, minerally, salty, tangerine character -- that's what this place does," Brewer says.

Some of his wines are memorable, like the 2009 Diatom Samurai Beauty Chardonnay, which had notes of rose petal, rangpur lime and wild strawberry.  They do well with a little bottle age; the '06 Samurai Beauty was driven nearly entirely by secondary characteristics like clay and honeycomb, yet had the acidity to stay fresh.  And they're usually not hot; in almost all cases I wouldn't have known how high the alcohol was if Brewer hadn't told me.

Brewer has become such a defender of high alcohol that he says he's considering using the 1% leeway the US government allows on labels in an unexpected direction.
"I'm thinking about putting it 1% higher on the label," he says.  "It's legal."

He wants to get people talking about other aspects of the wine:  The cleanness, simplicity and terroir-specificity.

I like a wine that makes me think.  And what the Diatom wines make me think includes questions like:  How much alcohol is too much alcohol?  How can you use a wine like this?  Would two glasses be too much?  Should you only drink it in parties of six?

And most of all, a question that is at the core of appreciating California wines -- if you know a wine has more alcohol than you want, but you like the flavor, should you celebrate it or shun it?

My thoughts made Brewer unhappy, and having lived in Japan, I know that it's very impolite to make your host (or guest) unhappy.  So we finished our meeting by each writing a haiku about our tasting.

Here's mine: "She says it's sexy/Mature taste of older wines/Winter flesh is ripe."