California, Italy and France … And I Didn’t Leave Toronto

By / Wine + Drinks / June 11th, 2013 / 2

Barbara, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, and Malvasia weren’t exactly what I was expecting to see at an exclusive California wine event. So I was a bit surprised, at a recent tasting in Toronto, to be taken (figuratively speaking) across the Atlantic to both France and Italy. But that’s what happened at the showcase for the Brewer-Clifton and Palmina wines.

The brainchild of ex surfer/rock singer Steve Clifton, Brewer-Clifton and Palmina wines respectively combine his French sensibilities and Italian passion (or should I say passione?).

Named in honor of a close friend of Steve who was like a grandmother (nonna) to him, Palmina (the person) taught him a cultural lesson or two on love, cooking, wine, and the Italian lifestyle. She did a fine job teaching Clifton the ropes of Italian culture especially, in the wine department. Palmina (the wines) are beautiful new world interpretations of some of Italy’s classic varieties. There is indeed passione, lifting these wines up, without the typical lashings of oak and overripe fruit bogging them down. Clifton doesn’t to emulate Italian classics. Instead, he encourages these classic grape varietals to speak a new language; the language of Santa Barbara County. 

Now take the Californian hedonist and pair him with disciplined ex French professor Greg Brewer. Welcome to Brewer-Clifton. This label, with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in the Santa Rita Hills, honours Clifton’s love of things Burgundy. Clifton and Brewer’s odd couple chemistry have lead to the creation of elegant, refined wines with fine a balance of mouth-watering acidity and ripe fruit. True to the Burgundian model, Brewer-Clifton wines are terroir driven and crafted with minimal intervention, allows the wine to showcase the unique aspects of specific vineyards/terroirs.

This California tasting was, admittedly, a bit confusing to my senses. No sign of fruit bombs or oak-soaks in this tasting room. Elegant, focused, and complex…were these wines really from California? I was in Toronto. The wines really were from California. But my taste buds were taking me on a tour of Italy and France. And I didn’t have to pack my bags, bring my passport, or suffer from jet lag!

Palmina 2010 Malvasia Bianca

Wow. If you combined some Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Viognier, and maybe a splash or Riesling, shook them together and poured them into a wine glass you might end up with something approaching this ultra-fragrant Malvasia. Rosewater, white flower, citrus, and exotic Asian spices pretty much jump right up your nose. Many of these elements reappear when you taste it, along with lively acidity and nice mouthfeel.

Palmina 2007 Nebbiolo Santa Barbara County

Steve Clifton apparently has something of a Nebbiolo habit, which isn’t such a bad thing considering what rock singer/surfer dudes have been known to get into. Nebbiolo, when aged, takes on some real Pinot Noir characteristics, so maybe this is part of the appeal for him. In any case, this is a doozy. Roses again…and those exotic spices again; but also red berries, sweet leather and a hint of tar. Still has a firmness to it, but ripe cherry fruit shows through, as do those slightly earthy/leathery notes. Some moderate tannins on the long finish.

Brewer-Clifton Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay 2010

Looking for a Cali Chard with French finesse? Here it is. Rich and intense with a great mix of mineral, mild toast and smoke, lemon and sweet pear. Mouthfilling, but poised and structured as well with lots of intensity and complexity, as well as a really long, lingering finish.

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Ampelos Vineyard 2010

Ripe strawberry/raspberry with traces of dried herbs, wet stone, and cocoa powder. As with the Chardonnay above, it manages to balance both opulence and refinement, resulting in a Cali Pinot Noir that seems a little homesick for the limestone fields of Burgundy. Very well crafted stuff.

Now, I could sulk and say that both B-C wines are a bit (like, way) out of my snack bracket, price-wise. But Cali “designer” wines made in ultra-limited quantities are never being given away (supply and demand and all that stuff).


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