I recently had an opportunity to experience a double wine tasting featuring the wines of
winemaker, Steve Clifton. For those into high end, difficult to find wines, Steve Clifton is half of
the project known as Brewer-Clifton widely known for their exquisite Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay. If you’re lucky enough to find the wine, they are usually in the $40 to $70 price
range but they embody a newer philosophy of winemaking that pairs the right grape varietal
with the right growing conditions. The Brewer-Clifton wines sit right between the Old World
Burgundian flavors and the New World Californian fruit driven wines.
However, if these wines are not your cup of tea or are priced above your liking, Steve Clifton
also produces a range of Italian varietals for his Palmina wine label – produced with his wife
Chrystal - that are in the $15 to $40 price range. Finally, he also produces Tritono, a Malbec
based wine from Argentina in partnership with Joe Bastianich (Mario Batali’s restaurant partner)
and Matias Mayol. Fortunately I was able to sample wines from all 3 labels… and all of the wines
Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer form the unique partnership of two extraordinary winemakers in
their own right that collaborate as Brewer-Clifton. Usually wine partnerships involve a
winemaker-investor or winemaker-spouse relationship but each winemaker
here has their own following of dedicated imbibers. Brewer-Clifton
concentrates solely on quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Santa
Rita Hills appellation of Central California. Therefore output is very limited
– only 7000 to 8000 cases per year. Their grapes are sourced from some of
the biggest names (vineyards) in the Central Coast – Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe,
Melville, Rancho Santa Rosa, Seasmoke, Rio Vista and Sweeney Canyon as
well as seven other unique vineyards. Whether it’s the Pinot Noir or
Chardonnay, Brewer-Clifton wines marry the finesse and terroir of Old
World Burgundy with rich fruit and spiciness of New World wines. As
mentioned, if you are lucky enough to find a supply in your neighborhood
wine shop, these wine don’t come cheap. Starting in the $40 range all the way up to the $70
range. But then again, that’s about the starting price for bourgeois French Burgundy… and you
don’t even have to pay for airfare to acquire them.
2004 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Rancho Santa Rosa”
Concentrated dark red fruit on the nose with a touch of Asian spice. Mouthfilling – almost
Cabernet like – on the palate but with a good balance of dark red fruit and currant and acid
with a seamless flow across the palate. Very long finish.
Would be great with hearty braised or roasted pork dishes.
2005 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay “Rancho Santa Rosa”
Loads of stone fruit on the nose with a hint of mineral and wet stone. Very good balance of
fruit, vanilla and acid on the palate with a medium long finish.
This wine was paired with Lobster and Lump Crab Ravioli with lobster reduction & lomi-lomi
Hauula tomatoes. The richness of the wine complemented the rich lobster and crab flavors while
the acid in the wine balanced the acid in the tomato lomi-lomi. This wine would also work with
roasted chicken or pork or even a simple traditional lobster roll.
Palmina is the personal project of the Clifton clan operated by Steve and wife Chrystal Seals
Clifton but unlike his Cal-Burgundian style of wines with Brewer-Clifton, the wines of Palmina
are focused strictly on traditional Italian grape varietals grown in the Santa Barbara region. The
name itself – Palmina – is a tribute to one of Steve Clifton’s close friends who taught him about
the joys of cooking, wine and the Italian lifestyle who succumbed to
breast cancer. As is traditional in Italy, Palmina wines are meant to be an
extension of the dinner table. These are not pretentious wines to be
squandered due to their 90+ point scores but rather meant to be
consumed as part of the meal. Just another course albeit a liquid one.
The winery produces several white wines including Pinot Grigio, Tocai
Friulano, Arneis, Moscato, Malvasia Bianca and Traminer. Steve pointed
out that he wanted to label his Tocai Friulano simply as Friulano in
keeping with the approved name of the wine in the motherland, Friuli
Italy (the European Union shorted the original Tocai Friulano to
Friulano so as not to confuse consumers with the Hungarian dessert wine
Tokaji also pronounced toe-kai). However U.S. Federal regulators didn’t
allow Friulano domestically since the actual grape name is Tocai Friulano and didn’t allow him
to give it the proprietary name Friulano. Oh well, “you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay,
or you can call me Johnnie”… No matter what you call it, it’s still a very good wine.
Red wines include Nebbiolo (the grape that makes Barolo and Barbaresco), Sangiovese (the
primary grape of Chianti), Lagrein, Barbera and Dolcetto. Palmina also produces these
traditional Italian red grapes blended with Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah for his own Super
Tuscan… er Super Santa Barbrian blends.
Finally Chrystal Clifton makes a rose – Botasea – that’s the perfect sippin’ wine for summer that
pairs with almost any food from vegetable and fruit salads all the way to roasted and grilled
white meats and anything in between. Plus a percentage of sales are donated to the Dr. Susan
Love Research Foundation. I like that combination, delicious and morally satisfying.
2006 Palmina Tocai Friulano
Lemon, lime and orange peel with citrus blossoms on the nose with a touch of earth and
limestone. Rich on the palate but not heavy with a nice balance of fruit, earth and acid with a
medium finish. According to Steve Clifton, this wine can even pair with those difficult-to-pair
foods; asparagus, prosciutto and artichokes.
2005 Palmina Undici
This pure Sangiovese wine has a nose of dusty semi-dried cherry with a hint of mineral. Rich on
the palate but not heavy with a seamless balance of fruit and acid with a medium finish. Undici
translates to “eleven” which Steve named after the amplifier volume level in “This is Spinal Tap”.
2003 Palmina Nebbiolo “Sisquoc”
Rich sour red cherry on the nose with a touch of pebble. Still very young on the palate with
loads of fruit concentration, tannin and acid but also very balanced. Probably needs another 3
to 5 years to settle though would be great with grilled Kobe beef.
2007 Palmina Dolcetto
Fleshy red fruit on the nose with a balancing acidity on the palate and a hint of earth. Definitely
a food friendly wine whether it’s pizza, pasta or barbecue. This was served with a Beef Tartare &
Nalo Farms Baby Arugula Roll with balsamic reduction.
Finally Steve Clifton has partnered with Joe Bastianich of New York and Matias Mayol of
Argentina to produce a fabulous Argentinian Malbec. The name literally
translates to tri-tone which refers to a musical interval of three whole tones
but obviously refers to the three partners in the venture. If you’ve never tried
Argentinian Malbec, it’s a must wine for barbecue and summer grilling. With
the musical alliterations in the name of his wines, it’s not surprising that Steve
Clifton was a musician in his previous life before focusing on wine making. And
indeed, he did break into spontaneous song during the wine tasting. For the
record, he does have a great voice. Though I probably enjoy his wines a lot
more. And though he may be a winemaker of many faces, the only face I have
while enjoying his wines is a smiling face.
2005 Tritono Malbec
Ripe, rich red berries on the nose with a touch of dried herbs. Lush red fruit on the palate but
once again, not heavy at all. A seamless flow over the palate with balanced fruit and acid with a
very long finish.
This was served with a Seared Porcini Crusted Maui Cattle Co New York Steak with homemade
tagliatelle, Swiss chard and haricot vert. Seared beef and luscious Malbec, what more need I say?
A Winemaker of Many Faces