I first met Steve Clifton on September 29 at the Hawaii Food & Wine festival’s “Streets of Asia” event. The accomplished winemaker, based in Santa Barbara County, focuses on two unique expressions of the area’s grapes. With Brewer-Clifton, he and Greg Brewer present Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. At Palmina, a tribute to a late friend, he makes wine from Italian varietals. He took time in between pours to discuss his background and approach.
What’s the criteria for a Palmina wine and what’s the criteria for a Brewer-Clifton wine?
Palmina is exclusively Italian varietals grown in Santa Barbara County, so a little bit wider of an appellation spread, covering all of the Santa Barbara County area. Brewer-Clifton, a little bit more focused, a little bit more precise. It’s exclusively Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and only from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. It’s a very small appellation within Santa Barbara County, and then only those two varietals. At Palmina, we use 21 different bottlings that spread over nine different varietals, encompassing everything from Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano, Malvasia Bianca, Arneis, Moscato, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Lagrein, and also Refosco.
What was the first wine you ever made, in what year, and how did it turn out?
The first wine I ever produced for myself, not for someone else, was Palmina, in 1995, and it was – back then I called the wine Vino da Tavola della Costa Centrale, and then I quickly figured out that no one was ever going to order a glass of Vino da Tavola della Costa Centrale, but it was a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. I still make that same wine, and it’s called Alisos, named after the vineyard where it comes from. And it turned out pretty good, to tell you the truth. The weird thing is the ’95 was really good, the ’96 and ’97 were terrible.
What’s the wine that you’re currently excited about?
For Brewer-Clifton, the thing that’s most exciting to me right now is a Chardonnay from a Vineyard called Gnesa. It’s pronounced [nee-suh]. For Palmina, my favorite wine to make is Nebbiolo and for sure the Sisquoc Vineyard Nebbiolo is kind of my passion.
What continues to inspire you about wine?
That it changes every year, and every time you think you have it figured out, you’re thrown new curves. It’s always a challenge. You have to continually re-learn what it is that you do.
Would you say that you have any wine mentors?
For sure. I have a lot of wine mentors. I have a lot of people who have helped me along the way, both with knowledge, emotionally, just in general. An Old World mentor is definitely Luciano Sandrone who has always been there for me to ask questions and to just help me along the way, and to give advice. He’s been probably as valuable philosophically as he has been as a practical mentor. And then there’s all the people that came before me in Santa Barbara County, like Jim Clendenen and Rick Longoria, Richard Sanford and Bruno Dalfonso who have always just helped me along the way.
If you could only drink one more glass of wine, what would be in the glass?
I don’t think there’s a purer expression of both place and just singularity, and that’s what I look for in wine, something that shows both the person who produced it and the place that it’s from. Those are the two most important things to me, and I don’t think anyone achieves what he achieves.
Would you pair any food with it?
Absolutely, because I don’t think wine makes any sense at all without food.
You never drink wine without food?
What food would you have with that wine?
With that, it depends on what vineyard it is and what year, but the first thing that comes to mind is the simplest of seafood, some raw oysters or some very, very, very finely seared scallops.
Where would you like to enjoy that?
Wherever it is, I’d like to be with my wife Chrystal.