Exploring one local winemaker’s obsession with local grapes.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
Winemaker Ian Brand’s favorite task is to drive down dirt roads and knock on doors whenever he spots rows of unfamiliar grapevines. With permission granted he “pokes around in the soil to see what’s going on.”
Soil types aren’t everyone’s idea of a thrill, but Monterey County’s dirt qualifies as an action-packed frontier for Brand in his quest for ideal fruit-and-soil combinations.
“Monterey County is known for commodity grapes and Santa Lucia Highlands wines,” Brand says. “Whether that’s the best Monterey County has to offer is up for debate.”
A complex matrix of work has led Brand to make this statement. He’s currently the winemaker for seven boutique wineries in Monterey County, a partner in Chualar Canyon Winery, a fermenter-for-hire, a winemaker for his own labels (La Marea, P’tit Paysan, and Fieldfare) and a consultant for a number of wineries. He produces 12,000 cases per year – for 12 different labels.
In addition to his own operations, the four wineries where he makes wine include De Tierra Vineyards (as of the 2010 vintage), Pierce Ranch, Kevin Olson Vineyards, The Coastview Vineyard, Chateau Lettau and Mesa del Sol (as of the 2011 vintage).
Coastview’s fruit-and-soil combination was enough to inspire Brand to move to Monterey, after he met its owner, John Allen, in 2007.
“John Allen got it so right,” Brand says. “Crazy right. We worked together and brought up the level of farming. By 2009 the grapes were phenomenal.”
No matter who he collaborates with, Brand insists on addressing one theme every time.
“When I work with a new client, one conversation I always have is the one where I try to talk you out of going into the business,” he says with a smile. “If you think it’s going to be fun and a lark, you’re not going to like it.”
The initial conversation also includes the kind of wine the client wants to make. Often it’s a Napa Cab or an oaky Chardonnay. Brand breaks the news that a Napa Cab can’t be made with Monterey County grapes. Then comes the mission statement that goes something like this: Brand wants to get to the core of what a vineyard can do. Doing what has already been done doesn’t make sense.
“A lot of oak obliterates much of what makes a Monterey Chardonnay: floralness, minerality, citrus-y, briny,” Brand said. “For most varieties, if the soil isn’t interesting, the wine will be simple, direct. You can add oak to add complexity but then it’s going to be simply oaky and fruity.”
Brand has no favorite variety. “I look for varieties that are planted in the right place,” he said. “My wife makes fun of me for having an overly feminine hand in the winery. A light touch. I want the grape and the site to express itself.”
His biggest challenge is to get the winery owner on board with the expression of the wine that best matches the raw material.
“I want to make wine that’s pretty and accessible, and that includes price, which is another appeal of Monterey County. Paying $5,000 for a ton of grapes is fine for a lawyer or banker who wants to play winemaker. I needed to be where that wasn’t happening.”
Brand works gradually toward creating a delicate, precise structure in his wines – and nice, long finishes.
“Sometimes my first efforts might be less bombastic than some might wish but by the time I get to the third vintage I’ve usually figured it out,” Brand says. “I only get one chance a year – and I don’t sleep during that time.”
After studying conservation biology at Middlebury College in Vermont, Brand bounced around working at wildlife-related jobs, tourist-industry jobs, and even the Peace Corps before moving to Santa Cruz to surf.
In 2002 he needed a job and was hired as a laborer at Bonny Doon Vineyard. After going through one vintage, Brand was hooked. He worked at Big Basin Vineyards for four years, and met a key influence in winemaker Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
“Ask him about any year since he was 18 and he can tell you what he did, what the weather was like, and what the wines were like,” Brand said. “He encouraged me to adopt a timeless style, not to be beholden to the swings of the market, not to try to make wines that are riper or less ripe, more plush or acidic, for example.”
Forcing a wine toward an outcome, in other words, is far less rewarding then letting it find its own way.
“The best expression of a wine,” he says, “may be different than originally envisioned
Try some of Ian Brand’s wines 4-7pm Friday, Sept. 14, at the new Trió Carmel, on Dolores between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel. For the monthly schedule to meet Ian Brand and other winemakers, go to www.triocarmel.com/wines