A Santa Barbara First: Winemaker Greg Brewer Gets Top Honor

By Gabe Saglie   |   November 26, 2020
A toast to Greg Brewer, the first Santa Barbara vintner to be named Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast

The latest honor for winemaker Greg Brewer is a perk for Santa Barbara County, too: it’s the first time a Santa Barbara-based vintner has been named Winemaker of the Year by the popular publication, Wine Enthusiast.

“The accolade is flattering because my name is on it,” Brewer said last week after the award was announced.

“But it’s really Santa Barbara’s award – I really mean that,” he continued. “Wine is a reflection of place – in our case, Santa Barbara and the Sta. Rita Hills. And the manner in which we craft our wines is transparent and vulnerable. So I’m most prideful of that – the fact an award like this elevates our area in people’s awareness around the world.”

Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Awards, now in their 21st year, honor international players and brands in the world of wine across 15 categories, and they are a result of multiple layers of nominations and votes by the publication’s staff. Brewer beat out four other high-profile nominees from Northern California, Italy, and South Africa for the 2020 win. Santa Barbara County was nominated as 2020 Wine Region of the Year, along with Adelaide Hills in Australia, Rias Baixas in Spain, and Mendoza in Argentina, all of whom lost out to Trentino, Italy.

Mr. Brewer’s win is a nod to his groundbreaking accomplishments as winemaker for the renowned Brewer-Clifton label, which he launched in 1996 with then-business partner Steve Clifton. Brewer sold the label to Jackson Family Wines, and stayed on as winemaker, in 2017. “The best years of my career to date,” said Brewer of his business relationship with the Santa Rosa-based mega-producer, for a blend of support and autonomy that he says allows him to thrive.

Brewer is best known for the Brewer-Clifton label, which he launched in 1996 with then-business partner Steve Clifton

But Brewer-Clifton was already a darling among wine buffs by then, with Brewer crafting multiple world-class renditions of pinot noir and chardonnay each year from select vineyards in the prestigious Santa Rita Hills. This prime growing region located between Lompoc and Buellton first caught Mr. Brewer’s attention when he left his UCSB job as a French teacher to learn wine production at Santa Barbara Winery in 1991, and it really came into focus when he was hired to develop Melville Winery in 1997. Brewer was among the team that worked to get federal recognition for Santa Rita Hills as an American Viticultural Area, in 2001 for the unique wine growing conditions created by its geology, weather, and soils.

“It all starts with the ocean,” said Brewer, referencing the unrelenting influence of marine winds that blow east from the Pacific across the region’s 3,000 acres of grapes, creating major diurnal swings in climate that allow Burgundian grapes like pinot and chardonnay to thrive.

“The ocean is the critical thing and, to me, it is both serene and savage, both contemplative and calming but also intimidating and scary,” he continued.

“The wines in this region channel and demonstrate that duality. There’s something very confident and composed about the wines we’re making here. But there’s intensity beneath, as well – something pent-up and intense and wound-up tight and explosive. It’s that energy that excites me, and it’s that energy in the wine that people love to discover.

“That makes Sta. Rita Hills such a special place. And to be a quiet voice, a steward of that, to get that message out to the world, is such a privilege, professionally.”

The limited edition Brewer-Clifton wines are made available through two allocations a year, in spring and fall, which can be accessed by signing up at brewerclifton.com.

Brewer, who left Melville in 2015 and now crafts all his wines at a facility in Lompoc, also makes a line of lean chardonnays under the Diatom brand and small lots of cool-climate Syrahs under the label, Ex Post Facto.

Another first? The Wine Star Award winners, who are usually feted during a lavish affair drawing hundreds of wine enthusiasts in person, will be honored virtually during a three-day online event in January.


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