Winemaking in California has very much been shaped and influenced by a long line of experienced growers and winemakers who moved here from other winemaking countries.
There were the Italian, French and German immigrants in the mid- to late-1800s, many of whose descendants are still in the business today. There were the likes of Agoston Haraszthy from Hungary, Gustav Niebaum of Finland and German-born Charles Krug who brought new varieties and techniques that had a lasting impact. They were followed by giants like Georges de Latour and Paul Masson from France and Russian-born and French-trained André Tchelitscheff. Other influential expat winemakers have included Mike Grgich from Croatia and, in more recent decades, Bordeaux's Philippe Melka.
I'm delighted to report that the tradition of young winemakers coming from elsewhere to make wine in California continues. Two of the newer arrivals making stunning wines employing sensibilities and techniques they brought with them from their native winemaking regions are South African Ernst Wolf and Languedoc-Roussillon native Guillaume Fabre.
Ernst and Guillaume have at least a few things in common. They're the same age--34. Both are drawn as much to farming and viticulture as they are to making wine. Both have "day jobs" at large wineries and make only small quantities of wine under their own labels. Both impress one as very grounded, and quite serious about their work. Nonetheless, the two are also undeniably charismatic. Ernst has even been the subject of a couple of mini-documentaries to date. Both also have a penchant for wearing shorts.
Ernst was the first to arrive here, in 2003. Ernst had been exposed to wine when he spent the end of his teenage years growing up in South Africa's cool Walker Bay appellation in the Western Cape. He followed older brother Hannes in studying winemaking, completing his studies at Elsenburg Agricultural School near the town of Stellenbosch.
Ernst worked for a year as winemaker at South Africa's Amani, where he developed his fondness for Sauvignon Blanc. Driven by a desire to experience a Northern Hemisphere harvest, Ernst then took a job at Renwood in California's Sierra Foothills.
After two years learning the tricks of working in the very warm climate of the Sierra Foothills, Ernst went looking for a cooler region conducive to the more balanced, lower alcohol wines he prefers. He found it in Santa Barbara County, whose Mediterranean climate reminds him of the Western Cape. He landed a job there as assistant winemaker at Firestone. When Firestone was sold to Foley in 2007, Ernst stayed with the Firestone family's remaining wine project, Curtis, where he was named winemaker in 2008.
Ernst launched his own label, Storm Wines, in 2006 after obtaining a few barrels of Pinot Noir fruit from Le Bon Climat Vineyard. He now produces about 500 cases of Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc and about 300 of Pinot Noir--a Santa Maria bottling with fruit from both Le Bon Climat and the Presqu'ile Vineyard, and a Sta. Rita Hills from two blocks of the John Sebastiano Vineyard.
Ernst likes his Sauvignon Blanc to exhibit cool climate freshness and acidity so he picks at about 22.5 brix, aiming to achieve alcohol levels from 13 to 13.5%. Ernst also practices a technique he learned in South Africa of including some clean lees from the previous year, which have been kept very cold, to add extra texture and mouth feel to the wine.
The result is minerally, tart green fruited wine with mouthwatering acidity and firm texture, reminiscent of the finer wines from France's Sauvignon Blanc specialized Sancerre appellation.
The Pinot Noirs, which are also below 14% alcohol and gently handled during the winemaking process, are complex and quite distinct, clearly indicative of their respective terroirs.
Guillaume Fabre grew up in the Languedoc-Roussillon city of Narbonne. His family produced wines for three generations in the Corbières appellation. Guillaume worked in the vineyards from an early age. He pursued a major in winemaking, enology and vineyard management at the Lycée Charlemagne in nearby Carcassonne, graduating in 2001. He was then selected to manage the 60 hectare property owned by Domaine Sica in Minervois, where he spent two years.
Meanwhile, his parents sold the vineyard in Corbières and bought 60 acres in Bordeaux in 2000. While visiting his parents there in 2002, Guillaume had an "electric" first encounter at church with a young woman who had grown up there. She soon left for studies in Spain, however, and Guillaume returned to Minervois before taking an internship at L'Aventure, one of the leading producers of Paso Robles, in 2004. L'Aventure was founded by another French expat, Stephan Asséo, in 1997.
After finishing his internship, Guillaume returned to his parent's property in Bordeaux. While there, he fortunately reconnected with the young woman from church, Solène, who became his wife. The two moved to Paso Robles in 2006, with Guillaume taking the position of assistant winemaker at L'Aventure where he still works.
In 2007, the couple launched their Clos Solène label. The name pays tribute to the imaginary vineyard in which Solène played as a child in Bordeaux, her "clos." Solène recollects that when she first moved to California, her palate "was still very French," so she had a hard time drinking the heavy wines produced in the Paso area. She asked Guillaume to make something she could enjoy with food. Their first wine was a Roussanne, Guillaume's favorite white variety and the first kind of wine he drank as a child.
This year, Guillaume and Solène released eight different bottlings, amounting to a total of 550 cases. This includes an excellent rosé, La Rose; another white, a Viognier/Roussanne blend; two Syrah/Grenache blends; a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend called Harmonie; and a Syrah blend with two Bordeaux varieties, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, called L'Insolent. Guillaume also made a wonderful Banyuls inspired sweet wine, largely from Grenache, called Sweet Clementine. For my tasting notes on five of these wines, along with Ernst's wines, see the complete report on my blog here.
Guillaume practices the unusual "horizontal" method, after putting all the fruit in barrels, of laying the puncheons lengthwise and turning them from six to 30 times per day--a more gentle process of mixing the fermenting berries and juice that avoids pump overs or punch downs.
Both the Storm and Clos Solène wines are available in small quantities, primarily through their mailing lists, for which one can sign up on their respective websites. I recommend keeping an eye on these two very talented and serious winemakers. Their trajectories so far make it safe to predict they will join the ranks of expats here with long and influential careers.