photo courtesy of BottleBranding.com
I am a glass half-full (of wine) person. I count my blessings and don’t take good fortune for granted. So, I was thrilled when the opportunity presented itself to take part in a private wine industry tasting at Clos Pepe led by winemaker Wes Hagen. Hagen is one half of the award-winning winemaking team (which is completed by his wife Chanda) at family-owned boutique winery Clos Pepe. They also produce beautiful wines under their Axis Mundi label. The picturesque estate is located behind a gate off of Highway 246 in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
Our group of wine industry friends from Sanguis, Bin 2860 and Bottle Branding (many thanks to the folks at Bottle Branding for allowing me use some of your photos for this post) met on a chilly morning in February near the edge of a block of Pinot Noir where Hagen gave us some background on Clos Pepe. It is a 40 acre sized property planted with 29 acres of grapevines. 25 are planted with Pinot Noir and 4 with Chardonnay. It produces about 900 cases of wine annually (800 Pinot Noir and 100 Chardonnay) and sells grapes to other wineries including Longoria, Brewer Clifton, Ken Brown Wines, Ojai Vineyard, Siduri, Babcock, Arcadian, Loring Wine Company and Testarossa. It also has 650 olive trees. The vineyard was planted in three phases in 1996, 1998 and 2005. 85% of the vineyard is organically farmed, which in case you were wondering, costs about three times as much as conventional farming. The vineyard’s dirt is primarily sandy loam. Historically speaking, the site where the vineyard is located was seafloor in the Miocene epoch, some 23,000,000 to 5,000,000 years ago. Hagen picked up some dirt and exposed some diatomaceous earth
diatomaceous earth - photo courtesy of BottleBranding.com
(i.e. fossilized remains of diatoms, or a particularly inspired Scrabble play off of the root word “diatom”) in order to illustrate this point.
Later on in our tour, Hagen pointed to a bunch of short, ottoman-sized critters in section of the vineyard. This was the official weed management crew at Clos Pepe – a flock of miniature sheep, Southdown Babydoll sheep to be exact. Hagen, who is an avid golfer, shared some trivia that the official grass height for golf greens is defined by the amount of grass left by the sheep who munched away at St. Andrews (the world renowned course in Scotland). Who knew that the original golf course community was inhabited by four-footed creatures covered in wool? Hagen, naturally. I have yet to find a subject that Hagen cannot discuss from a knowledgeable perspective; clearly he is an information junkie. I picture him awake in the quiet of night, reading, thinking and writing, bathed in the pale blue light of his laptop…or perhaps playing Xbox. I am certain the truth lay somewhere between the two. But, as usual, I digress. This comes as no surprise to our loyal Wine Nation Underdog readers.
photo courtesy of BottleBranding.com
After the walking tour of the vineyard, Hagen led our group of wine aficionados up to the estate house to taste some of the fruits of his labor. Though it was only 11am, we reassured ourselves that it was indeed, five o’clock somewhere. Hagen informed us that the wine lineup for today was ordered by richness and paired with some positively decadent cheeses and Clos Pepe estate olive oil. Did someone say “Breakfast of Champions”? I was scribbling notes as fast as I could…here is the recap:
2009 Clos Pepe Brut Rosé – made from Clos Pepe estate grown Pinot Noir grown in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, only slightly pink in color, tiny bit cloudy from lees, crisp acidity, dry and perfectly delicious. This bottle is *the* perfect way to start a meal. Though this sparkler is worthy of a special occasion, I’d pop one on any day that ends in “y”. We all have so much to be thankful for – why not celebrate just for the heck of it?
Clos Pepe Chardonnay
2009 Clos Pepe Chardonnay “HtC – Homage to Chablis” – Chardonnay made in the style of Chablis, with Clos Pepe estate grown fruit in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, this wine spent 11 months in 55 gallon stainless steel casks, 90 cases produced, aromas of kaffir lime and white grapefruit. This wine tasted unlike any California Chardonnay I’ve ever had – spare and elegant with more weight on the mid-palate than I expected, backed up with enticing minerality and acidity. This California Chardonnay speaks with a French accent, bien sûr, and I really, really like what it has to say.
2009 Clos Pepe Chardonnay – Barrel fermented, 420 cases produced, Clos Pepe estate grown fruit in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, spent 11 months sur lie in neutral French oak barrels, lees stirred (bâtonnage en Francais), lovely creaminess in the mouth, Asian pear and green apple aromas, beautiful minerality and acidity.
2010 Axis Mundi Syrah (67% Grenache, 33% Syrah) – Based on the blend percentages, one would think this should be labeled a Grenache not Syrah…but perhaps this was a veiled test from Hagen to see who was reading the label with a keen eye? 2010 was a very cool year, the juice spent 10 days on skins, no enzymes added, nose of cranberry and pomegranate, 100% neutral French oak, 11 months in barrel. Hagen calls this a “session wine”, meaning it is meant to be drunk and enjoyed, but not discussed. We discussed it anyway…what a bunch of rebels we are, rebels with corkscrews. And speaking of sessions, this fab old (circa 1978) dub track from Burning Spear might be the perfect soundtrack for this wine. Wine goes quite wonderfully with dub, you know? Meanwhile, moving along to Pinot Noir.
2008 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir – Sta. Rita Hills AVA, the vineyard was hit by frost three times in ’08 so the yield was very small (only about 25% of the normal yield), fruit didn’t come until late April so roughly 6 weeks of fruit hangtime was lost, nose of black cherry and baking spices, good minerality, 221 cases produced.
2009 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir – Sta. Rita Hills AVA, 72 cases produced, long cool growing season, nose and flavors of bright red fruits with hints of clove. Hagen called 2009 a “winemaker-friendly” vintage – as the weather was mild and presented no real challenges. This wine will age beautifully and will gain complexity doing so, but carpe diem people can happily drink this now.
2010 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir – Sta. Rita Hills AVA, 2010 season was cool until October when there was a heat spike. Beautiful almost heady aromatics with a satisfying mouth. 775 cases produced. Hagen says this vintage is “slutty” but I think it is a Clos Pepe wine that “goes to eleven”, which is a very good thing.
2008 Axis Mundi Syrah – 100% Syrah, fruit from Sleepy Hollow Vineyard in the Santa Lucia (pronounced Loo-see-ah) Highlands, 300 cases produced, nose of bright berry fruit and spice with a pleasing hint of Syrah-funk and olives. Superb food wine as it won’t take over your meal. Perfect to pair with garlic and rosemary roasted leg of lamb. Mmmmm!
Vines at Clos Pepe
Though Clos Pepe doesn’t have an official tasting room open to the public, but those who appreciate handcrafted wine with elegance, grace and balance can purchase from the online store here. You can also fine Clos Pepe wine in a number of restaurants and markets in California including: Bouchon, American Flatbread, Los Olivos Cafe and Wine Merchant, Wally’s Wines, Bistro 45, Wade’s Wines, Mistral, Amazing Grapes, and The Plumed Horse.