September 1st, 2016

The Art of Whitcraft

Revelatory wine. Can't stop thinking about this one.

A photo posted by (@viticolewine) on

Retailers toss around the label 'rising star' like it's going out of style but what does that really mean besides 'I'm trying to make my wine offer more attractive'? I'm all for window dressing as long as the shopkeeper isn't hiding behind the tinsel. So here goes:

Drake Whitcraft is the next rising star. And here's why...

Just after New Year's 2016... I randomly bump into Drake over lunch at Wildwood, a little BBQ joint in Santa Barbara. Having sold his wines for years at Les Marchands, there had been many an extracurricular gathering leading up to this day. But, when Drake told me Burt Williams would be in town in a few weeks, so began plans for the backyard blowout of the ages. Who is Burt Williams you ask?

Summer of 2011... I show up to RN74 in San Francisco for a huge blind tasting conducted by Raj Parr (yes, this is what sommeliers do for kicks on a Friday night). Nearly every major somm in the city was there -- and we had so many lovely wines that none of us could ever afford -- but one in particular left the table arguing over which Grand Cru in Burgundy it was from. Then the wine was revealed: 1986 Williams Selyem 'Rochioli Vineyard' Pinot Noir Russian River Valley. To date, it's the best California wine I've ever had. Thank you Burt Williams.

January 24th, 2016 sets the stage for September...

2015 Whitcraft Pinot Noir La Lie Fine Sta. Rita Hills - Viticole
2015 Whitcraft Pinot Noir La Lie Fine Sta. Rita Hills - Viticole

Commence Williams/Whitcraft Backyard Blowout: Round 1... How do you pick the brain of Hemingway's drinking buddy? Old school and fun-loving, Burt Williams is an open book. I learned that the greatest Cali Pinot I ever had was fermented in a shallow steel milk tub. His soft-spot for the '86 vintage centers on economy -- "I didn't have to do anything...the wine just made itself."

In the old days of Williams Seylem, Burt wrote the playbook for minimal intervention. On this day he was mentor to all the winemakers pictured above (most notably, Drake, who took this photo). Drake and Burt have a tight bond. I would learn how tight watching them interact together. But it wasn't until I visited Drake at the winery yesterday, that I saw the translation of their relationship lived out in the Whitcraft wines...

Because we just had to...

2015 Whitcraft Pinot Noir La Lie Fine Sta. Rita Hills - Viticole

August 31st, 2016... 5:30p.m. -- I pulled up to Whitcraft Winery whose location you would expect a surf shop to inhabit. It was the type of day Drake would be tempted to take the two-block stroll to the beach to dunk himself in the ocean. He had just processed plenty of '16 fruit. Just about every nook and cranny of the winery was spoken for.

My glass was filled upon arrival with 2015 'La Lie Fine' out of barrel. I had tasted the '14 in bottle two weeks prior, so I knew what this wine brought to the table. 'La Lie Fine' means 'the fine lees'. It is the more vibrant Pinot Noir juice created by extended lees contact from Drake's best vineyard sites--the majority 'Pence Vineyard' from Sta. Rita Hills. 'La Lie Fine' is pure pleasure, a wine with such approachable flavor and texture and yet savory nuances that can really only be described in one word: Whitcraft.

At 34, Drake has been working at the winery full-time now for 15 years. This will be his 18th harvest (2 down under). He would call himself "a wine shepherd not a winemaker". There is an art to empowering your grapes versus ruling with an iron fist. Burt knew this all too well when he told a much younger Drake, "You take good fruit, you ferment it, and you don't screw it up." His father Chris lived it out in some of the finest and purest expressions of aged Pinot Noir I've ever tasted.

When Chris passed away in 2014, Drake had already helmed winemaking the prior six vintages due to his father's failing health. As I write this now at 1am on the Whitcraft family couch, Drake has just gone to bed. Before he did, we spoke about Chris, as we have on many other occasions. It is plain as day hearing Drake talk about his dad just how much he loved him and still loves him. And I know for a fact, he bleeds that love in every vintage he touches. The influences of his father's wines with their rustic edge and the finesse-driven, pleasure-factor of Burt William's reds can't help but rear their head in the current Whitcraft Pinots. And yet drawing the very best from each mentor, Drake's style and legacy is decidedly his own.

--Brian McClintic

Cheat Sheet

Tasting Notes: Red bing cherry and black raspberry, rose florals, savory/umami earth notes and spices. Generous texture--soft and delicate. Sex factor high.

Seasonal Pairing: Grilled salmon with wild mushrooms (any foragers out there?)

When to Drink: Best now - 2025

Geeky Things: Viticulture: organic/sustainable. 70% Pence Vineyard--The rest is Zotovich with a dash of La Cuna and Presqu'ile. Vinification: Inoculated with Williams Seylem native strain (Burt isolated this very neutral yeast from his cellar back in the day).. Fermentation in cuve. Aged in neutral vessel. 12.5% abv.

Area Eats: Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, Loquita for tapas, Lily's Tacos, Handle Bar for the morning ritual

Bigger Than Wine: $5 per case of 2015 Whitcraft 'La Lie Fine' sold here will be donated to the Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Club. Drake personally chose this local charity which keeps children off the streets through life enhancing programs. You can check them out online.

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