Two Talented Expat Winemakers in California: Ernst Storm and Guillaume Fabre
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. They planted the mixed black vineyards, a small number of which remain as jewels of California viticulture. 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 as a side project. 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. Hannes is now winemaker at famed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialist Hamilton Russell in Walker Bay.
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. Curtis produces about 13,000 cases combined, under both the Curtis and Rock Hollow labels—primarily Rhone varietals from estate fruit. The wines there are very good, and relatively value priced.
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, a blend of grapes from four different valley sites, 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. With the 2012 vintage, he’s adding a vineyard designate Sauvignon Blanc from Presqu’ile grapes for a total of four different bottlings.
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%. The grapes are picked at night and dry ice is used to keep them cool, with 50% getting skin contact overnight. The grapes are then fermented at cold temperatures—up to 52 degrees Fahrenheit—to lock in the fresh green fruit and box tree flavors. 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 wine spends about five months on the lees with stirring only three or four times, to help retain the wine’s own natural carbon dioxide.
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. The Santa Maria exhibits the red fruits, spice, structure and good acidity of that appellation, while the Sebastiano Vineyard is more powerful and rich, with darker red fruits showing. Both the 2011s I sampled would benefit from a couple of years of bottle age.
Guillaume Fabre grew up in the Languedoc-Roussillon city of Narbonne. His family produced wines for three generations in the Corbières appellation from an old vine vineyard they owned consisting mostly of Carignane. 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 the Côtes du Bourg appellation of Bordeaux (Château Guionne) 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 in Paso Robles in 2004.
L’Aventure, one of the leading producers of Paso Robles, was founded by another French expat, Stephan Asséo, in 1997. Stephan had departed his native St. Émilion in search of ideal soils and a lack of the kind of rigid regulation (in terms of specified grapes and vinification methods) he had grown to resent in France. I highlighted the excellent latest vintage of Rhone-style wines from L’Aventure in my last post here.
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.
The 2011 edition of this wine, called Essence de Roussanne, is a fleshy, lightly oily textured, minerally beauty. Guillaume reports that the 2007 Roussanne, which he sampled at Clos Solène’s first winemaker dinner in March this year, was still “delicious” and should go at least another two years.
The Clos Solène rosé, La Rose, is inspired by the great rosés of Bandol. It’s one of the best California rosés I’ve ever tasted. It’s a saignée bleed from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre with the juice co-fermented and aged three months in stainless steel tanks. The rosé and Roussane in particular exhibit a delicacy and strong acidities that suggest Mrs. Fabre’s role as muse plays a key role in the ultimate character of these wines. They don’t call to mind the concentrated and powerful wines of L’Aventure, as good as those are for the style, at all.
Clos Solène’s primary vineyard source is the Russell Family Vineyard, which abuts L’Aventure’s property. This is a high density planting dating back to 1998. Guillaume does the farming there and buys the white wine grapes by the ton and the reds by the acre. Additional grapes are sourced from L’Aventure, James Berry Vineyard and Caliza Vineyards.
As a side project with the Russell family, Guillaume makes a very affordable and tasty rosé called La Grande Côte. Guillaume also serves as winemaker for a small Paso-based project called PharaohMoans, a partnership of John Schwartz and Chef Bryan Ogden.
This year, Guillaume and Solène released eight different bottlings amounting to a total of 550 cases. This includes 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 below.
When Guillaume made his first red, he wanted to use skin contact for three to five days, with a very cold soak. He found this improved the aromatics, so he has continued that approach, usually employing a 10-day cold soak at 48 degrees after destemming. He also 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. He micro vinifies the red grape lots, keeping them all separate for about 11 months until blending.
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. One can also sample the Clos Solène wines by appointment at the collective tasting room in downtown Paso Robles called Paso Underground.
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.
2011 Clos Solène Roussanne Essence de Roussane – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Light lemon yellow color; appealing, butter poached pear, peach flesh, light lanolin nose; lightly oily textured, fleshy, lanolin, tart pear, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (15% alcohol) 92+ points
2011 La Grande Cote L’Estate – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Light salmon pink color; pink grapefruit, white grapefruit nose; tasty, delicate, tart pink grapefruit, mineral, tart cranberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (46% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 24% Grenache; 14.2% alcohol) 92 points
2012 Clos Solène La Rosé Paso Robles – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Bright light pink color with 1.5 millimeter clear meniscus; very appealing, tart strawberry, very light berry nose; tasty, juicy, light, bright, tart cranberry, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (saignee bleed off each variety then co-fermented in stainless steel for 2 months; 14.5% alcohol) 93 points
2011 Clos Solène Harmonie – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Very dark red violet color; appealing, aromatic, baked black fruit, baked cherry, ripe cherry nose; complex, tasty, juicy, light-medium bodied, tart cherry, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry palate; medium-plus finish (41% Grenache, 37% Syrah, 22% Mourvèdre–less Grenache based than usual because so much Grenache was killed by frost in 2011) 92+ points
2011 Clos Solène La Petite Solène – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Very dark red violet color; baked black fruit, honey, ripe berry nose; tasty, light-medium bodied, juicy, tart berry, ripe raspberry palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (70% Syrah, 30% Grenache; neutral oak; 15.3% alcohol; pH 3.6, TA .6) 90+ points
2011 Clos Solène Sweet Clementine – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
From 375 ml – very dark ruby color; Banyuls-like, baked berries, chocolate, baked black fruit nose; complex, juicy, baked berry, raspberry liqueur, baked cherry palate, sweet but balanced; could use another 1-2 years; long finish (97% Grenache, 3% Syrah; picked at 28 brix; 15.5% alcohol with 100 grams RS; 50% new oak) 94 points
2012 Storm Wines Sauvignon Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light yellow color; fresh, tart grapefruit, tart green fruit nose; tasty, very tart grapefruit, tart lime, minerally palate with mouthwatering acidity; reminiscent of an excellent Sancerre; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; 3.33 pH, .64 TA) 92+ points
2011 Storm Wines Pinot Noir John Sebastiano Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
Dark red violet color; very appealing, buoyant, tart cherry, spice nose; tasty, youthful, rich, tart cherry, spice, cinnamon palate with medium acidity; good now but could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; no whole cluster; 115 clone; 3.69 pH; 6.3 TA) 93 points
2009 Storm Wines Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
Dark red color; light roses, rosehips, tart cherry, spice nose; poised, tasty, tart cherry, cranberry, earth, dried leaves, rosehips palate with medium acidity; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; 3.5 pH; 15% whole cluster; 15% new oak; blend of 777 clone from Presqu’ile vineyard and 113 from Le Bon Climat) 92 points