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A Chat With Monterey Winemaker Ian Brand

A Chat With Monterey Winemaker Ian Brand

California’s wine country doesn’t begin and end in Napa.

We hope that if you are a regular reader of this blog that you already knew that. If not, this week’s guest will help drive the point home. He and his wife are doing yeoman-like work trumpeting the wine potential of Monterey County.

They’re busy folks. Heather and Ian Brand have three labels that primarily source from Monterey County. They have a tasting room in Carmel Valley. Ian makes wine for a number of other labels in addition to his own. When he isn’t at the winery, Ian is probably in his truck looking for more diamond in the rough vineyards. He works from can to can’t.

We appreciate his calling timeout recently to sit for our chat. Ian opened our eyes to his wines and some very intriguing vineyards in Monterey County. Have a listen.

Ian Brand

Randy: You’re wearing a lot of different wine hats these days.

Ian: If it has to do with wine, I do it. Up where we are it’s hard to turn down much work. I don’t do any full farming myself. I will consult on vineyards, consult on planting, and manage vineyards. I produce custom label wines, do custom crush, and we make about ten thousand cases of our own wine. You hit a point in your life where you get accustomed to starting at the beginning and running  until the end. That’s where I’m at.

Randy: How did you get started in the wine business?

Ian: My entry was different than most folks. I came to California just traveling and checking things out. I wanted to get in the water. I got to Santa Cruz and ran out of money. I had been a carpenter. Jobs banging nails weren’t open for me here. I found a job in a winery (Bonny Doon) and then got a better job at Big Basin. After five years in the wine business, I was almost thirty years old. It was time for me to decide what I was going to do with my life. I couldn’t be an assistant winemaker all my life. I needed to get serious.

Le P’tit Paysan is one of the three labels

Randy: When did you start your own label(s)?

Ian: 2008. After one vintage at Bonny Doon and four at Big Basin, I looked around for another gig that suited me. I didn’t find anything. At that point we thought I’d either have to go back to school while my wife Heather worked or I could start a label and do some custom work. I figured if I could get to three thousand cases and have some custom work, that would be like one person’s salary. We wrote that business plan and started looking for places where my skill set would be in demand.

That ruled out more developed places like Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Napa. We considered Mendocino, Southern Oregon, the Sierra Foothills, and Monterey. Monterey had three things going for it. Heather had an existing job in King City. The area had access to the ocean. I didn’t want to go inland… it gets too hot there. Lastly, there were already about forty-six thousand acres of vineyards in Monterey and another six or seven thousand in San Benito. There was more fruit to play with here than other places.

La Belle Rose Vineyard

Randy: One of the things you’re known for is finding some unique vineyards.

Ian: Sure. I think I may come at it from a different direction than a lot of people. It isn’t that I’m some overly passionate about a specific varietal. I’m a problem solver. I want to work with what’s here and then extend that out to what I do. I had been working for Big Basin making big, oaky red wines for four years. I got two vintages in at Monterey and realized that model wasn’t working here.

Rather than fight uphill, I decided to learn what would work here. I began to tailor the style of wine I make to the raw material. You run into problems in the winery when you try to over-amplify things or make the grape into something it’s not. I don’t want to try to make mediocre fruit off a young vine into a ninety-five point wine. Or try to make a lean, mineral driven wine from big, ripe fruit. That’s when you run into issues.

When I matched my winemaking to the fruit, that’s when the wines made from these unsung vineyards started clicking. All of the work I do is in about a fifty mile radius of Salinas. It’s a concise area. It’s also a place nearly no one else is focusing on. I was in the right place in the right time. The price of fruit here is more affordable. I don’t understand from a business standpoint how you can pay as much as you do for fruit on the North Coast and still function. I’m in a nice scene to work with high quality, lesser known vineyards. No one else is in here with the precise focus I have. The people I sometimes overlap with are good friends.

Pierce Ranch Vineyard

Randy: Is there a lot of diversity within that fifty mile radius?

Ian: Absolutely. This area is really ocean influenced. We might have more ocean influence here than anyplace on the West Coast. It’s a lot akin to the Sta. Rita Hills, but our opening to the ocean is much bigger, as is the geographic area involved. One of the biggest marine canyons in the world goes right through Monterey Bay. The mouth of the Salinas Valley is twenty miles across. It runs all the way down to Paso Robles. That cold water influence is amazing. We have a lot of wind whipping through. We also have dramatic temperature changes as you get out of the direct onshore flow.

Enz Vineyard Mourvedre (Photo courtesy of Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery)

Randy: Who were some of these farmers selling fruit to before you came along? 

Ian: It varies. Enz Vineyard was leased to Ken Volk for years and years. That’s a guy who doesn’t get enough credit for doing work with unsung grapes while no one was paying attention. He was really ahead of his time in terms of what he was looking for in vineyards.

David Romag (l) and Ken Volk (r) (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

Randy: I hope to talk with him some day.

Ian: Please do. In the California wine world there’s a tremendous focus on the young and hip winemakers. That’s bullshit. Wine is history and the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation. There are a number of people like Ken who are reaching the end of their careers and haven’t gotten the attention and recognition that they deserve. Their stories and the knowledge they acquired hasn’t been referenced enough.

I was moderating a panel discussion recently where Michael Michaud was a panelist. He’s been up in the Chalone AVA for forty years now. It was a really nice panel. The rest of us mainly listened to Michael tell stories! That’s the kind of knowledge you can’t learn about in school.

Going back to your question, a lot of these vineyards I’m working with now were really something back in the 1970s. The wine industry is very cyclic. Wine styles go from big, big, big to lean, lean, lean. Things go back and forth. Somewhere in between those undulations lies a deeper truth of wine. That’s all about places. Places that are real wine growing areas.

Randy: How involved do you get in the farming for your fruit?

Ian: I’m intimately involved in a couple of vineyards. I consult with the farming in those. In a vineyard like Enz, I’m dealing with Russell Enz, who grew up on the property. I’m not going to farm it with more touch than him. I might ask him to pull a few more shoots or something along those lines… little tweaks here and there.

It’s a long process of gaining trust with your farmers. Another bullshit thing some winemakers do is to come from wherever they’ve been and think they know all kinds of stuff. They may walk into a vineyard and demand this or that. That’s a recipe for a short term relationship.

I have vineyards in various states of positioning. Some are bookmarks. I’m not ready to make leaps there yet. I may know that vineyard’s potential. I may even have an idea of how that fruit fits in our brands. It takes awhile to learn a vineyard. I don’t want to decide in year two that I want the grower to do specific stuff. They may be doing certain cultivation practices because they know there are tremendous swings in vintages. Just because I see something one vintage doesn’t mean the next vintage won’t swing back the other way. After I’ve been there five or six vintages, I get a real sense about the vineyard. It’s important to have restraint. Otherwise you lose the trust of the growers and the owners. When you ask them to drop crop or run fewer shoots, you’re asking them to make less money.

Randy: How does the weather, including drought conditions, impact what you do?

Ian: It’s required us to learn different styles of winemaking. We’ve had to look for different markers of ripeness. We have to be more agile. Our proximity to our vineyards serves us well. I’m set up well to adjust and move quickly. We’re not going four hours one way or the other to pick fruit. I can pile on three picks in a day if needed.

I’m more responsive to weather. I can walk outside my front door and know what’s happening offshore. I instantly know if I need to get going. We’ve built up equity with labor providers and vineyard owners. That means I can get crews in two days if I need to call in favors. That sets us apart from many folks up north. If you’re a small winery up there, you might be calling your picks two weeks out. That really impacts the precision of your pick. My vineyards are clustered. If I need to check some vines twice in three days, I can do it. Those logistics allow us to be more agile.

Enz Vineyard (Photo courtesy of Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery)

Randy: What goes into your picking decisions?

Ian: The goal is to get the grapes in the front door in the best condition possible. If the grapes come into the winery cool and in great condition, you have a wide array of winemaking choices available to you. The worse the condition of the fruit, the fewer choices you have. Instead of having five options, you might have a keyhole to go through. You may have to thread a needle to make that wine work.

We’re trying to get the grapes in at the best balance, ripeness, and temperature possible. We want to avoid mold, mildew, and all those things that detract from fruit. Other wild cards come into play like tank availability. You may want to pick fruit, but you need a place to put it. This year we were able to squeeze everything through, which was great. Larger vintages can create those issues. Every winery gets full eventually. If you have space, you’re going to fill it. That’s one of the truisms of winemaking. In our winery we do about two hundred lots a year. We did about four hundred fifty tons this year. That’s a lot coming through the front door. I’m trying to balance a lot of things. I don’t want to overwork my crew. I don’t want to make any mistakes with the wines. Things break, so you deal with that. That’s harvest.

Getting back to ripeness, the goal is to make a balanced, beautiful wine without adding anything. We keep sulfur levels moderate. We want to make a classic style of wine. I still don’t understand the aversion to moderate sulfur levels, by the way. People may think that sulfur is bad for them. I’ve seen no information that indicates that sulfur at the level it may be in wine causes any harm. The subject of wine carries a lot of baseless truisms. Somebody heard something from someone, but few people take the time to research these things. People say that they don’t want any poison in their wine. You know what’s poisonous? The alcohol. That’s what will kill you.

Randy: Is it hard to be a hands-off winemaker?

Ian: We try to run our fermentations with as little input as possible. We want to bring out the beauty of the vineyard rather than our agenda. In many practices in life, I try to subvert the needs of the self and give as much as possible. That holds true in our winemaking.

Being a father brought all this into focus for me. When you really, really want your kids to have certain experiences or to become this or that, that’s usually the best way to make your children hate those things. You have to learn to back off and listen. From a wine perspective, that means spending time in vineyards and following what the fruit tells you. I try to guide the wine through its phases of development and help it express the vineyard.

Randy: Tell me about your labels.

Ian: We have three labels. Le P’tit Paysan was our first. It means “the little hillbilly” or “the little redneck”. The label was conceived as a lineup of village wines from California. When we started ten years ago, we were told that we shouldn’t make wines at that price point. Experts said it was a dead zone. It’s done well. The wines are regionally expressive. They’re nice table wines. They work with our lifestyle. Most importantly, they come from somewhere. They have a sense of place.

La Marea is another label. Its name means “the tide”. Monterey was the old Spanish capital of California. There is a lot of Spanish and Mexican history here. Many Spanish grapes do well in this area. I started this label at the pinnacle of the Pinot Noir craze. I truly felt that Grenache was a more expressive grape for the Central Coast than was Pinot. There are really specific sites that are great for Pinot Noir, but by and large I like the way Grenache acts here. It’s also a better grape for a grower’s economic model. Pinot Noir is a low yielding grape. Making Pinot pencil out can be hard. You can buy great Grenache for thirty bucks a bottle. I also think Grenache is very site expressive. So the concentration of La Marea is Grenache and Albarino. We found what I think may be the best Albarino vineyard on the Central Coast. Kristy Vineyard year in and year out gives us a very low intervention wine. Spanish importers and sommeliers have told me that our Albarino ranks with the best. We’re very fortunate to source from Kristy. It just fell in our laps. It’s been a lot of fun making that wine.

I. Brand & Family is the third label. We started it with the 2014 vintage. By then we found vineyards and were being offered grapes that didn’t fit under the other two labels. We felt an obligation to our local industry to showcase the top end of what we can do. We want to make wines that show that there’s a lot of depth and character here. We do that by putting our name on the labels and staking our reputation on the wines. These grapes are coming from excellent vineyards like Bates Ranch, Bayly Ranch, Enz, and others. One example on this label is a really bright, mineral Chardonnay that made us very happy. It sees eleven months in oak and another five months in stainless steel before bottling. That’s a change from how a lot of California Chardonnays are made.

Randy: Do you find those vineyards or do they find you?

Ian: It’s a bit of both. I’ve known about some of these for years. Some of the vineyards had quite the local following many years ago, so I knew the potential was there. I knew and liked Enz Vineyard, but as we discussed Ken Volk had it for many years. One of the best wine experiences I ever had was a 1979 Bates Ranch wine that I drank when it was thirty years old. It was a conversation stopping wine.

I’m fortunate to have gotten into these vineyards. Now I want to showcase and share them. It’s sort of like setting up a crown for the region. These are jewels. They need to be seen in the right light.

Randy: Talk to me about your sales model.

Ian: We distribute and do direct consumer. We have a  tasting room. We are in twenty states and a couple of foreign countries. We have a broker in California and we do some direct wholesale in our local market. If it involves selling wine, we’ll do it.

Randy: Is word getting out about Monterey and the area?

Ian: Monterey is a big ship. It’s the second largest wine growing county in California. It’s not that the word hasn’t been out. It’s that there has been an enduring perception that Monterey isn’t making great wine. Some of the work we’ve done has integrated with the changing palates of consumers. Our wines live on acid, minerality, liveliness, and aromatics. Until six or seven years ago, making wines like that was pointless. You might as well have dumped them in a corner. They were not what most people wanted from California. That’s changed now.

We’re not alone. Sam Smith was hired as the winemaker at Morgan in 2016. He’s putting a more intimate touch on their vineyards and wines. Those wines are really hitting another gear. As he gets a feel for that fruit and that place, things could really move up there. We’ll see a different vision for what that can be.

There are a lot of winemakers like me that didn’t come from other professions. We came up in wineries. We have a discrete touch. I think many of us have more precision in our winemaking. That allows a different style to be expressed. We’re not alone in the work we are doing. We are working in a region which heretofore has been less than attractive. Winemakers want to work in Santa Barbara. They want to work in Napa and Sonoma. They like being around those cultural centers. I want to eat tacos.

This may sound cruel, but we mean it in the nicest way… we’re glad Ian ran out of money and set down roots in Monterey. We’re also happy he likes tacos. So do we.

Slowly but surely the word is getting out about Monterey County, in large part due to the efforts of people like Heather and Ian Brand. Ian was named to the Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40: America’s Tastemakers list a few years back. The magazine touted his commitment to organic farming and tireless promotion of Monterey as a wine region to watch. Nothing’s changed in terms of his work ethic and if anything, his wines are even more dialed in now.

We’ve been guilty in the past of driving through Monterey County on our way to more southern destinations. We vow to get off the beaten path on our next trips and see for ourselves. If you’re a California wine lover, you should, too.

In the meantime, we’ve linked up the Brands’ website to show you what’s available online. Cheers to new discoveries!

(Breaking news: Since we did this interview, Ian was named Winemaker of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle!)