The pandemic had a big impact on a lot of people. It turned Rajat Parr into a farmer. Jamie Goode tastes the wines that are the result of this transition, from the remarkable Phelan Farm in Cambria, on the central Californian coast.
Californian winemaker and ex-sommelier Rajat Parr is well known for the wines of Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte, which he makes with Sashi Moorman, but he has two new projects. The first is Phelan Farm, which is his new passion: a small 4.7 hectare (11.5 acres) vineyard in an area not well known for wine. This is in a small valley near the town of Cambria, practically on the Pacific. It’s in the San Luis Obispo region, but there are very few neighbouring vineyards: this is a cool spot. The Scythian Wine Company wines are made from vineyards near Los Angeles in Cucamonga, and Raj shares these grapes with his friend Abe Schoener. Southern California has a rich history of grape growing but has fallen off the map a bit. While the harvest for Phelan farm is in October, the southern Californian vineyards are picked in August. ‘It’s almost like I am in two continents,’ says Raj.
He’s still involved in Domaine de La Côte and Sandhi. ‘I kind of switched my role a little bit,’ he says. ‘Initially I was involved in showing the wines and doing events. I stopped all of that. I am a farmer now.’ Sashi Moorman had a young daughter and couldn’t travel as much, but now she’s older it has set him free to take on the public face duties Raj was previously doing. ‘He loves the business part of things,’ adds Raj. He’s there for the harvest.
Phelan isn’t owned by Raj, but he has a long-term lease on the vineyards which were planted by the Phelan family in 2007: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on their own roots. Since the outset there has been no tillage here and viticulture has been organic. Raj has taken things a step further.
From 2017-2020 Raj grafted many of these vineyards over to a range of different varieties, mainly from the Jura. ‘I used to go to France and pick up some sticks, and come back,’ he says. The vines were grafted over by cutting the top of the trunk, then making an incision in the side and grafting in the cutting, sort of like a whip and tongue joint, before taping the new graft up. He’s planted 15 different varieties, including Trousseau, Gamay, Mencia, Mondeuse, Savagnin Vert, Savagnin Jaune, Poulsard, Jaquesse and Gringet.
In terms of viticulture, ‘I wanted to do something different,’ he says. ‘I’d read many books on biodynamics and regenerative farming, I didn’t want to follow any of them. I found they were very methodical, and I couldn’t reason why.’ So his approach was to use a locally adapted form of natural farming. This home-made farming method is a synthesis of techniques from a range of schools of agricultural thought, and Raj cites Masanobu Fukuoka (permaculture) and Elaine Ingham (regenerative) as particular inspirations.
‘I got four sheep, two dogs, I got chickens, and I learned how to live with them,’ he says. The sheep are in the vineyard between harvest and April, and the dogs are to protect them. He now has eight sheep, three goats, 40 chickens (with coops in all the vineyards that are moved round, with the dogs protecting them). The animals add to the microbial life in the soil.
The vineyard hasn’t been ploughed since 2007, and the undervine growth is just allowed to grow. The extent to which it grows depends on the season, but the competition doesn’t seem to be affecting the vines too much. The rows are also left, after the sheep have finished grazing. There is no rolling of the cover crop. No tractor is used: instead spraying is done using a small RTV to avoid soil compaction.
Most significantly, Raj has avoided normal plant protection products. He uses no sulfur or copper in the vineyards, instead relying on a home-made holistic sprays. These fermentations include a wide range of local ingredients: nettles, willow bark, oak bark, milk thistle, lupin, honey, thyme, kelp, seaweed, ocean water, fish bone emulsion and milk. They encourage an active microbial community in the canopies, and also help act as elicitors, priming the defences of the vine. And this approach seems to be working. ‘Everything is around forests,’ Raj says. ‘It’s very wild. You taste a herbal note in the wines: that’s the forest.’
The wines are made at a small local winery called Stolo: Raj has a deal where he makes their wines for them and then can use the winery for his wines too. Winemaking is natural, and it’s just the whites that have a small sulfite addition. Reds are made with no added sulfites, but they are completely clean. ‘I like the wine to be pure,’ says Raj. ‘I am not a big fan of volatile wine.’ Typically whole bunches are used, with light extraction. And all the reds are made using a hand-operated basket press. No pumps are used, and even bottling is by gravity.
These are quite profound wines, and I think that even Raj has been surprised by the results. ‘I thought the wines would be simple, delicious, and easy drinking,’ he says. ‘But now I think, damn! They have potential!’
Freund Spear Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2021 Sta Rita Hills, California
This is a negociant wine from Phelan. Concentrated and very fine with notes of green herbs and spice, as well as pear fruit, with a hint of celery too. Concentrated, mineral and distinctive. 93/100
Scythians Lopez Vineyard Palomino 2021 Cucamonga Valley, California
From a 1918-planted vineyard near Los Angeles, this is fermented and aged in sherry barrels from Ramiro Ibanez, and these aren’t topped up for 6 months to allow flor to grow. The result is a remarkable wine with a tangy, savoury nose showing oyster shell, pear and spicy apple. The palate is lively and mineral, tangy and vital, with a fine spiciness and a lovely tension. 96/100
Scythians Francis Road Vineyard Grenache Mission 2021 Cucamonga Valley, California
This is a 50/50 blend, and it’s very pale as well as having a slight cloudiness. It shows fine-grained structure with tangy cherries and raspberries, with a nice taut edge. Vital, expressive and fine with lovely fruit and a sense of energy. A beautiful lighter-style red. 94/100
Phelan Farm Leon 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
40% Poulsard, 30% Trousseau and 30% Pinot Noir (but with a little undisclosed Chardonnay and Savagnin in the mix), with a label feauturing two baby Leons – one from Michael Sager and the other from Jaime Motley. So textural and fine with lovely juicy raspberry and cherry fruit. Such amazing mouthfeel with tart cherry fruit but also some richness. There’s almost perfect balance here. 96/100
Phelan Farm Autrement 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
A blend of Mondeuse, Gamay and Pinot Noir. This has some weight and ripeness but it’s still really fresh. Fine grained texture with taut cherries and a lovely spicy quality. Such finesse here. 95/100
Phelan Farm Poulsard 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
Haunting aromatics of fine cherries, spice and a vital palate with red berries and plums, as well as spicy, stony characters. Some structure here with lots of energy and good acidity. Lovely depth and focus. 95/100
Phelan Farm Gamay Noir 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
This is true carbonic maceration, with any juice released by the berries being drained into a different tank for a separate fermentation. Then after pressing of the carbonic berries and fermentation to dryness, the two are combined. Aromatic strawberry fruit with some fine green herbal hints. The palate is concentrated with some warm spiciness and a tart cherry finish. 94/100
Phelan Farm Trousseau 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
Lovely cherry and plum aromatics with some spice, meat and lovely sweet strawberries. So textural in the mouth. Very fine and expressive with finely spiced fruit, and amazing texture. Such a wine. 95/100
Phelan Farm Mondeuse 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
The deepest coloured of all the Phelan wines. Fresh, powerful and structured with nice taut raspberry and cherry fruit. This has some grip as well as good acidity. Lovely purity and a firm finish with plenty of raspberry crunch. 94/100
Phelan Farm Mencia 2020 San Luis Obispo County, California
This has a floral, vibrant nose with vivid red cherries and raspberry fruit with a touch of sour cherry and cheese. Nicely textured palate with bold cherries and raspberries as well as some grip. There’s nice tension, and some silkiness to the fruit. 95/100
UK agent: Sager & Wine
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