Rajat Parr Wines: tasting the new releases from Phelan Farm and Scythian Wine Company

Website: https://phelanfarm.com/

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, who is at the winery in Lompoc 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. Sashi and Raj were buying grapes from Greg Phelan from 2015 for Sandhi. Raj was tasting the grapes one day and said, ‘where is this vineyard?’ When he saw it, decided he’d love to farm there, and he’s 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. 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 deeply 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. Raj doesn’t do no-till, though: ‘One of the misleading words in regenerative farming is no till,’ he says. ‘If you don’t till at all you can have a heavily compacted vineyard.’ He saw a guy using a yeoman plow in Spain, which is three shank, goes in three feet and prunes the roots. So he rented a two shank plow, which doesn’t rip the soil up, it just cuts it. It doesn’t disturb the soil.

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.’

Raj and his big camera! A Makina 67 he bought in perfect condition in Japan. It’s a film medium-format camera.

2022 was a very dry year with very low yields and this caused a loss of vigour in 2023, when he made just 10 000 bottles from 4.5 hectares. In 2023 he got downy mildew, which is rare (although there is powdery mildew every year). They use milk to treat the vines. There’s an employee who’s just been hired to focus solely on soil health. He does all the compost teas. ‘In the end the only thing that will save us from disease is soil health,’ says Raj. ‘The goal is to get 2:1 with fungal and bacterial populations. The vines will become strong and we won’t have so much disease pressure.’

In terms of winemaking, it’s quite natural. ‘I’m classically trained,’ says Raj. ‘I want a serious wine, but made completely naturally.’ For the Scythian wines he adds 2 ppm sulfites. Phelan is all no added sulfites for the reds. He doesn’t do a second winter, but bottles before August in the first year. There’s no racking until the night before bottling for the reds. The whites are kept in tank a few months after moving from barrels. They work with the moon in the vineyard and the winery, bottling a few days before the waning moon. 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. 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!’


Phelan Farm Pinot Noir 2022 SLO Coast
2 tanks, one whole cluster, one destemmed, then pressed and blended together. Ungrafted wines planted 2007. This is juicy, fine and digestible. Lively and energetic with red cherries and raspberries and a touch of cranberry. Such precision here. Lovely freshness and vitality, with some grainy tannins and lively acidity. 94/100

Phelan Farm Leon 2022 SLO Coast
40% Poulsard, 30% Trousseau, 30% Pinot Noir. Co-fermented, fully destemmed. Babies on the label. So supple and fine with beautiful fresh focused elegant red cherry and berry fruits with a slight prickle of carbon dioxide adding freshness. Lovely bright red fruits with layers of spicy complexity and some sappy green hints. So fine. 96/100

Phelan Farm Autrement 2022 Slo Coast
Raj thinks this is the most important wine in the line up. Every year the blend changes and this year it is 40% Gamay, 40% Mondeuse and 20% Pinot Noir. There’s a bit of structure here but also such freshness and purity with raspberry and red cherry fruit, with a freshness from some dissolved carbon dioxide. So pretty and energetic but with substance and complexity. Alert and vital, this is a beautiful wine. 96/100

Phelan Farm Mencia 2022 SLO Coast
11% alcohol. Just one barrel of this, grapes picked October 23rd. Fully destemmed. Cuttings from Camino Novo in Ribera Sacra, one of Envinate’s single vineyards. So distinctive with lovely red cherry fruit, and nice weight on the palate. Dry with some structure and good acidity, but some flesh and generosity to the fruit. There’s a fine green hint too. So beautiful! And really distinctive. 95/100

Phelan Farm Mondeuse 2022 SLO Coast
11% alcohol. This is intense and vivid with keen acidity sitting under vivid black fruits with some redcurrant freshness, a note of tar and gravel savouriness, and some firm tannins. Just on the cusp of ripeness with nice vitality. Firm and serious. 93/100

Brij Wines Grenache 2022 SLO Coast
Brij is Raj’s father’s name, and this is the negociant operation. Whole cluster Grenache aged in Stockinger foudre. Vineyard planted in 1996. This is elegant and beautiful with lovely raspberry and red cherry fruit showing real elegance. Fine-grained structure with purity and focus. Really elegant style. Has plenty of structure but real elegance here. 95/100

Brij Syrah 2022 SLO Coast
This is a blend of 2 vineyards, Bassi and Stolo. Whole bunch, then aged in foudre. Concentrated and dense with lovely complexity. Some meat, spice, pepper and black cherry fruit. Fresh and well structured with great concentration and depth. Has nice grip on the finish. A remarkable expression of Californian Syrah. 95/100

Scythian Wine Co Misturado 2022 Cucamonga Valley
50% Alicante Bouschet, 30% Palomino, 20% Zinfandel, centenarian vines. Whole cluster.13% alcohol. Fresh and digestible with lovely red cherry fruits and a touch of redcurrant, with energy and brightness and a hint of green that works so well. Fresh and energetic. Lovely. 95/100

The Scythians 2022 Cucamonga Valley
50% Zinfandel, 30% Alicante Bouschet, 10% Mission, 10% Grenache. Whole cluster. 13% alcohol. Ripe, energetic, nice sweet berry fruits with a sour cherry edge. Has a sweet acid line, flirting with high volatile acidity. A little wild, but delicious. 93/100

Phelan Farm Pet-Nat 2022
Made by Michael Cruse. The Gamay canopy was dying because of the drought so Raj picked it early in September. This is 50/50 Gamay and Pinot Noir, and it’s disgorged. Pale pink, this is bright with a little buscuitty aftertaste and nice red cherry fruit, with a touch of strawberry. I’m slightly scared by mouse here.

Scythians Palomino 2020 Cucamonga Valley
12%v alcohol. Bit of skin contact. Some dissolved carbon dioxide. Textured and fine with sweet pear and apple, as well as a touch of white peach. This has a lovely fresh finish with a slight salinity. Nice depth here: a textured expression of Palomino. Vineyard planted 1912, own-rooted, had been abandoned for several years. 95/100

Phelan Farm Savagnin and Chardonnay 2021
Very fine and expressive with a mealy edge to the sweet pear and citrus fruit with some nuts and honey, and lovely depth. Very fine and expressive with meal, nuts and honey with nice texture and depth. There’s lovely weight to this wine, and a slight salinity on the finish. Beautiful. 95/100

Bottle Baby Apple Grape Wine
80% apples, 20% grapes. Textured, fresh, appley and bright with nice weight. Very appealing.

The previous release:

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

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com