Whitcraft Pinot Noir: The Second Coming
A look into Whitcraft by Brian McClintic from Viticole Wine Club
The World is Sleeping on Drake Whitcraft
The greatest domestic wine I’ve had to date was a 1986 ‘Rocchioli Vineyard’ Pinot Noir made by Burt Williams of Williams Selyem. To me, no one has hit as a high a note as consistently as Burt did with those older bottlings. On occasion others would get there. Burt’s lifelong friend, Chris Whitcraft, made a ’94 Hirsch Pinot that killed out of magnum last year. But it’s hard to compare anything since to the glory of that old magic.
Today we lie in wait for the heir apparent, and who better than Chris Whitcraft’s son Drake? It is fitting that Burt is Drake’s mentor and biggest fan. But that’s not to suggest somehow that Drake is regurgitating the Williams Selyem playbook…or that of his father. Drake has a style all his own – an uncommon finesse and a signature character that is as exciting as any producer I have come across. He's making Pinot Noir at the very highest level, and it shocks me how few people know it…
Gerneration Whitcraft: From Father to Son
The Art of Whitcraft
I caught up with Drake at his new home in Santa Ynez. After a few bottles of wine, the night spiraled into a jam session with our host rocking out on lead guitar. Freestyling blues licks to BB King albums, Drake was shockingly good for “not having played in months”. He also has some of the fattest fingers on the planet, so striking a note cleanly is a miracle of physics. But he does. With impeccable timing and an uncanny sense of pitch. He knew his guitar was a quarter step flat and would bend the notes to get them there.
The jam session went on for a couple of hours until he put on a vinyl of an unsung guitarist named Roy Buchanan. Drake sat down and just listened…
ME: “I don’t think I heard you make one mistake.”
DRAKE: “I try not to.”
Buchanan’s guitar wailing in the background…
DRAKE: “Roy Buchanan influenced so many great guitarists and most people don’t even know who he is. Just listen to that…”
ME: “He sounds like a badass. What made him so great?”
DRAKE: “He played a telecaster right into a twin reverb fender amp with no effects. He created a wah wah pedal sound using the tone knobs and his pinky finger. No one had a tone quite like him. He struck each note with more energy behind it – most people would rip their fingers up trying. That’s why he sounded different…better…”
The night didn't stretch on much longer. We would need to save ourselves for tomorrow...
A Wind-Swept Oak at Pence Ranch
Deflowering the Pence Ranch
The plan was to get to Pence Ranch at 8:00am. We pulled up at 10:30 to a rolled away fog bank. Apologies to photographer Jimmy Hayes once again for the lighting fail.
Pence is Drake’s flagship vineyard, but inland enough to be a bit of an anomaly. Originally, it was not included in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation until they expanded the borders a couple years back. Normally, Pinot east of Eden would be a touch warm, which is not the m.o. of the Whitcraft regime. Drake prefers harvesting at very low potential alcohol. And yet Pence grapes consistently come in fully mature at less than 13% abv.
The sideways oak tree pictured above should be some indication. Pence Ranch sits on a bluff that gets pounded by ocean wind. Temps stay very cool at night. Added to freshness is a distinctive mineral streak that marks Pence fruit. The grapes were planted on pure virgin dirt – an exceedingly rare feature in ag-heavy California. Before vines were laid down, nothing ever depleted those soils. Cue a nutrient-rich smorgasbord for the 3 clones of Pinot Noir Drake works with: Pommard, 115, and the epic Mt. Eden…
Things Are Heating Up . . .
Prelude to Extracurricular Activities
Very few summer days in Santa Barbara escape the threat of a backyard BBQ at importer Ted Vance’s house. Today would be no exception. But before the coals would heat up and the corn would hit the grill, Drake and I would head to the cellar to taste the ‘16’s…
Summer Corn and Heirlooms
Don't Judge a Book . . .
Drake’s winery resides in Santa Barbara about 2 blocks from the ocean, which is most of what it has going for it aesthetically. This is not the golden little farm house on the hill that you see in the lifestyle magazines. It’s a kitschy, scrappy, dorm-of-a-cellar on a black top lot of shared businesses. In the entry way, is a humble little tasting room. You can feel Chris Whitcraft here…in photographs, in a sarcastic bumper sticker, and in the old empty bottles that line the winery walls. He left a tremendous legacy behind. He also left a lot of debt.
ME: “Have you ever destemmed any of your fruit?”
DRAKE: “I don’t own a destemmer.”
There are no fancy concrete tanks. No estate program. The production space fluctuates capacity from month to month. At its best, the cellar resembles a storage facility – at its worst a large closet crammed full of stacked barrels, winery equipment, and pallets of wine. Even the most routine of tasks inspires a high-level game of Tetris. It defies belief watching Drake work. Just like those oversized fingers that don’t seem to have enough room to find the fret, he’s able flow right through it all somehow...
Ted Vance Knows How to Throw a Party
Ultimately, you don’t need much to make a world-class wine. Burt Williams fermented the greatest Pinot I ever tasted out of a shallow milk tub. Roy Buchanan only needed a piece of wood and 6 strings. Drake is well aware of this and his craft is intact. The winery is kept cool. He propogates a Williams Selyem yeast that rips through fermentation in 14 days, allowing the stems to integrate seamlessly with the gentlest of extractions (foot tread for the first 3-4 days, then light punch downs when the cap is softened up).
There is an energy and vibrancy with 2016 that I haven’t found before with Pence Ranch Pinot Noir. John Faulkner who makes wine for the estate agrees adding, “It was unusually cool right at harvest which helped preserve freshness. There is a vivid color like I’ve never seen.” The same can be said for Drake’s wines in '16. The press barrels are in some cases as delicious as the free run juice – owed partly to the vintage and partly to an increasing level of finesse with which he handles the press...
Full Bellies, Full Hearts
Quick Shout Out
As is evident in Jimmy’s lovely photos, the evening was a success. A special thanks goes out to Ted Vance who not only distributes Drake’s wine, but constantly helps create a palpable community and a lasting culture in Santa Barbara through these dinners. I owe much of my wine education and enduring friendships to the hundreds of backyard gatherings I've been invited to over the years (It helps that I lived here once)...
A Second Wind . . .
The Second Coming
At the end of the evening, Raj Parr whisked us away to his house for an all-night dice game, but not before that ’92 Whitcraft Pinot (pictured at the top of the page) was consumed. At a quarter century, it was holding up quite nicely.
I’m made to think of how our 2016 Pinot will be showing in years to come. But I’m more interested in what the world will think of Drake then. Will they still be sleeping on him? Will he be the Roy Buchanan of the wine industry - an artist whose talents deserved a bigger audience? Or will we see the second coming of Burt Williams?
I know what I see…
- Brian McClintic