Wes Hagen: Clos Pepe Vineyard & Winery


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Everything you ever wanted to learn about viticulture could be asked of Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyard and Winery. Our loquacious guest shares a myriad of thoughts on topics ranging from Socrates to Russian ballerinas to Robert Parker.

Other topics in this unfiltered conversation include:

  • pioneers and evolution of the area’s wine growing AVA’s
  • the “dirt” on Sta. Rita Hills
  • why to trust your winemaker’s judgment
  • the role of vineyard dogs

Your ebullient host Gabe Saglie pulls from the Dirt Don’t Lie question grab bag, leading to discussions by Wes Hagen about:

  • what funky bottle to drink at the pearly gates
  • who could possibly teach him to be terse
  • an honest take on humanists
GABE
This is the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast, unfiltered conversations with Santa Barbara County wine farmers. I’m Gabe Saglie and on today’s show an energetic conversation with Wes Hagen from Clos Pepe Vineyard which takes us from Socrates to Frisbee golf and does wine score from Robert Parker even matter? All that and much more coming up right now on Dirt don’t Lie.Well, this is not the first time that Wes Hagen and I get to share the microphone. Welcome to the show, Wes.

WES
Thank you very much, Gabe.

GABE
You and I did this–

WES
Fourteen years ago.

GABE
You remember that well.

WES
It was 2001 and it was right when we were just getting final approval for Sta. Rita Hills and we were talking about the sort of beginning of this whole process of sort of carving out these little micro-American viticultural areas within the greater Santa Ynez Valley and, yeah, I would say that was like my first radio interview, and so from that point until today we’ve got the alpha and the omega.

GABE
Let’s see how much you learned on that particular day. You know, AVA, your name Wes Hagen has been synonymous with the creation of the last couple of AVAs, now we’re up to five here in Santa Barbara County, so I would imagine that the concept of definition of place, and certainly this is true in a place like Sta. Rita Hills, is very important to you.

WES
Absolutely. Now, I think that as Santa Barbara County starts growing up, we’re still in our infancy I like to say, the great and sort of challenge of being a Santa Barbara County winemaker is we’re in the wild west, we’re still in Dodge City slinging guns and it’s not we don’t have the hospitality infrastructure of Napa or even Paso Robles, but we are an authentic region filled with authentic personalities with a lot of passion and we’ve kind of got a chip on our shoulder because we have been sort of overlooked as the authentic wine country of California and we want to be the go-to wine country for Southern California. We want the same was San Francisco supports Napa Sonoma we want L.A. to support Santa Barbara County, we’re willing to do anything we can to prove to the Los Angeleans that this is where they should come to taste wine.

GABE
And that’s a smart way to go?

WES
I think so. I think what you do is you give them different looks. They say, “You know, we like Napa.” I’m like Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, go out to Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara because Happy Canyon is hot enough to grow Grey Cabernet. If you want Pinot Noirs like Sonoma Coast and you love those type of elegant, restrained, or big and rich Pinots you can taste Pinot Noir in any style in the Sta. Rita Hills and right in the middle we have Ballard Canyon which is spectacular for Rhone varietals, so now Pinot Noir, Chardonnays, Sta. Rita Hills, Syrah, Grenache, Rhone varietals in Ballard Canyon, Sauvignon Blanc, and the Cabernet families out in Happy Canyon, you’ve got all the regions you need, and of course, Santa Maria Valley making some of the most beautiful cool climate varietals, Pinot Noir, Chardonnays as well. So, we’ve kind of got a view for everybody now.

GABE
From an image standpoint diversity if one of the great calling cards of Santa Barbara County wine country, but that can also be a challenge.

WES
Oh, it is absolutely the hobgoblin of Santa Barbara. What people want is Rutherford Dust, they want to know what grape you grow best and why it’s profound, and so when we tell people we grow 72 different varieties in Santa Barbara County people go, “Well, that’s not exactly the sexy message. What should I be drinking?” They want one message, they want simplicity. There is no real simplicity of Santa Barbara County, it’s complex by nature. It’s kind of like the anti-Temecula.

Temecula is really growing up right now, they used to grow just Cabernet and Chardonnay and neither belongs, so now they’re getting into some Tempranillo and some different grapes that are actually growing beautifully down there, but they used to be–the problem is they would only grow what sells, Santa Barbara is the opposite, we are so experimental, we are so sort of creative, we are so involved in not allowing ourselves to be defined simply that it may take a little while for us to develop our own cultural identity in Santa Barbara internally and obviously it will take a couple decades to sort of teach the people in California and beyond what Santa Barbara means.

GABE
Now, your foray into winemaking started in what–well, before it was officially Sta. Rita Hills in that region west of the 101 there toward Lompoc and Babcock, Clos Pepe comes online in 2000.

WES
Clos Pepe was planted in 1996 and we had our first harvest in ’98, we made our first estate wine in 2000.

GABE
And certainly Pinto and Chardonnay, I know there is some out there as well, but Pinot and Chardonnay is the dream pairing out there in Sta. Rita Hills. Is there competition with Santa Maria? I feel if Pinot and Chardonnay, Santa Maria also, but they’re obviously very diverse, do you compete though for Mindshare when it comes to Pinot and Chard with Santa Maria?

WES
Well, I think fortunately our productions are so small and the wines are so rare there’s not really a competitive edge. Like, if I meet Jim Clendenen at the market I will give him a quick genuflect and basically go, “Thank God you do what you did 25 years ago so I can stand on your shoulders and be a winemaker.” Santa Maria has taught us on the Central Coast they are our soul. Without Santa Maria we don’t know how to make Pinot Noir, without Santa Maria we don’t have Jim Clendenen and AVC, without Santa Maria we don’t have Ken Brown, those are the kings of the soil of Santa Barbara County Pinot and if you’ve ever met Ken or ever met Jim you know that they are always willing to share.

And obviously you just were talking to the Foxen boys this morning, I put those guys in the same category, making some of the best wines in this county for a long, long time, a lot longer than maybe I’ve been around on this planet, but what I’m saying is those guys are such an awesome resource, I can drink their wines, I can see how they age, and I can talk to them about production. They are our mentors and I would say that there’s less competition with Santa Maria and more respect coming from the winemakers of Sta. Rita Hills back to Santa Barbara and to Santa Maria saying, “Thank you for setting us up so we can have a much easier time in learning how to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County.”

GABE
It’s kind of neat, I think, to have, especially from your perspective, the sort of pioneering personalities still down the road from you and you run into them at the market and you run into them at the vineyard as you’re driving down the road, that’s kind of a unique aspect of Santa Barbara County winemaking it seems to me.

WES
We lack multi-generational winemaking, so within one or two generations, we’ve got Drake Whitcraft now, really sad to see Chris passed on, but we still have his son and all of the knowledge that he’s passing on. Second generation is just so important, so when we get to second generation we’re going to have an advantage over what we have now, but within the first generation we really need to work as a group, we really need to be a team, we need to get to table, we need to drink together, we need to eat together, we need to discuss this stuff together because to me being at a table with interesting minds, and food and wine, that is not only my ability to learn what they have to offer.

To be honest, getting food and wine and friends at table to me is one of the last meaningful rituals left in this country where we get away from screens and phones for a little while and get to what it really means to be a human being, make eye contact, have a drink, have something delicious, and have that sort of authentic experience. And that’s why I’ve been just so happy to have the opportunity to spend time with Ken and Jim and all the Santa Barbara winemakers that have taught me what I know and what I can do today.

GABE
You mentioned the Foxen boys and although Pinot Noir is their tour de force output, they’ve got 28 different bottlings, at Clos Pepe Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

WES
Yeah.

GABE
Is that limiting for you as a winemaker, just having the two varietals to play with?

WES
Well, I do have a second label called Axis Mundi which is our sort of escape valve into the Rhone world, we do a Mourvèdre Rose and we do a combination of Grenache and Syrah. In general Pinot Noir, Chardonnay are my soul viticultural focus and we stick to what we know, we know it, we love it, and we have a very strict varietal focus at Clos Pepe. We can grow some Grenache there, we can grow some Vignette, we can probably grow some Riesling or Gewürztraminer, but we want to stick to what we know are the greatest grapes that are grown in the Sta. Rita Hills which number one I think is Chardonnay and then Pinot Noir is obviously very important as well.

GABE
How many acres at Clos Pepe?

WES
Twenty-nine acres of vines, 25 acres of Pinot, four acres of Chardonnay.

GABE
I stick my hand in the dirt there at Clos Pepe Vineyard and I pull up a nice chunk of dirt, what’s going on in there that makes for such fantastic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?

WES
That is a pregnant question and I’ll give you hopefully a–

GABE
You don’t have nine months to tell me all about it.

WES
To be very simple, you’re looking at a Miocene seabed, very sandy soil with a little bit of loam which is a combination of sand and clay and silt, just enough nutrients to keep the vine from dying, very poor agricultural soil in a sense you couldn’t grow corn or soybeans there. So, everything about the soil concentrates the growth of the vine to a very small vine, small growth, small cluster, small berry, but then within that very poor sandy loam soil structure, we have tons of calcium from old diatomaceous earth deposits, so the diatomaceous Earth puts in an acidic form of calcium called calcium silica, diatomaceous earth in the soil, it further restricts the vigor of the vine, but it gives the vine all this calcium. So even though we have the smallest berry in Pinot Noir on the planet we had the thickest skins of any Pinot Noir on the planet because of that calcium allows the grapevine to form very thick skins.

So, skins are where all the color and flavor come from the Pinot Noir, so when we get that rich, dark, lovely color in our Pinots and the Oregonians come down and hate on us and ask how much Syrah we’re putting in our Pinot I get why they’re jealous, I do, Gabe, but we don’t have to put Syrah in our Pinot because we have the smallest berries and the smallest clusters in the world of Pinot, so we have a built-in muscularity in the wine that can be expressed in a feminine sense like a little 85-pound Russian ballerina that can hold Baryshnikov over her head for a minute, that’s the kind of strength that I like, live sinewy, elegant, classical strength as opposed to some producers in the Sta. Rita Hills which make the big, rich, bold, over 15 percent alcohol wines which are great cocktail wines, great wines to show the muscular aspect, but I prefer a little more elegance and restraint in the way that we represent our soil at Clos Pepe.

GABE
To anybody listening I challenge them to find any other show where you find a reference to Miocene seabed and Baryshnikov within the same answer.

WES
That’s right, that’s the power of a Liberal Arts education.

GABE
Now, you’re a one-man-band at Clos Pepe because you’re looking after the vines, you’re making the wine, you also lead tours there. When people come up and take a tour of the Clos Pepe Vineyard what misconceptions do you find a lot of consumers bringing with them that you enjoy dispelling?

WES
They wear shorts thinking it’s hot, thinking we’re in California, and then they get to the vineyard and they’re like, “Um, can you wait? I have to change, can I use your bathroom? I’ve got to put on some pants and a sweater.” Very commonly we don’t go over 75 degrees in July, so in July and August it’s not an extraordinarily hot place, so I think one thing a lot of people think about Sta. Rita Hills and Clos Pepe, we have a lot of producers and a big rich, ripe style, more masculine style Pinot Noir and a lot of people think all the wines out of the Sta. Rita Hills are big, ripe, and rich not knowing the guys like Joe Davis and Ken Brown and myself are trying to make a more balanced, elegant style of Pinot Noir and show off a little bit more of the acidity and the complexity that emerges in a wine that’s not overwrought.

It’s very easy to think that everyone wants to make big ripe wines to get Robert Parker’s attention and the wine spectators and when you’re tasting wines in context of another 100 wines those big wines are really going to stand out and get those high scores. I think one misconception is we’re all out here trying to make big, rich, ripe wines for high scores and there’s a number of us who are really trying to focus in and try to show the more elegant feminine side of the Sta. Rita Hills. I think that overt ripeness in the fruit is the enemy of great Pinot Noir. I want to taste what’s under the fruit, what’s under the baby fat, what happens when we lose a little of the primary character by aging and watching some of that complexity, that earthiness, the dried flowers, the tar, the violets, the rose petals, the hibiscus tea, a little bit of that sort of candied orange peel character that comes out of the Sta. Rita Hills. When the wines are made sort of in balance and without trying to focus on making them super rich and super ripe.

GABE
Do you care about scores? Do they matter? A small operation like yours I would imagine that that’s something that’s got to be in the back of your mind, no?

WES
Fortunately we’re kind of buffered from relying on scores for the ongoing success of the Clos because I built my customer base customer by customer and they believe in the style of wine that I make, but of course, I mean, you talk to Scorsese and you say, “Does the New York Times review of your movie matter?” Well, of course it matters, it puts asses in the seats. This is the deal, like, I make restrained wines, but about once every five years the vintage, like 2010 or 2013 just makes by virtue, we only can surf the wave given by vintage and when the vintage gives us a big wave of ripeness it influences the style, and even though I prefer the wine to be in an elegant style sometimes I have to respect the vintage and make a big ripe wine. When that happens the big scores happen which brings us customers, but then they have to realize the next year there’s a little step down in intensity.

GABE
Right.

WES
My customers need to be willing to take the ride of vintage with me to say, “Trust me and I will try to show you an elegant and restrained conception of what the vintage gave us from nature.”

GABE
Right.

WES
Of course scores matter and there are certain critics that get it. I think Josh Reynolds and Tanzer, International Wine Celler gets it, Antonio Galloni gets it. Spectator and Parker tend to be ripeness whores and they love big, rich, ripe wines, but that’s really what they love. I don’t blame Robert Parker for over-alcoholized, overwrought wine the same way I don’t blame Disney for retarded Dalmatians. You know, they did a good movie, everyone wanted a Dalmatian, they got overbred. Parker loves a wine, everyone loves that wine, everyone tries to make a clone of that wine. So, it’s my responsibility as a craftsperson to make wines that I’m proud of. If the critics love them that’s a benefit, but I’m not going to focus my entire professional career trying to appeal to two guys.

GABE
Right.

WES
You know, Leoube and Parker, it’s not my thing, so I’m going to follow my heart and follow my own craft perspective trying to make wines of place and not affectation, and if the critics love it that’s great, if they don’t I know my customers will.

GABE
Seems like every vintage is a different chapter in, say, the Clos Pepe story, 2010 you mentioned, certainly one of these very robust, rich, muscular types of vintages different from 2011. You and I are sipping a bit of a 2011 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot right now and we’re at 2014 now, so what has started off as a very warm, dry growing season, concerns about frost. Now we’re seeing veraison happening in some vineyards out there. What does 2014 tell you at this point?

WES
It tells me that we’re dealing with a year that we never dealt with before, earliest bud break, earliest canopy in the vineyard, earliest movement from sort of the vegetative growth cycle to the fruit ripening cycle. We need to be ready to be early, but we also have to realize we may, like in most years, get a nice cooling down period like we’re sort of seeing right now in the middle of June, June bloom, lower temperatures. It’s going to be 72 degrees as a high at Clos Pepe today. So, we’re hoping we see a slowing down of the ripening cycle and we can get enough hang time to make the wine everyone expects which is wines that have enough time on the vine to really develop amazing flavor, complexity, and depth. 2014 is turning out to be the fastest and warmest year we’ve seen thus far, obviously in a drought cycle, very concerned about water, but we had zero frost nights, zero, and normally we’re used to at least a dozen.

GABE
Right.

WES
So, we saved something like seven million gallons of water not having to do frost patrol, we’re going to use less water in the vineyard this year as a whole than any other year because of the lack of having to use water to protect the vines against frost. We’re dealing with a warm temperature, we’re dealing with a faster growth cycle in the vineyard than we’ve seen before, but now we just have to hope that the grapes hang long enough to develop the color and the flavor that people get what they expect out of Clos Pepe and the Sta. Rita Hills which is beautiful, fruity, primary wines in their youth and wines that age gracefully for five to 10 years if you’ve got the patience for it.

GABE
Yeah, a lot of industry folks know Clos Pepe not only as a great site to grow these beautiful grapes, but as a great destination for disc golfing. And you built a disc golf course out there, you’ve got a lot of folks coming out there. Our friend Antonio Gardillo went there thinking he was just going to be tossing the Frisbee around. He said it was a very passionate game that you guys play out there, but this is a way for you to also traverse the vineyard. It gives you a perspective that makes you a better viticulturist, is that right?

WES
That’s the excuse I use, I obviously love to hit a golf ball and I love to throw Frisbees. Frisbee golf is one of my great passions right now and we did design the 18 holes of disc golf at Clos Pepe so that as you play 18 holes you see every single row of the vineyard every single time you play.

GABE
Wow.

WES
So, if I’m play four times a year it does give me the opportunity to do–there’s a great French statement that roughly translated says, “The greatest fertilizer in a vineyard is the footsteps of the viticulturist.” So, it gets me into the vineyard more, not to say that I throw Frisbees into the vineyard, but sometimes they do end up there, so our rule is on the way into the vineyard and on the way out of the vineyard we actually pull some leaves, do some cluster manipulation, so we do a little bit of viticulture while we’re out there, but we generally do it to kind of blow off steam at the end of the day, grab a couple beers, grab a couple friends, throw some Frisbees and go have some fun. It’s part of the culture of Clos Pepe, I don’t want to be a brand, I want to be a culture, and that’s what we’re focusing on.

GABE
And how do you define that culture? What is it you’re ultimately trying to do no matter what curve ball you’re thrown vintage after vintage? At the end of the day what is it you want to be able to, as you put that head on the pillow, be able to say that you accomplished that day?

WES
I want to be sustainable both in an environmental sense the way we treat our vines, the way we manipulate our canopy, the way we try to minimize chemical inputs to try to be sustainable and most of our cultural practices are organic, although I don’t go for certification of organic because I really don’t think that that’s meaningful for the way that I grow grapes right now. I also do a couple of cultural practices that wouldn’t be considered organic but are far more efficient and meaningful to me than the organic equivalent.

GABE
Give me one example.

WES
We use a spray late in the season called Flint and it lasts 21 days and it protects us against mildew and rot and it’s a non-restrictive material, very low impact. After you spray it within 24 hours you can be back in the vineyard touch the vines, it’s perfectly safe and non-toxic in that sense, but it lasts seven times longer than the organic equivalent. So, if I want to be organic instead of using that spray I’m using seven times the diesel fuel, seven times the compaction, seven times the amount of time that my tractor operator is going to be driving the tractor. Driving a tractor is the third most dangerous occupation in the United States behind coal mining and basically fishing crab in Alaska, so I want to protect my guys.

GABE
Yeah, right.

WES
So, part of the culture is inclusiveness meaning part of it is sustainability, part of it is flavor, part of it is education. I want people to come onto the vineyard, learn how we grow grapes, learn my ideas about how to spend time at table drinking wine, eating food, matching food and wine, but then not only are we sustainable in the vineyard, all the guys who work for us full time get medical, dental, and vision for them and their whole families, so we’re giving our field workers benefits and we’re also allowing 30 minutes on the clock every day to farm their own food at the Clos, so we have an employee garden where all of our employees grow all their own food for their families.

We think if they can grow strawberries, and melons, and tomatoes, and peppers for their family that gives them the advantage of knowing how to coax flavor out of our soil, so they feel connected and they feel just because they’re not in a cubicle pushing paper they’re still being treated like college graduate professionals because we have some of the best vineyard guys in the business and we want to keep them. So, instead of changing our crew or bringing in an itinerary crew from Mexico that disappears after the year we have the same guys working for us. The last change of our crew is almost 10 years ago.

GABE
Wow.

WES
So, the same guys are doing all the same cultural practices to fine tune what we do at Clos Pepe instead of having to reinvent and retrain.

GABE
And I know people who would jump through a lot of hoops to get that rubber stamp that says organic certified of even biodynamic is whole other series of hoops. You care less about an actual rubber stamp and more about practices that allow you to feel good about what you’re doing out in the vineyard.

WES
I want a descriptive system of viticulture not even prescriptive system. Now, if there’s a group of people that tell me what I can and can’t do in my own vineyard, just like I have to put a stamp on my label to prove to the world that I’m not trying to poison them, that’s disingenuous and that’s a little bit offensive actually. I live within 200 feet of where my tractor sprays with the window open and I know that I will never have a health problem due to what we apply to our vineyard. I drink more of my own wine than just about anyone I know. I want the wine to be wholesome, I want it to be delicious, and I want it to represent a craft perspective of someone who knows that great wine is made, by the way, we grow it.

GABE
I know the Clos Pepe operation is a very family driven type of endeavor. I know you’ve got vineyard dogs, but tell me a little bit about your dogs because dogs aren’t just sort of roaming with you in the vineyard in the early morning hours or late evening hours, they bring something special to the table for you and the one you love as well, no?

WES
All of our dogs work and we think that the happiest dogs work. We have a sheep dog that protects our sheep named Gaius, he’s a big 145-pound Spanish Ranch Mastiff. I don’t recommend dropping yourself off at Clos Pepe and taking a walk by yourself without being introduced to Gaius. Between Gaius and everything else he’s sort of our early warning system, he keeps the coyotes and once in a while a mountain lion away from our sheep.

We’ve got 27 old English Babydoll sheep that roam the vineyard during dormancy eating weeds, converting it to fertilizer. We have Max who moves the sheep, he’s an Australian Kelpie, he’s a great working dog that can work 300 head cattle at a time. He gets kind of bored with our 27 sheep, but he continues to work for us and my wife has a service dog named Oliver who actually can smell seizures. My wife has a few medical conditions and her service dog Oliver takes care of her and makes sure she is safe. Chanda, my wife, is a very important part of our winery team.

GABE
Sure. Digging into the Dirt Don’t Lie grab-bag, and I’m going to pick a couple of questions here to throw your way, see how you would get your mind working, sort of dive a little beneath the surface here. You’ve done your last harvest and you’re knocking on the pearly gates and Saint Peter welcomes you, but before you enter he says you can have any wine that you want and you can share it with anybody living or dead. What wine would you pick and who would you be sipping that wine with?

WES
I’d have to think about Socrates and Plato, Socrates probably because Socrates didn’t write anything. Plato wrote everything, Socrates left nothing and no one really knows who Socrates was. So, I’m going to go, it’s going to be Socrates and it’s going to be a bottle of Falernian white wine from the Roman Empire which was the greatest wine produced in the Roman Empire and there is no example of it left in the world. I think Falernian would be a good way to go and having a sip with Socrates and sort of discussing the Socratic Method and his ideas about the universe would be pretty spectacular.

If I could bring in Lawrence Durrell or maybe Bertrand Russel or Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde was known to be–he would sit there and listen to the whole conversation and at the very end he would say something and all the other modernists in the London salon would all pick up their papers and write every word that he said because he was very, unlike me, very sparse with his words, but every sentence he made was perfect and profound and I’d like to learn that kind of terseness and learn from Oscar Wilde who’s one of my favorite writers in the world. So, it probably would be Burguny or Falernian and it probably would be with a philosopher or sort of great mind like Socrates.

GABE
Falernian and Socrates, you reach way back, man, you reach deep.

WES
I’m a bit of wine historian, fascinated by just how far back the story of wine goes and defines who we are as humanists. If you’re a humanist you should know where wine came from and if you’re not a humanist you’re just a waste of breath on this planet, you should become a humanist because it’s amazing what humans can do when they put their minds to it.

GABE
Listen, Dirt Don’t Lie and clearly neither does Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyard and Winery. Hey, we’ll finish off a little 2011 Clos Pepe Pinot as we say thanks for stopping by and hanging out.

WES
Indeed.

GABE
This has been the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast where we like to keep conversations with Santa Barbara wine farmers totally unfiltered. I’m Gabe Saglie, your host, Senior Editor for TravelZoo.com and wine columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. This podcast was recorded live at Erickson Sound Labs in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. Our executive producer is Wil Fernandez, and our original music is by Jacob Edward Cole. Want more? Check out DirtDontLie.com. Cheers.