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Halcyon Days: A Chat with Tyler Elwell

“She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes to calm me down.”

From Dissolve Me by Alt-J

 

I’m trying to find the Elwell family home while navigating my way through a torrential storm that’s thrashing California’s North Bay with nearly horizontal sheets of unrelenting rain. When I eventually do find it, it looks similar to all the other older houses on this Vallejo street, save for a huge pile of mulch in the front yard. “I’m really into permaculture,” Elwell tells me, as I come in from the rain. “I want to raise little forests of food.” The mulch will be for “organic weed suppression,” he tells me later.

After I remove my wet coat, Elwell offers to show me around the house he shares with his wife, Kim, and their soon-to-be-born son, Rome. [By the time this article is published, Rome will have arrived – ten fingers, ten toes]. I’ve come to taste the Cabernet Franc he and his wife make under their Halcyon wine label. I’m a bit late getting to the Cabernet Franc game. While I’ve had it in blends for decades, it’s only been in the last five years or so that I’ve begun to study the variety on its own. Come to find out, I love it! So when someone recommends a good Cabernet Franc, I’m diligent about chasing it down, and the Halcyon Cabernet Franc has been highly recommended numerous times.

Elwell suggests we start our visit with a tour of his home, so I follow him down a narrow staircase leading to the basement. We emerge in a small room where there are flats of seedlings laid out upon a work bench, reaching for any light they can get coming through a small window nearby: French green beans, radishes, artichokes, onions, shallots, carrots and Tuscan kale. As soon as these are ready to be planted, they’ll join the fruit trees the Elwell’s have already planted out back: Lapins cherries, Pink Lady® apples, dwarf mandarins, dwarf Mexican limes, and Lamb Haas Avocados. Elwell is nothing if not resourceful, and he is serious when he tells me that he and Kim intend to grow much of the food they’ll be feeding son Rome.

Back upstairs, the tour of their warm and hospitable home continues. There are bouquets of freshly cut flowers in nearly every room. Artfully framed concert posters – mostly of historic Grateful Dead shows – hang throughout the house, gifts from Elwell’s father who’s a die-hard Grateful Dead fan. A large, neon heart, with the words “Tyler + Kim” in the middle, casts a warm glow in their dining room. It’s a remnant from their wedding day.

Rome’s room is nearly prepared for his arrival. A large map of the city of Rome (his namesake) that the young couple bought on their honeymoon in Italy awaits his arrival. Suffused with soft light, the small white room has been decorated with tenderness, and there’s a palpable excitement in Elwell’s voice as he shows me around his son’s room. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this all my life; not explicitly, but by just trying to be a man. I think that’s prepared me for fatherhood. I’ve had so many years of just caring about myself. And I think Kim feels the same way. It will be nice to care for someone else. I did have a dog for about six years. It was really tough when he passed away. I’d never had a pet before so had never experienced that kind of unconditional love. Knowing how I felt about my dog, Kim says, ‘I can’t wait to see how you are with our son!’”

We end up in the kitchen where Elwell sets about preparing a light lunch of lox and bagels for us. As he prepares his wines for our tasting, I ask him why he started a wine label in the first place. “To be creative,” he responds, without missing a beat. “Channel what inspires me into a bottle. That’s the main reason I started Halcyon. The second reason maybe comes from a darker place. Not only did I want to prove to myself that I could do it, but I wanted to prove to everyone who has ever doubted me that I could do this.” 

While driving along California’s iconic Highway 101 one day, the Elwell’s took the exit into the small town of Halcyon, where they’d be dining that evening. “Kim said to me, ‘How about if you name it Halcyon?’ I kept thinking about that name all through dinner that night. I couldn’t let it go.” Then two seemingly fated occurrences unfolded. Miraculously, the name Halcyon had not yet been taken, so Elwell immediately copyrighted it in California. Secondly, research showed Elwell that the Greek myth of Halcyon is essentially about romantic love and loyalty – two virtues he greatly cottons to in his life.

Halcyon (Alcyone in Greek) was a goddess married to a mortal named Ceyx. Once, during a trip to consult with the oracle at Apollo, Ceyx was caught up in an awful storm at sea and drowned. Despondent after finding his body on the shore, Alcyone carried Ceyx into the sea and died holding him in her arms. The gods, moved by their love for one another and by her grief, transformed the lovers into kingfisher birds. After some difficulty raising hatchlings near the sea successfully, Alcyone asked that the gods bless her and Ceyx with pleasant weather for the seven days leading up to and immediately after, the winter solstice. These 14 days became known as the Halcyon days.

Also somewhat miraculously, it just so happens that Elwell’s birthday occurs just before the winter solstice, and his wife’s immediately after it. Elwell and Kim also met at a pub in Oakland called “The Kingfish“. “As soon as I read that I knew,” he tells me, “I knew that Halcyon had to be the name.” Three vintages later, the young couple are devoting themselves to expressing their preferred variety, Cabernet Franc, in three ways: as a sparkling wine a rose and a still red wine.

Did he ever doubt that starting Halcyon was the right thing to do? “I still do,” he says. His life, he tells me, has “become consumed with wine since starting Halcyon, almost too much so.” Of late, he’s been feeling like one of his heroes, Bob Dylan, must have felt after his infamous motorcycle accident in 1966.

“Not that I’m comparing myself to Dylan, but it’s just that I’ve kind of been feeling like he must have felt when he hid himself away in Woodstock.” Elwell is referencing the nearly mythic 1966 accident that caused Dylan to lay low and take stock of his then meteoric rise. Similarly, Elwell has been taking stock of his life of late, especially with a son on the way. “I’ve been gardening a lot more. Spending time with friends. Doing different things. Trying to find some balance in my life.” As he lines up the wine we’ll be tasting this morning, he elaborates, suddenly quiet…thoughtful. “But when I was getting these samples ready for us this morning – just tasting these wines – I was reminded, ‘This is why I do this.’ I think sometimes I just get burned out. It was nice to recognize that I’m still amped on this. Still so stoked.”

And stoked he should be. Considering that he started this brand with a meager 5,000-dollar loan, it’s impressive how quickly Halcyon has taken off, particularly among restaurant buyers, who seem to favor Elwell’s winemaking style; he prefers to make higher acid wines aged in more neutral vessels so as to highlight a variety’s vibrancy and true character.

Somewhat rebelliously, Elwell has not submitted his wines for formal reviews or scores. When I ask why, his roundabout explanation makes sense. “In 2013, my wife and I saw Alt-J at Coachella. We’d never heard of them before and I just loved them. When I got home, I Spotify-ed their complete album and it was super cool. You know how sometimes you buy an album, and only one or two songs are good? Well, it was ALL good.” Elwell thought he’d check out what one of his favorite music websites, Pitchfork, had to say about Alt-J’s album. “They just destroyed the album. They gave it a 4.7 out of a possible 10, and I mean they just bludgeoned it.” That made Elwell reconsider sending his own wines out for review, “If I had read that Pitchfork review before listening to that album I may have never listened to it, and it wouldn’t have impacted my life the way it did. It may have never inspired me the way that it did. So I thought to myself, how can I put my wine at risk that way? How can I submit it to someone who has that much influence and power over others? I respect people who review wine, but ultimately it’s just one person’s opinion.”

Elwell is confident as he pours me his lineup of wines. He is proud of them, as well he should be, but his pride is quiet and measured. He never falls into bravado. I ask him if he’s always wanted to make wine. “I went to San Francisco State, where I studied History. After that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t want to get back into school right away. I was 22 years old at the time.” Instead, Elwell headed off to South Korea, where he taught English for one year. By the time he was 23 years old, he was winding his way into China, where he spent six weeks exploring that culture before hopping on the Trans-Siberian railway. He ended up in Moscow. From there he traveled through Turkey, Portugal, Spain and France. When he got to France, he attended his first wine exposition and tasted his way through Paris and Provence.

By the time he returned to the states, he was nearly 25 years old and ready to establish a career path, so he moved to Paso Robles and entered the world of winegrowing and winemaking. He credits Neil Collins, of Paso’s Lone Madrone Winery, with being his mentor in wine. “I loved learning from Neil. He was very confident in what he knew, but didn’t impose his views on anyone. He was a great teacher because he taught by example, and through his actions. He is very old-school, fair and good at professional relationships.” From there, Elwell transitioned to Tablas Creek, where he was Assistant Winemaker for four years.

Today, at 35 years of age, Elwell carries himself with a level of certainty that comes from discovering what one wants to do with one’s life creatively; for Elwell, that’s interpreting Cabernet Franc as best he can. “Cabernet Franc is delicate and sensitive, but it’s not a pushover. It’s a very solid grape. I had never worked with Cabernet Franc before. I started working with it because when I really had very little money, all that I was drinking was the wines of Saumur-Champigny – great red wines for about 10 bucks a bottle. When I tasted those I thought, ‘This is the kind of wine I want to make some day.’ I also knew I wouldn’t have a lot of competition if I made Cabernet Franc, especially in the style of Saumur- Champigny, a style I aspire to. They have a more approachable texture.”

Elwell excuses himself momentarily to put on another album. While we’ve been tasting and eating, he has occasionally gone into the other room to keep the music going. He has an impressive, albeit small, collection of vinyl. Music is a big part of Elwell’s life. He and Kim gave their son the middle name Iver, after the musician Bon Iver. And the main Halcyon label was inspired by the French electronic band M83. “I was listening to their music one day, and I had this strong feeling that the inspiration for the label art would come from their music.” So Elwell continued to listen to M83 while also researching the band’s name. He learned the band took its name from the galaxy Messier 83, or M83, a barred spiral galaxy in the constellation of Hydra. “It’s a beautiful galaxy”, Elwell adds. Soon after, he commissioned Santa Barbara-based artist Svante Nilson, whom he’d known since childhood, to design his astronomically themed label.

There’s nothing ponderous or overdone about any of Elwell’s wines. There’s no grass growing under his feet, and his wines are equally energetic, focused and charming. As we wrap up our tasting, I ask him if he and Kim have plans to grow Halcyon, now that their family is growing. “In order for this to be able to sustain our family, I’m going to have to ramp up production. I’ll either have to take out a loan or bring on a partner if I want to get that growth in a shorter amount of time. I’m not really into taking on debt. That’s when things become stressful. If I let things get too stressful, I have a very hard time feeling creative or passionate. Maybe that’s somewhat of a cowardly approach, but I just don’t want to be bogged down by debt.” He adds that Halcyon is “currently sustaining itself. Any money we make goes right back into the business to pay for fruit, bottling, labeling and the works.”

When we’ve completed our tasting, and just as I’m about to leave, Elwell walks me to the front door. He sends me home with what’s left of the Cabernet Franc from our tasting. I’m eager to pour this simple (in the best way), unadulterated expression of Cabernet Franc for my wife – a complex wine that in its purity of expression actually un-complicates life.



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