Santa Barbara's Native Son:  Justin Willett

“I'll never forget my first trip coming to New York City to sell my Tyler wines, and the account would be like, ‘Wow, these would be really great for Santa Barbara!’ And I was like, 'Oh man! That's brutal!' What he meant was that back in that day, the wines from here that were really getting attention were these bombastic, high octane, high everything style of winemaking, and it is so counter to what I am interested in, in any of the wines that I'm making.” -Justin Willett

Santa Barbara has been the contemporary face of “cool” in California viticulture. More than a decade after the film Sideways introduced the region’s thriving wine scene to the greater American public, the state of winemaking in Santa Barbara has only grown more vibrant. The unique geography and aspect of this Southern California region provide compelling opportunities for winemakers looking to experiment with fresher styles and a different set of varietals than many of their northern counterparts. 

The region has long been home to some of Califorrnia’s most elegant expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Stalwarts like the late Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat helped put Santa Barbara and California’s Central Coast on the map, in that respect. In more recent years, however, young winemakers have started to capture Santa Barbara’s potential through a wider range of grapes.

Few people better exemplify what Santa Barbara has always been about as well as the new and exciting places it is going than winemaker Justin Willett. Willett, a native of the region, has established himself as one of the area’s most influential and prolific voices. In addition to his acclaimed Tyler Winery, Willett has a project with Rodolph Peters (of Pierre Peters in Champagne) and Etienne de Montille (of Burgundy’s historic Domaine de Montille) called Racines. Both projects focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to great success - elegant expressions that may have at first bewildered, but soon after captivated, the market. He is also the resident winemaker at Wenzlau Vineyards, there too producing Burgundian varietals as well as a highly acclaimed Blanc de blanc sparkler. His smaller and perhaps slightly more personal project, Lieu Dit, is a departure from the tried and true Pinot Noir and Chardonnay route. Lieu Dit focuses almost exclusively on grapes of the Loire. Grape Collective sat down with Justin to discuss Lieu Dit, which he began in 2011 with Eric Railsback. 


Stefanie Harris: As a winemaker juggling multiple estates, is there something specific that you are trying to accomplish with Lieu Dit that you don't have access to in other projects?

Justin Willett: I think what's been really unique about having Lieu Dit as a project within maybe the larger scope of what I do is that there's an opportunity to really be creative in a different way. I get to work with a completely different district's worth of grapes, from a whole different region. And in doing that, with going so deep with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with Racines, which is the joint venture I do with Etienne and Rodolphe, and certainly Tyler. We're so fixated on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and almost exclusively in the Santa Rita Hills. I then get to go really broad with Lieu Dit which is really quite interesting. It's a totally different flavor profile, growing conditions, and vastly different techniques of how we go about making the wines. So, it's cool getting to wear a bunch of different hats, more than anything. 

Do you mind speaking a little bit to your overall winemaking philosophy? Does your approach differ project to project?

Generally speaking, my perspective is less is more. I feel like if we can bring really high quality fruit into the cellar, the heavy lifting is really kind of done. That's just the start of the process. 

I truly believe in natural, native fermentation. Generally very low sulfur use throughout fermentation and relatively low sulfur use at bottling. Very light touch more than anything. I want the wines, whether it's Lieu Dit or Tyler or Racines or whatever to really be true to their region. I want them to be varietally correct. I want them to express the growing conditions of that season, and certainly the place that they are coming from. 

How did Lieu Dit come about and how does that philosophy translate to this project?

We wanted to start Lieu Dit because we both, Eric and I, really both loved the Loire Valley. It was this set of wines or a region that you could actually buy back when, you know, we were broke kids just getting into the wine business, and you could go buy the iconic wines of the Loire Valley for a fraction of what you could pay for a bottle of Burgundy or something. And we just looked at, wow... There exists this set of growing conditions and soils that really are conditioned to make the style of wines we want to make. And that really worked well with the set of varieties. Tasting a few of the others, like Sauvignon Blancs or whatever, from a few other producers, maybe some of the stylistic decisions were a bit different than what we had preferred to kind of go with. We knew that we had the inherent raw material to make the style of wine that we wanted to make, which is fresh, crunchy, classical styled wines. I think so much time gets spent on technique and all this technical ballad... Why don't we just farm well? 

We don't use any new wood in Lieu Dit. It's a lot of tank. We just try to do it as authentically and honestly as we can, and I think that's our best opportunity to make wines that are compelling. And, one of the things that I like with Lieu Dit is that we are able to work with a series of varieties that, similar to the pricing of those Loire wines 15 years ago, or 10 years ago, we can offer a series of wines at prices that most people can afford to get into, and try these wines. Whereas, obviously, the Pinot and Chardonnay, Cabernet, whatever, get a lot more expensive to produce, so by default they're more expensive to purchase. But, this is a unique opportunity to be able to get wine out to more people, which is important to me, as well.

You mention that the natural growing conditions where you’re at are conducive to making that style that you're after. I wonder if you can share some details about what those growing conditions are, and why these particular varietals seem to thrive there.

The Santa Barbara coastline is south-facing, which creates these transverse mountain ranges. If you're in Santa Barbara proper, and you're working up the coast, you are moving what feels like "up" to wine country, you are actually headed west. And that ocean that's on your left, where you think would be west, is actually due south. This is all due to a big hunk of Baja, California, basically breaking off, rotating up, and crashing into the Santa Barbara coastline. And that's what's created this set of folded valleys that are transverse. 

Typically, a valley runs north-south. But these valleys are running east-west. And because we have, in Santa Barbara, that south coastline that then, almost as you get to wine country near Gaviota, that coastline corrects and turns back to a west-facing orientation. It's this big point, you've got these valleys running east-west. So, you've basically got the ocean on two sides of you. You've got wind working straight in off the Pacific, because we have this open mouth to the Pacific ocean. Also, this is the point where the cold coming down from Alaska is going to collide with the warmth coming up from Mexico. So, these create pretty severe weather patterns. A lot of wind. The seas can be quite rough. And you get all of this fog, all this marine influence, pushing off the Pacific down that mouth of the Santa Ynez Valley working inland. 

Given that you are further south in California, can you tell us a little about how you deal with the temperature? 

The general rule of thumb in this 25-30 mile valley, is that for every mile you work inland from that western coastline, you are going to pick up a degree of temperature, per day, during the growing season. To the western edge, it could be 75 degrees on a nice summer day where you've got the fog in the morning, warms up, and then by about lunchtime, wind kicks up, breeze comes in and starts really regulating the temperature. Twenty miles to the east, out in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon, it could be 25 degrees warmer out there.

So, basically, that eastern end of the valley where the Santa Rita Hills is the extreme western end. The eastern end is where we're growing a lot of these Loire varieties. What you find there is this huge mixing bowl of soil composition. You have a lot of those marine sediments from the Miocene, as well as a lot of river wash and cobble that has come down from the Santa Ynez River, as well as this volcanic material coming off of the hills just behind the mountains.

This combination of cooling influence off the Pacific, marine soils, and also these varying levels of gravel and chop in the subsoil are really conducive, I think, to growing these varieties. And I think it's really important to note that what's really unique about the eastern end of the valley is that, yes, it's going to get quite warm, and these varieties need that heat to properly ripen to where they can express themselves without this inherent, herbal character.

Though it is going to get quite warm, it's also going to get quite cool at night. That's unique, because most of the places that are going to get warm during the day are also going to stay pretty warm at night. You've got this more severe pattern, where you might be in the 50s at night, say in the summertime, and then it might crank up all the way to the 90s. So, what happens is that coming out of those lows, though it's going to get warm, it's going to take longer into the morning for that vine to really turn on, because it's coming out of that cold. And then it's going to hit that peak temperature, but as it hits that peak temperature, it's already starting to cool back off. What that's going to allow for is this acidic retention in the fruit. If it stays warm, that vine is going to essentially metabolize or respirate its acid profile as a function of cooling. Like sweating when you go for a run, or something.

But, if it's going to be cooler, then that vine can retain that acid a bit more efficiently. At the levels of ripeness that I'm looking for, our potential alcohols that I'm looking for to make the textural or stylistic wines that I want. You can have it all. You can make wines that are texturally complete, expressive of California sunshine and fruit and all these things, but still have freshness because it never got so ripping hot. I think that's what's really unique to the how and why things work here.

You’re working exclusively with Loire varietals at Lieu Dit and I was hoping you could share some of your thoughts on vinifying these grapes. In particular, can you talk about your experience with the wines of Muscadet and how you make your Melon?

I've just always loved that style of wine. Great value, one. That chalky, fresh, energetic, Muscadet. It's just a style of wine I've always really loved, more than anything. 

So, I discovered up in Santa Maria Valley, this old vine planting of Melon back in 2013, and tried to kind of keep it in line with what I understood to be how it was made [in Loire]. Yeah, it's just a fun, crushable wine. It's full cluster pressed, tank fermented, and then at the end of the fermentation, we literally topped the tank. Leave it on the lees to age. And then, usually, it's bottled quite soon. I'm bottling the 2020 version, here, on Monday. It's pretty simple wine making. Natural fermentation. Tank aged. On the lees. Bottled up. 

What's your timeline for lees aging? Is it similar to the wines of Muscadet? 

Yeah, I think fruit profiles are just different. One of the things with Melon is that it can be a pretty neutral variety. I think in France, the extended time on the lees allows for a little more textural complexity. Whereas here, I feel like getting it into a low-oxygen environment, meaning into a bottle, a little sooner, helps retain the stylistic integrity that I'm looking for in the wine. I think if I was to also age it in oak, even if its old barrels, it gets a little too creamy here for my taste. I want it to sit a little more upright. Be a little bit more about its freshness and its energy. 

I also wanted to talk about Chenin Blanc. In your experience, prior to making Chenin, was there a benchmark for you, or a specific style of Chenin that you always were after?

I like Chenin that's a little bit more focused and clean. Less oxidative. I really like Arnaud Lambert's wines. The Château de Brézé Wines. Back when I was first coming up, if you were talking about Chenin, you were talking really about these richer, more honeyed, round, full of sugar, full of botrytis style of Chenin, and that really wasn't my interest. So, Chenin, back then, I didn't gravitate towards it. So, Chenin was this thing that was kind of like, "Yeah, we should experiment with it." But when I started, I just couldn't let things hang on the vine and get super botrytized, or produce these wines that were going to be wildly off dry. It just was not interesting to me.

Your partner at Lieu Dit, Eric Railsback, has a background in hospitality. How does that influence your working relationship, and what does that bring to the overall ethos of the winery?

When I was first starting to make wine [in 2005], I kept hearing about this kid who was at a small college in the area, who just was always talking about Raveneau and Rumier and all this stuff and he was, like, 18. So, I met him at a mutual friend's house, Ted Vance, who has an import company called The Source. He and I were living together. Railsback comes by, and there's this funny kid who's waiting tables at a restaurant here in Santa Barbara, who was just a lot of fun and knew a lot about wine. First, we were just drinking buddies, and just pulling corks and trying to learn. 

He opened a local, cool restaurant called The Hungry Cat. There was one in LA. He then went to go work over at Dujac in I think ‘07. While he was at Dujac, he'd met Raj Parr, who recruited him to go be on the opening team up at RN74 in San Francisco. He was, from a very young age just out of college those first few years, he was thrust into these pretty important roles in Southern California. Then going to work for Raj, where I think he had the opportunity to get exposed to a lot of stuff. 

Because of his access and exposure to all these things, I got to fast-track my knowledge base and my exposure to a lot of these wines. I think that was probably the most influential of what our relationship was. The division of labor within the projects at the very beginning was, "I'm going to make it; you go sell it." So, while Eric's hardly ever in the winery, it's always been more of, especially early on, a chat about how we best achieve these stylistic directions that we want to have as part of this Lieu Dit range. I'd say the biggest thing has been his real desire for a lot of whole cluster in the Cab Franc. And insistence on making sure we're not using wood in a way that's going to, at all, mark the wines. We both agree on that, but it's always been a real point of fixation for him. So, I'd say that's really the impact that he's had on the winemaking.

When talking about your overall philosophy, you described a pretty low interventionist approach. I wonder if you could speak to the origin of that approach for you and why being a good farmer is integral to being a good winemaker.

You can't make good wine without good grapes. That's a two-part question, right? First, it's how do you identify the right parcels. And then also help direct farming in a way that's going to yield you fruit that helps you accomplish what you're after. As far as the farming side goes,... I'm from Santa Barbara. This is home. I want to tread lightly, generally in life. It's also looking at things with, not just what box could we tick as far as, are you biodynamic, organic, sustainable, whatever? What's the global footprint of how you're farming? What does that look like? How can we work as well as possible, as elegantly as possible, with the lowest net impact? I think that's a larger question than just, "Oh, you're sustainable? Or are you organic?" Or, "Oh, you're organic but you're not certified?" 

We need to be objective. Sometimes you look at treatments or people who want to plow their vineyards a whole lot because they're organic. That's great, but because you want a certain aesthetic look in your vineyards now you're compacting soils, so you're burning more fossil fuel to plow. It's goofy. We need to look at the big picture, and that's what I'm really trying to do. How do we tread lightly?