Palmina Winery, Santa Barbara County: Current Releases

You know how some entrepreneurs seem to start businesses in their sleep? They create a company, make it profitable or sell it to someone, and then it seems like a week into their “vacation” they’re starting another one, and another. The most successful of these seem to have the Midas touch, with each business more successful than the last, as if they can’t help but make tons of money.

There’s an analogue to this type of personality in the wine world, and it is readily demonstrated by one Steve Clifton. Clifton is best known for his partnership in Brewer-Clifton wines with friend Greg Brewer, but in the last ten years he has started no less than three different successful wine labels, as if he just wanders around and they seemingly fall out of his pockets.

It would seem like incredible luck if Steve Clifton wasn’t so clearly a guy who knows what he’s doing.

After falling in love with wine in college as a waiter in Italian restaurants, his love continued to grow through the 1980’s as a young musician and aspiring nightclub owner. In the early 1990’s Clifton started making wine in his basement and took a series of jobs in wine sales and marketing where he met Greg Brewer, who was following much the same path. Together they decided to start a winery focused exclusively on combining their love of Burgundian varietals and the appellation in their back yards: the Santa Rita Hills.

Getting fruit from what they called “extreme vineyards” in the appellation, Brewer-Clifton rapidly shot to recognition as on of the best producers of small-lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the region.

You would think that Clifton would have his hands full managing one of the hottest new labels in Santa Barbara County, but a few years later he started playing with Rhone varietals, and then suddenly the world was chasing after another new label: Alder Wines (no, they did not ask me before they started it).

Sandwiched in between these two projects, Clifton apparently couldn’t restrain his affections for Italian wines or for an Italian educated woman named Chrystal, so he married her and started Palmina Wines, though not necessarily in that order.

Palmina is a small family run operation — Steve makes the wine and Chrystal manages the books — focused exclusively on Italian varietals grown in Santa Barbara County. Chrystal’s fluent Italian has helped the couple build relationships with a number of Italian producers who have helped the couple keep their wines true to the old world styles and techniques appropriate for each varietal, whether that be fermentation in steel or old oak vats, avoiding malolactic fermentation for whites, and aging (often) with a minimum or complete lack of new French oak. This is important, because Palmina is both literally and figuratively breaking new ground in California in its attempts to grow some lesser known Italian varietals.

The winery produces Malvasia Bianca, Traminer, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Arneis, along with several Nebbiolo-based and Barbera-based wines; a Sangiovese and Merlot blend that utilizes the passito method of drying grapes before pressing; a couple of Dolcettos, and a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Refosco among others.

In addition to being quite delicious and true to the characters of their grape varieties (something which I find lacking in many California renditions of traditional Italian grapes), Palmina wines are especially noteworthy for what I consider quite fair, even value-based, pricing. While they are not made in huge quantities, they deliver quite a bit of pleasure for their price tags.

I had the chance recently to taste four of the newest releases from the winery, and though they don’t represent even 30% of the portfolio, I liked them well enough to justify this writeup.


2009 Palmina Wines “Honea Vineyard” Tocai Friulano, Santa Ynez Valley
Pale green-gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples and wet stones. In the mouth it is crisp and bright and stony with unripe pear, lemon juice, and nice rainwater notes on the finish. Bright and true to the character of the grape variety. Would be difficult to peg as a California wine if tasted blind. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.

2007 Palmina Wines “Alisos” Sangiovese, Santa Barbara County
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of sweet cherry and red licorice aromas. In the mouth it is soft and velvety with the tart sour cherry and sandalwood of the Sangiovese and a distinct rich cherry and plummy note of Merlot (of which there is a bit blended in). The sour cherry lingers in the finish with nice acidity puckering the mouth and the lightly grippy tannins lingering in the corners. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $28. Click to buy.

2005 Palmina Wines “Mattia” Red Blend, Santa Barbara County
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of very pretty cassis and blueberry aromas. In the mouth it offers blueberry and cassis flavors with a nice leathery undertone and a woody note that lingers in the finish. Light tannins. 55% Refosco, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Merlot. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. Click to buy.

2005 Palmina Wines “Stolpman Vineyard” Nebbiolo, Santa Barbara County
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a gorgeously perfumed nose of violets and sour cherry aromas touched with a beautiful sweetness. In the mouth the wine has a beautiful lightness on the palate and incredible… drinkability. Nice acidity, beautiful, restrained raspberry and cherry flavors with cedar and violet notes linger on an airy finish. Fermented and aged primarily in big old oak barrels. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.