Jason Drew is talking to me about ripeness. “It’s not easy to answer the question of what ripe tastes like,” he says. “If the flavors are at their most optimum on the vine, then it’s too late. There is that perfect moment of ripeness that occurs, but the challenging part is figuring out when to strike to get it. The perfect point isn’t clear to the observer at the time, though. You have to have some kind of instinct or intuition, and to pick the grape before it crosses that line.”
As I’m listening to him, I get the impression that I’ve done the equivalent of asking a pro baseball player when is the right moment to swing at a pitch, and not been satisfied with the answer, “whenever you need to in order to hit the ball.” Drew has been humoring my insistent questions with the patience of someone who knows that you can’t quite explain how you do something that doesn’t exist entirely in the forefront of consciousness.
Drew seems to have an uncanny knack for tracing trajectories, whether it be the ripeness curve of a grape, or the arc of real estate prices in Santa Barbara County. The vineyards he now farms, a stone’s throw from the Mendocino coast, literally bear the fruits of this intuition.
“How did we manage to buy this farm? Basically we hit the lottery,” he says. “We moved to Santa Ynez in 1999, when the area wasn’t so well known, and no one thought of it as the cream of the crop. But then there was Sideways and things just went crazy.”
When they decided to sell their significantly appreciated home in 2004, no one could believe they were moving north. “People said to us ‘this place is on fire, you’re nuts to be leaving now,’ but we didn’t feel like we needed to ride on anyone’s coat tails and wanted to explore, to have a journey and find someplace where we would best fit and belong, from a winemaking perspective.”
Every vineyard owner knows the truth of the expression ‘plowing money into the ground.’ Drew and his wife Molly took the proceeds from their home and went shopping for land. The first place they looked at on the coast of Mendocino gave Molly a deep and lasting sense of deja vu. And it was perfect: twenty-six acres of orchards and open land on a ridge-top 3.3 miles and 1250 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Other properties were considered, but ultimately they decided to live among the scraggly unpruned trees and folded hillsides of Field Station Ranch.
Drew traces his interest in wine back to his uncle Jerry, who planted a vineyard on his parents’ land in Napa in the 80s. “I was very close to my aunt,” recalls Drew, “and when I was going to school in Los Altos, I would go up during the summers and help out. I developed a bond with Jerry, too, working on their six acres of vineyard off of the Silverado trail.”
After spending his early years growing up on the East Coast, those summers spent with dirt under his fingernails led to a dog-eared copy of some Edward Abbey book in his back pocket, and eventually to a degree in Agro-ecology at UC Santa Cruz, where Drew (and Edward Abbey) fit right in.
After college, Drew went to work for Carmenet vineyards in Sonoma, and then for a time at Navarro Vineyards, where he had two very formative experiences. The first was living and farming in the somewhat secluded beauty of Mendocino County. The second was getting some more visibility into the winemaking process. After a year, Drew decided he wanted to go back to school to learn winemaking.
His wife Molly was game for an adventure, and so the relatively new couple departed for Adelaide, Australia, where she did social work while Drew immersed himself in his studies.
“It was a great program,” says Drew, “students begin making wine immediately from the beginning.”
Two years later, Drew had a winemaking degree and a new son. After a few internships, Drew landed an assistant winemaking position at Corison Winery in Napa, and after a stint making Napa cabs, landed at Babcock Winery in Santa Barbara in 1999 where he would stay for the next four years.
“When I interviewed, I let Bryan [Babcock] know that if I was going to take on the job, I wanted to make my own label eventually. I didn’t want that to be a surprise,” says Drew. “And he was more than OK with that. He let me use his equipment and helped me with my first vintage. That wasn’t in our agreement, but he was incredibly, even unconditionally supportive. There aren’t many people out there like that.”
The first bottles bearing the Drew name were filled in 2000, and by the time harvest rolled around in 2003, Drew was ready to strike out on his own, having spent four years making Pinot Noir and Rhone variety wines. For the next year, Drew mixed vineyard consulting with real estate scouting until that fateful visit to Field Station Ranch gave them a place to put down roots in Mendocino.
Since then, Drew has been consulting for vineyards throughout Anderson Valley, and from some of those, buying fruit to make a small portfolio of Pinot Noir and Syrah for his label. All the while, studying and preparing his own land for grapes.
“We planted 7 acres in 2011 with a variety of clones of Pinot Noir. We’ve got a ton of diversity in our 26 acres, not only the soils, which range from shale, to sandy, to iron-rich, to some more clay, but also the slopes, some of which are exposed, others sheltered, and some very steep, but all with great drainage.”
Drew also “scraped together some Chardonnay” to see how it would fare. “We’re very much on the edge here, and Chardonnay is a little pickier,” muses Drew.
2014 will be Drew’s first crop off the vineyard and the beginning of a whole new chapter in the history of his wines. But the new site is only part of a greater evolution in his approach prompted by finally having an environment that belongs wholly to his wine.
“Before I moved up here, I wasn’t doing much native yeast fermentation,” he says. “It’s something I learned along the way. You know when you get out of school you tend to stick with what you’re taught. At Babcock we would occasionally let some ferments go a bit before inoculating them. That’s how I began up here, but eventually, I just began letting things go all the way. It took me a few years to get used to the funky smells, and to go through the full thing. But my confidence is there and now I’m doing native ferments all the way through.”
“I’ve gone through an evolution,” Drew continues, “a learning curve towards maturity. I’m developing a personal preference or style or something.”
When I prompt him for what that means to him, he considers the question, and then plows forward. “What I’ve determined I like best on a personal level is structure in wine. I find that there is a connection and a relationship between more exciting structure and a lower scale of ripeness than with a higher scale of ripeness. It’s about the balance of acid and tannin. I’ve spent the last five years keying into that balance through farming. There’s a perfect balance, to me, and that balance means that once you pick the grapes there’s nothing you need to add. You don’t add acid, you don’t add water, you don’t add fining. But acidity is really the key.”
Acidity is indeed one of the hallmarks of Drew Wines, which have a lean vibrancy that gives a tautness to them, and lends a good measure of excitement to their presence on the palate.
I first encountered Drew’s wines at a public tasting, and experienced one of my favorite moments as a wine lover — that instant after putting something in your mouth when you realize that this wine you are tasting that you’ve never heard of isn’t just good, it’s phenomenal. Call it the “where have you been all my life” moment, when the needle gets pulled off the record and a casual attention becomes a laser focused demand to know where this wine came from and who made it and why in the world it is so good.
Jason and Molly Drew might have 13 vintages under their belts, the last few of which are astonishingly good, but the story of this winery has really just begun.
Full disclosure: the wines reviewed below were provided as press samples.
2012 Drew “Perli Vineyard” Syrah, Mendocino Ridge, Mendocino
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of white pepper, cassis, and blackberry. In the mouth, bright cassis and mulberry flavors mix with white pepper and a hint of wet earth. Notes of plum skin linger in the finish with a taut, leathery tannic quality. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2012 Drew “Fog-Eater” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of bright raspberry and cedar with a hint of wet stones. In the mouth, bright raspberry and raspberry leaf flavors are wrapped in faint, dusty tannins even as they mix with sour cherry fruit. Sour cherries linger on the finish with dried herbs and flowers. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2009 Drew “Valentini Vineyard” Syrah, Mendocino Ridge, Mendocino
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blackberries with hints of black pepper and wet stones. In the mouth beautiful blackberry and mulberry flavors mix with a deep crushed rock quality that is quite compelling. Supple but muscular tannins coat the mouth but take a back seat to the nicely balanced fruit and minerality. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Drew “Weir Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright raspberry and forest floor. In the mouth, bright raspberry and citrus peel flavors have an electric juiciness thanks to phenomenal acidity. Notes of crushed herbs and forest floor meld with wet stone flavors in an effortless, bright and perfectly balanced package. Outrageously good. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2010 Drew “Fog-Eater” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of beautiful forest floor and crushed red berries. In the mouth, beautiful silky textures deliver delicate flavors of raspberry, raspberry leaf, red apple skin and wet stones, dusted with the faintest of tannins that nonetheless have quite a grip to them. A tinge of green herbs and raspberry leaf linger in the finish. Great acidity and a very lean mineral aspect make this wine quite pretty. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $40. click to buy.
2011 Drew “Valentini Vineyard” Syrah, Mendocino Ridge, Mendocino
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of white pepper, nicoise olives, and exotic flowers. In the mouth, lean spicy flavors of blackberry and blackberry leaf mix with white pepper and a hint of nicoise olive savoriness. Sandpapery tannins linger through the finish with notes of violets. 12.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2012 Drew Albariño, Anderson Valley, Mendocino
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of green apple, cucumber, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, lime zest, wet chalkboard, and green apple skin flavors have an electric zip to them thanks to almost searing acidity. Crisp and refreshing and quite tasty. 12.8% alcohol Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28 click to buy.
Images courtesy of the winery.