I will begin by apologizing for the length of this story – but for a great vineyard like Clos Pepe, it deserves to be told.
I first started working with Clos Pepe Vineyard sometime in 1999 – which is remarkable since the first crop wasn’t until 2000. Thanks to a new phenomenon called “the Internet” (a fad that wasn’t going to last), I was participating on the Prodigy Wine Bulletin Board and met a man named Wes Hagen, who was telling all those that would listen that he had planted a primarily Pinot Noir vineyard in Santa Barbara County between Buellton and Lompoc. A few years prior my winery, Siduri, had ventured down to Monterey County for grapes and so we decided to go another 3 hours south to look at what Wes had done. A tour of the fledgling vines, some strong coffee from Wes in his trailer, and a gut feeling that this was a special place was all it took for us to sign a contract to purchase fruit from the inaugural 2000 vintage. Actually, we signed a multi-year contract and took the additional risk of paying for the grapes by the acre rather than by the pound (in for a penny, in for a pound/acre).
We thought that the 2000 vintage was remarkable – the press was somewhat less enthused. Greg Walter of Pinot Report liked it and Robert Parker found it fine (88 points) but seemingly a bit too acidic for his taste. That’s all the reviews I can find. Production was tiny and the public loved it and it sold out. In 2001 the vines began to hit their stride and the wines began to garner the praise that we thought they deserved – with high ratings from Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, and Pinot Report.
The 2002 and 2003 vintages were notable for their high quality but absurdly tiny yields. Wine writer Steve Tanzer even noted this in his review of the 2002 Siduri Clos Pepe:
“Aged in a rather high two-thirds new oak, as this vineyard yielded just two-thirds of a ton per acre. As the Lees pay $9,000 per acre for this fruit, this must rank as some of the priciest pinot noir to ever change hands in this country.”
In fact, according to the Grape Crush Report we paid the highest price per ton for Pinot Noir in California that year. We won! Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company finished a close second while, in 2003, the positions were reversed with Brian paying the highest price for Pinot in California and we finished just behind him. This “buying by the acre so we could control the quality thing” sure was working out well for us.
Not surprisingly, we negotiated a new contract with Wes and Steve Pepe beginning with the 2004 vintage. Our per acre contract now included minimum and maximum per ton pricing – a hedge that allowed us to control quality but not go broke. More importantly, Wes started using more inputs in the vineyard in an attempt to increase vine vigor (we were all so young and learning as we went along) and that helped bring yields up to a still tiny, but reasonable number.
The next decade or so was “easy street” if such a thing exists in the grape and wine world. With the release of the movie Sideways in October of 2004, everyone wanted Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and the Siduri Clos Pepe was at the center of the attention. The vines began to get past their adolescent phase, the grapes were superb, the reviews were fantastic, the wines were – quite frankly – better than the reviews, and the wine sold with little effort.
It was during 2014 and 2015 that things changed. Seemingly simultaneously, we were approached about selling Siduri and Wes and Steve Pepe had a falling out and Steve decided to lease the Clos Pepe Vineyard to someone else. As you all know, Jackson Family Wines purchased Siduri at the end of January, 2015. What isn’t as well known, is that when Steve put the idea out there about leasing the vineyard there were two parties that ultimately submitted proposals to lease the vineyard – WALT Winery and me and Dianna. I’ve still got all the emails from that time period – discussing what would happen to the Clos Pepe brand going forward, the rights to use the Clos Pepe name, the state of the vineyard and water availability and on and on. Ultimately, we drew up a lease offer and so did WALT and, after much discussion, Hall’s lease was chosen by a 2-1 vote (at least according to the emails I have, it was a closed election).
There’s even more to that story, however. For some time, I’ve been close to the folks at WALT – they are some of the better people in the wine business. During the time we were both pulling together our lease offers, I was talking with WALT. We agreed, rather loosely, to both make Steve Pepe our best lease offer, to not get caught up in the game of bidding against one another, and should there be additional grapes coming from the property – more than the leasing party wanted – then we would first offer those grapes to the other winery. It was a handshake agreement – the kind that often goes by the wayside when push comes to shove. But not for WALT Winery. They continued to sell us grapes even after we sold Siduri to Jackson Family Winery. Thanks to this level of integrity, I was able to continue to work with Clos Pepe fruit in the 2015, 2016, and 2017 vintages.
With 2018 my original contract with Jackson was up and WALT rightfully kept the grapes for themselves, making 2018 the first vintage in almost two decades that I wasn’t working the vines. In all honesty, during the 2018 growing season, when visiting various Jackson Family properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I would stop in to Clos Pepe to see how the grapes were doing (I didn’t have a contract but neither had I forgotten the gate code).
Then came the World of Pinot Noir in March of 2019. I was attending – pouring my Clarice Pinot Noirs – and (shockingly) I drank a tad and spilled the beans about my partnership with Philippe Cambie and the fledgling Beau Marchais Winery to Jeff Zappelli, the General Manager of WALT Winery. Jeff mentioned that they loved the wines that I made from Clos Pepe – and a few drinks later a deal was conceived. It took some emails and a few drafts of a contract for that conception to become a birth – but rather quickly Beau Marchais was producing not just a Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir, but also a Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Oh, it also took a phone call to Philippe. I was a bad partner as, at the bar at WOPN, I agreed to purchase grapes from Clos Pepe for Beau Marchais without consulting with my business partner, and the real visionary for the winery, Philippe Cambie. I vividly remember the conversation with Philippe: I explained the uniqueness of the opportunity, he mentioned that we had agreed on the Soberanes Vineyard (yes, we had) and he said he didn’t really know the Clos Pepe Vineyard and asked why I didn’t bring it up in our original discussions (because I thought it was off the table). Then he asked the important questions:
“Do you believe in the land? Do you trust the people that control and farm the vines? Can we make great wine from there?”
“Yes,” I answered without hesitation.
“Then we should have those grapes” Philippe answered.
We ended up purchasing (once again, by the acre) three sections of Pinot Noir from the Clos Pepe Vineyard in 2019 – 115 clone from the eastern edge of the property, Pommard in the middle, and 667 clone on the western edge of the hill. When the 2019 grapes arrived the yield was generous and it was more than could fit in the one tank allocated for the wine. Without much thought and once again without talking with Philippe, I split the grapes into two lots. The Pommard would go into both tanks with the 115 clone blending with it in one tank and the 667 blending with it in another. In retrospect, splitting the baby like this might seem Solomon-like in its wisdom, but honestly all I was trying to do was give us more blending options down the road.
Both Philippe and I were surprised at how different the numbers were on the two tanks and we kept them separate throughout the winemaking process and all the way into barrel.
We first blended the final 2019 Clos Pepe wines in February of 2020. I remember tasting them with Philippe and watching him work. I was in awe. He tried one blend and then another and then another. At one point, I felt emboldened enough to try a blend. Nope…that one didn’t work. “Oh crap,” I was thinking. What did I do getting us into this vineyard without even asking him? It was then that Philippe proclaimed, “These are two excellent wines, we should bottle them both separately.” It was a brilliant decision, one that I hadn’t actually considered. I think I said something like, “…that’s great. We can certainly do that, but let’s revisit it in April when you return to the States and we can decide for certain then.” We agreed to that – neither one of us knowing that COVID was coming and that Philippe wouldn’t ever visit the United States again. And thus it was decided that there would be two Clos Pepe Pinot Noirs – an Est and an Ouest (they were originally called #5 and #6 as those were the tank numbers. You can still see mention of that in the first barrel sample reviews from Jeb Dunnuck).
At that blending in February of 2020 there was so much we didn’t know. I mentioned COVID and Philippe’s inability then to travel. But there was much more. We had no clue that our 2020 Soberanes grapes would be ruined by smoke and that it was only because of Clos Pepe that we were able to make any Beau Marchais wine at all in 2020. I sent barrel samples of those 2020 wines to Philippe in France and we blended by Zoom. It worked fine but seemed hollow. Fortunately, due to a brief break in travel restrictions, Moret and I were able to make it to France in the summer of 2021 and we were able to share the wines with Philippe at his dining room table. He was very happy.
Most of all, I had no idea that Philippe would pass away in December of 2021. The 2021 harvest seemed like a blessing after 2020 and I often shared pictures, videos, and emails with Philippe about the progress of the grapes and the fermentations as they proceeded. He gave me direction and I implemented what he wanted as best I could. We talked about how great it would be to meet up in February of 2022 to taste and blend these wines. Life, it seemed
was returning to normal. And then I received a text from Bill Kniep, my Missouri distributor, saying he saw something online about Philippe dying. I didn’t believe it (Philippe’s health was a concern so unfounded rumors were not surprising). I texted a friend who would know and I received a message back asking, “Do you have time to talk privately?” That’s when I knew.
Isabel Gassier, Philippe’s long time friend and assistant and a brilliant winemaker, came to the United States to help Moret and I blend this 2021 Beau Marchais Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir. Oh sure, I could have done it on my own, but that wouldn’t be right. After all, Philippe and I were partners and going off and doing something on my own wouldn’t be… oh, well, I guess it would have been very Clos Pepe of me. But I didn’t do that. Isabel brought Philippe’s spirit with her and that was what was needed. We tasted and we laughed and we cried and we made this wine. Only one wine. The best wine in 2021 was just one Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir.
The 2021 Beau Marchais Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir is, I hope and I think, a wine Philippe would like. It is one of three 2021 Beau Marchais Pinot Noirs. It is one of our last Beau Marchais wines, it is one of Philippe’s last Pinot Noirs, and it is my final Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir. It is the end of a chapter or two of my winemaking life.
I hope to share a bottle of this wine with Philippe someday (but there’s no rush on that…sorry, Philippe). Thank you for letting me share my story and share this wine with you.