A young winemaker makes his mark on Monterey County wines
By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Margaux Gibbons
Armed with a degree in Environmental Studies and a taste for adventure, Ian Brand snagged a job with the Utah Department of Wildlife, counting fish along wild stretches of the Colorado River. He lived out of his pickup and went on week-long rafting expeditions. Not all that time was spent working, he says. “Sometimes I’d take a river strap, tie it around the front of the boat and wrap it around my hand and ride down these Class 4 rapids, standing up, with 8-to 10-foot waves crashing over the top. It was a hoot!”
Whether it’s whitewater rafting or his other favorite sports— snowboarding and surfing—Brand likes taking it to the max. “I’ve always been the person who goes harder, goes faster than everybody else,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why in five short years—with little financial backing and no formal education in enology—35-year-old Ian Brand has managed to establish himself as one of Monterey County’s best and most prolific winemakers. He already creates premium wines for 12 different labels, including three of his own, and in May, he attracted some national attention when Wine Enthusiast Magazine named him to its “40 Under 40: American Tastemakers” list of rising stars in the American wine world. Meanwhile, this summer Brand will take an important step in expanding his business by opening his own wine- making complex in Salinas with capacity to handle 400 tons of grapes a year.
“I want the facility to operate as a nexus for small fledgling wineries to polish up what they do,” says Brand, who will be able to boost production by almost 40% over last season when he rented space at Wrath Wines in Soledad. “We’ll be taking on new projects this fall that develop and change the idea of Monterey wines.”
Far from being a reckless adventurer, Brand has done his homework and understands that his new winery lies within easy reach of vineyards and small wineries in three counties, many of them with less than adequate equipment. According to his estimations, there are 15–18,000 acres of vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains with 80 or so wineries, 44,000 acres of grapes in Monterey County with 40–50 wineries and 20,000 acres in San Benito County with 20 wineries.
“It’s a fairly complex business model,” he admits. But with a set of one-year-old twins—Issak and Elení—Brand and his wife, Heather, who is director of business services at Delicato Wines, believe the time is right for Ian Brand and Family Wines to have a home of its own. “I don’t do this to have my star turn,” he says. “Winemaking is my best skill. It’s my job.”
Santa Cruz roots
Brand started his winemaking career in 2003, working on the bottling line at Bonny Doon Vineyards for $8 an hour. “It was at the zenith of their production when they were making 25 varieties at that time, using micro-oxygenation and other strange winery practices,” he recalls. In no time he began working part-time in the lab and eventually worked his way into a cellar job.
“I think all the blossoming that is going on in North American wine can be traced back to Bonny Doon,” he says. “For all his foibles and idiosyncrasies, Randall Grahm did a major service for the industry, pushing California wine beyond where it was comfortable.”
The Bonny Doon experience also gave him the opportunity to make lots of different types of wines in one season—a lesson that serves him well in his business today.
Brand then joined Bradley Brown in building up Big Basin Vineyards in Boulder Creek. They planted five acres of Grenache and Syrah on the site of a century-old abandoned vineyard. “We did a lot of clearing land. It was hot, dusty work, but if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says. “At Big Basin I learned how small tweaks in the vineyard can really affect the finished wine.”
Still, Brand longed to work for himself and be involved in shaping the identity of a wine region. He looked at several regions where he wouldn’t have to buy his way in, including Applegate Valley in Oregon, Mendocino and El Dorado.
“I’m kind of a lone wolf, not coming in with a lot of money or a bunch of backers, so I needed to get started by finding the values that others had missed—vineyards that produce quality at a fair price point,” the Connecticut native says, noting that places like Napa were out of the question.
Monterey County stuck out because there were plenty of vineyards already in place and newer plantings of Grenache with which growers needed help. He partnered with John Allen, who owns Coastview Vineyard—a 35-acre ridgetop property at the north end of Chualar Canyon between Salinas and Pinnacles National Park. Allen showed him how good the geology of Monterey County is for growing grapes in the most unusual places, with rocky soils full of shale, granite and limestone—in addition to the good weather.
“There’s a lot of unrealized potential in Monterey,” says Brand. “It’s the most underdeveloped wine region between Santa Barbara and the Mendocino Coast.”
So Ian and Heather moved to Salinas five years ago and he began working with Coastview and a number of other Monterey County labels, including Mesa Del Sol, Pierce Ranch Vineyards, De Tierra Vineyards, and Kevin Olson Vineyards. He also works with Chateau Lettau in Paso Robles and Benny Hernandez, and handles fermentation for Birichino of Santa Cruz and Stefania from San Jose.
He loves driving up and down dirt roads to find vineyards that “don’t realize they are in great spots” and managing things like crop load and canopy to bring out the best in the grapes.
Some of his clients grow organically—like De Tierra and Mesa Del Sol—and he encourages the others to switch over. It turns out grapes are one of the easiest crops to farm organically. “My goal is to have a lively, healthful vineyard because if you respect the natural processes and maintain the ecosystem, you get a better crop,” he says.
With so many labels to handle, he tries to make sure they don’t all taste alike. “My style is noninvasive, bringing out the flavor of the vineyard in an approachable way. Pretty, but with substance,” says Brand.
“I like to make wines that taste like they come from somewhere,” he adds, but don’t call him a terroirist.
“That’s such a loaded word. It’s been cheapened by overuse,” he says. “Part of the definition is screwball. It can mean historical practices, and newer wine regions don’t have the historical practices.”
Making a mark
Brand’s own lines are starting to take off. There’s Le P’tit Paysan, which he calls a “village level wine, approachable but off the beaten path”; La Marea, single vineyard Spanish varietals “rooted in the sea, the soil and the sea air”; and Fieldfare, a négociant label for “blends that fit well together.”
His 2011 Le P’tit Pape is a prime example. It’s an edgy Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre blend with a nod to the great French wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But since it’s made from grapes grown in the limestone soils of Spur Ranch in San Benito County, it has loads of minerality, along with bright notes of cherry and berries.
The labels of each of the P’tit Paysan wines bear a clever cartoon of an older gentleman with a bushy moustache—said to bear a striking resemblance to Brand’s psychologist father—along with a chicken who always gets the best of him on the back label.
Nine of his wines are available for tasting and for purchase at Trió in Carmel, and several are stocked at Soif in Santa Cruz. They can also be found at some of the finest restaurants in the region, such at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar and Restaurant 1833.
“He was the first winemaker I met when I came here two years ago. I found his wines stunning and they’re only getting better,” says Ted Glennon, 1833’s sommelier and one of just seven that received Food & Wine magazine’s top sommelier awards for 2012. Brand’s La Marea Albariño and Grenache “embody the diversity of California wines. They are well-made, true to their varietal and fairly priced,” Glennon adds.
Harvest season at Brand’s operation is a three-ring circus. “It’s crazy. We have six or seven lots showing up in a day,” he says. “I drive everybody crazy, but I have a good crew and we go longer and harder than anyone else. It’s lots of fun.”
It’s so much fun that he’s looking to take on even more projects next harvest season and rejects the idea of slowing down. “I don’t want an easy job at a winery, churning out the same wines every year,” he says. “There’s no satisfaction. There’s too much boring wine in the world and I don’t want to be part of that. I’m interested in using wine as a lens to understand where we live and the landscape we live in.
“I want to develop something for my family and keep myself interested,” he adds. “I’ve had my share of struggles, but I’m motivated to make my small mark. I’m not done yet.”
Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys growing vegetables. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.