First Look Club
FLC#6 - Rajat Parr / Sandhi Wines
For our December First Look Club we were joined by Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines. We talk abour Raj's evolution from sommelier to winemaker to farmer, the unique aspects of producing wine in California, and what marks great wines aside from the crowd.
New place, then it's hard to speak a place because if you haven't had the benchmark, then you don't know what you know what it is, but at least the wine should speak a variety and should have an essence something something pure something which we can call energy, we can call that the feeling you have any taste something. Wow. Wow. And I think that's for me that's Sony wise and travelling the world and I think that's important.
And are there things that commonly mask that sense of place that commonly mask that energy that you talk about? Like when you talk, I suppose if you compare, you know, say a commercially made wine and a wine that you might make it Sunday or domains that are cold, what are the things that mask that authenticity.
Sometimes, the X Factor is of additives maybe sometimes oak, Oak can be overbearing on wines, it can take away from rational distinction, sometimes alcohol, high alcohol wines can just taste hot and and then sometimes it's just just the amount of fruit the wine has, it could oftentimes be, you know, overbearing. And so those things, you know, I think wines the elegance of precision wines that have a nuance wines that have those layers of flavours, and sometimes the flavours come with age, you know, as you might get it in a young wine.
But he tastes even if it tastes a wine, which is like tannic, or unapproachable as young, you can still feel that this one has great potential in 2,3,5...10 years. This is going to get it to the next level, but someone's just and the young, they're delicious, then and you locate them in two years. And that's it. I've definitely over aged wine sometimes like yeah, they have the wines. You're like, Oh, it's gonna get better. Next year, like I wish I had it last year, but Oh, well.
It's not a problem I've ever run into. I just I seem to be unable to to I was saying this to Richie, throughout the week. It's like 20 years in the wine trade. I still don't have anything with age. It's just it's the temptations too much. We bought a few bottles. Maybe it's different next week? I don't know. But yeah, maybe maybe someday we'll get there. And you know, California is somewhere you've been to see us a couple of times; we’ve talked a lot about how California is viewed in Ireland.
And California is the fifth largest producer in volume terms in Ireland, but it's really its two brands of doodads blossom Hill and Gallo. Um, you know, I think there's a lot of misinformation or maybe just a lack of information for people, you know, people go, oh, California, it's hot, high alcohol.
Well, it's bigger than easily. God. I mean, there's such a range of stuff. So can you maybe talk a little bit about I suppose those extremes of, you know, climate because, and, and just stylistically, you know, it ranges everything from very old vine, like the things that you're doing with pyy spines now to Super new vineyards to mega factories to tiny, tiny vineyards, like what you do on the coast. So give us an overview of California. Yeah, yeah.
The industry started early on with the missionaries from South America in the mid or early 1800s. So the first plantings were all mission grape, starting from Baja, Mexico, all the way through to the north near Sacramento. And most of the vineyards were planted not far from the coast, you know, they're all so even now, if see all the best vineyards in California, all planted around the coast, some might be a mile and a half, two miles, and some might be inland maybe 50 to 100 miles. But you know, that's where the really fine wines are grown there.
And then and then, over the years, people have kind of, you know, figured out where to plant different varieties.
And everything here came with a European influence. So, you know, first, you know, of course, missionaries, Spanish Portuguese influence. The French never came here; the Italians, the Italians were here. So a lot of Italian varieties were planted all over the place. But then France was still the leading country in the world to produce fine wine. So a lot of the French varieties were planted, of course the Cabernets and merlots and, and even though there was Pinot Noir Chardonnay planted, those didn't really, you know, until recently, Pinot Noir was not like a conversation they had because it was planted in the wrong way their selections want to warmer places.
But Cabernet was always great old, old cabinets planted in all around the coast, there's carry plenty of Santa Barbara to the Napa Valley and north of that. And then really like Robert Mondavi in the 60s, he kind of really became a proponent of California of Napa Valley and went around and kind of told people that wines, great wines can be made here. And then, of course, the judgement of Paris tasting in 76, which kind of put a California Chardonnay and California Cabernet, among other great French wines. And then it kind of grew from there. So really, and then, of course, remember there was prohibition. So that kind of really kind of caused a lot of trouble in the 20s and 30s.
And the California industry didn't kind of start flourishing in the way it is right now until the 90s. And that it's it's growing at a pretty fast pace. burger fine wine here. And, and I think in since I've been in California since 96, you've seen as the evolution of the in the 90s.
We went into this Uber extracted heavy high alcohol, Oak-driven wines, and then through the 2000 mid 2000s. Then, into 2010 onwards, you see more of a correction, wines of elegance and balance and freshness, and people are paying more attention to elegance and finesse than to alcoholic power. There's plenty of wines with big, rich, heavy winds, but the lighter style’s style is coming up slowly, but it's happening.
That’s something that I suppose you Sasha have had a lot of influence in with Sandhi started in 2011. Was that right?
09 the first vintage, you know, that was the style of wine I always drank. There’s a bunch of us I would say there's there, of course, are the people who’ve been making wines like that for a long time for rich, cabinets have been always very, very balanced a wall climber in terror County, Mount Eden hands L. These were officers who've made great wine some from the 50s. And till today, Hans L is made making elegant wine Jim condenses any to the mountain. So you know, so there has been that style. And then me and a group of us we kind of put a put the group of researchers together who may shine and Pino in that style, and there are few tastings around the world. And that kind of got the topic going and then yeah, it's just, you know, bring in some other people and with different ideas and say there is another way, we don't only make big California, the reputation is just big high alcohol, high octane, oaky wines, which is which, is fine, but it's, that's not the case with everybody that that's just the case with some producers.
Because as I said, it's a massive place like I think we sometimes you know, when you live in Europe, and you perceive America, you perceive it as one country but it you know, it's larger than Europe. And it's, you know, it has multiple climates, multiple cultures, traditions and histories and a gelatin culture.
You mentioned prohibition earlier, you know; I was reading something that Jon Bonet said before where he said that the real problem with prohibition was the loss of culture. That there was a burgeoning wine trade that was essentially wiped out because of prohibition. People have to grow their vines because it wasn't economically possible to make wine anymore. So people moved on to different kinds of different farming kinds of agriculture, and it set the industry back 60/70 years
yeah, no, it's it's it's definitely the the evolution happens so quickly. And it's gonna continue to, you know, grow and and, you know, there's more people who are, you know, from other parts of the world, paying attention, some even European producers coming in and planting vineyards Starting starting their their own projects in in parts of California. It is it is. Yeah, it's just where I am right now and Cambria. We these vendors. Right now farming. We use Sandy for several years, and people didn't even know a camera. They said they still don't know. It still has the Appalachian it's just Central Coast. I guess that's Obispo County. There are many pockets like that in California, which are yet to be discovered, especially coastal California because you have cleaner places. Monterey and Carmel Valley, there are lots of amazing vendors found organically and in different varieties. And yeah, I think that you know, the more you kind of, you know, you discover and that's been my journey, the last four or five years of seeing other places in California. Well, that that's exciting to grow grapes and make wine from
when you say but growing grapes. I think one of the things I've always found most interesting about California is that separation between grape farmer and winemaker that ordinarily, in Europe, most of the time, it's the same person who are the same people who farm the estates and make the wine from those grapes in California, there's this divide between the person who owns the land and on premises grapes, and the person who makes the wine. Tell us a bit of that. And that it's a strange set of information, I guess.
The reason is that different people planted the vineyards, and you don't have the same sort of, first of all, in California, a lot of lands is, you know, 800 1600 acres that's whatever, like 400 300 some hectares. And that's a so it's very hard to go and say, I'm gonna buy, you know, 10, a 10 acre parcel of land, the acres on it, is hard, because the blocks, the land is so big, because people when they came here, they homestead here, you know, people anywhere in the 1800s and say, Okay, I'm gonna come here, you know, I was part of the Gold Rush a bunch of money, I'm gonna go up, go up this way. And I'm going to take all this land. And my job here is just to cultivate the land, and I'll have dairy cows, cattle, and that's my land; they could have a build there. So they had that land and used it for farming. So that's kind of how I started d, so there wasn't like, like in Europe, you would either buy inherit, or the government would give you a grant to take this land over. Here it was all starting from farming, not not wines, but and also our cattle ranchers. So the piece of land is so big that one individual could not buy it even now. It's very hard to for example, like Domaine de la Cortez 80 acres release from another another cattle rancher who now is an agriculture. So we could never buy those 80 acres; it’s a long term lease, it will outlive us, and it'll, you know, it's evergreen. So consistently, will will be in our hands. So it's hard to kind of buy a piece of land. Also, the land is super expensive here its shirts. So yeah, I mean, I think as generations change, and and we see more people interested in farming, also, you know, the farming culture is not the same as in Europe, you know, the farmers are different and and so is the, so is the winemaking. Right, hang on. Okay, hang on just one.
You know, there's, there's, I talked about this before, Ries there are these strange pressures when you don't own the land. So you can extensively have a situation where you've 10 people who are buying grapes from one vineyard. And if one of those persons makes a really good wine one year and gets a really high score, the cost for everybody else's grapes are likely to increase the following year because that vineyard may have been named on on the bottle of wine so Raj can make a great wine I make a kind of a crappy wine. Next year, my grapes’ cost has gone up because his great wine got an excellent wine score, and they're the kind of pressures you just don't see in a lot of other markets.
But yeah, it's it's one of those another one of those things for me, I think that makes California
projects why right? Exactly. So Sandy is around 30% from my own vineyard 70% from purchase grapes. So the centre of the hills Chardonnay and Pinot is almost 80% of our vineyards. And the thing of it is again, you know, we buy grapes because I mean it's the same parcels and every year so unfortunately, we can't buy you see, it's not like an in Burgundy you can buy three rows there on there. They won't sell it, so they'll sell the grapes, or you can find them in some cases. Still, he can't we can buy it so that's why we have to purchase the grapes and the for the Central Coast Chardonnay also be by the grapes from from the vineyards and the way the Lakotas wines which which are ours and we farm it and we produce the wines and bottles.
and so what is you know thinking about Sandy what what what what was the idea I suppose when you set off because he actually gone back even a bit further what was the spark when you know you you had a very successful careers as Somalia, you have a huge amount of influence and your peers, you might argue the point that you're at some level, you did revolutionise the trade because you know, or in 74, I suppose is the first time in probably the first time that a restaurant was wine led as opposed to food led. I know, you see that you see that blueprints in cities all over the world? What was it that I suppose made you drift to go from? Yeah, I'm having fun in Somalia. But I really want to make wine now. And I want to was there something specific that?
it was evolution. In the beginning, I want to learn how to make one. And then and then when I did, this is really interesting. Because you can you know, you can do a lot of variables. And and it was just, I was curious, you know, you know, I worked. I worked the restaurant floor for 18 years. So it was. a good run. I could have kept doing it. But I wanted to kind of I mean; I wanted to evolve; I wasn't getting bored, but I was just like, yeah, I've done this, you know, it's, it's just a lot of social interaction.
And it was great. And then I just it was an evolution to make wine and then then you can realise that Yeah, making wine is the easy part of the equation.
The hard part is farming it, so the whole I mean you learn from the whole experience is like the most important part of wine is starting a piece of land, how you planted and taking care of it. Then, how you make it and bottle like this, it's no one part is more important than the other. Suppose you didn't plant the right vines in the right way. Your wine wouldn't be as good as making the wind I'll see pay attention to bottling and ageing, and so it's it's to be a winemaker is the reason there is no winemaker word French it's only wine grower is because you literally grow the grapes. And if your vineyard is good, you can make it in any way, and the wine will be good. Sure, thank you.
If I hand you a tonne of grapes from a great vineyard, you will make a great one while it's not an Alberta you can make it in one way or the other but he you know we see that a lot in I mean that there's always an argument or comparison. In Piedmont, for example, there was always a big clash between the modern producers and the old school producers. And in my experience, if you open a modern producer or school Producer 2030 years old, they both are going to be superb wines. But it's not going to the water show the place and maybe in his young, the modern wine will show break and show that kind of woodiness, but you know in the end, the more show what it is
that place. Yeah. And is that is that what you're trying to do with with Sandy and domain delicate Actually, we should probably although we're tasting sounding we'll talk about this in a second, you should probably tell us a little bit about domain della code because that is quite a unique project.
Yeah, sandy was to produce something that is, you know, Zippy fresh Chardonnay from the California coast. Because in 2009, there was a few producers were making wines of that style, but not that many. So it was just for me to kind of like, you know, show that Sonoma County has something special. And that was something's very, very, it was a sharpening, sharpening focus, we make to painters but mainly sharpening domain that was a piece of property, which Sachi found. He told me about this place, and we went there, he saw that it was going to be amazing.
And he's like, we should do this and like, you know, create something, create, you know, Pinot Noir, you know, very European style, whole cluster concrete tank, fermented, very dense planting, you know, try to, you know, try to use a lot of the European mindset, on the planting to the production of it, and, and took us a while to cut off, you know, young vines, try, you know, otherwise a 13 years old, you're like.
Okay, so the vines are kind of behaving the way they should, early years. They were like, very, you know, the, the all over the place. So it took a while we, we only a small amount of wine for the first few years. And, and even now, it's, it's fairly small, it's around, you know, 20/ 25,000 bottles, it's, you know, not that much wine. But it's, it's very special, because the five single parcels they all have their own individual identity, the, the form we think of in it separately, they all have the same rootstock and the same cloud material is just the place where it's grown as different identifiers. So yeah, it's it's, it's, it's, it's been a fantastic journey. Yeah. Well,
it's, you know, it's, it's a, it's a pretty exciting idea to go and look at a totally virgin piece of land, you know, try to extrapolate, I think it can do this, you know, and that takes obviously, knowledge of like, sashi saw something there.
And when, yeah, this has the right width, or is it like the aspect?
Is it digging your hands into the soil?
Like, indeed, there was a combination of factors that when you instal, she looked at this place? He said, I think this might work.
Yeah, it was a soil sample. It was south facing. It looked great. I one thing I know and is, every time I've been to a great variable, you can feel it. Right? You can feel you can tell why. Why is this piece special, especially for Pinot Noir? So that's what we did, we kind of felt this was the right slope. This is the right place. This sort of studies and, and, and kind of understood what, what is really what's happening there. It’s amazing to see what you thought at the time and what it is now, quick, because it could have been a bust.
Well, I was just gonna say, Did you ever second guess yourself and go? Oh, no, no,
no, no, no.
I mean, you know, that was one of the reasons when the project started in 2006. I was still living in San Francisco and then made the first one and oh, nine. And by 2011, I'm like, wow, this is like, special for third leaf some. So that's what brought me on the I got to move down there, and because of the venue, so that was a turning point of kind of thinking of your realise his dream because it's, Sachi dreamt this a long time ago and, and I was happy to jump on board with him because, you know, he's, he's the one who found the place. And,
you know, we I know you're a lot of new projects. And when you were over last year, you talked about working like with mondeuse and some interesting grapes initially from the Euro, but heretofore it's been Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pretty much the whole way what you know, with such a gigantic canvas of places you could make wine different grapes who could grow and work with why you Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
because I love Pinot Noir. And I think that a lot of places in in, in North America have tried Pinot Noir and have made very good Peter Lorre, a lot of good Pinot Noir is produced in North America. I mean, Oregon, Canada, and of course in California. And I wanted to go out there and Sachi to create something very unique, very distinct of place, you know. So leave everything out there to Mother Nature. So no additives, and make the one in a very traditional way. And to create something unique, I didn't know what it's going to be; I just want that. And the same for Chardonnay, cuz again, you know, my first love and wine were was an all revena Chamblee. So we can't grab an assembly of course here because we don't have the kimmeridgian chalk, we don't have the same soil I'm like, if I take the same idea of grape Chardonnay from Europe, and find places in California and do the same thing, just an idea, not copy, you can’t copy the soil, you can just kind of make the wine in the same similar way and hope that the soil kind of gives you some distinction.
And I think that's what Sandi is; that’s what it represents. Santa Barbara County represents Santa Rita hills, it represents a place and then we're glad we did that was starting in 2009. And now we you know, I'm starting a small little thing with some other varieties and just to kind of play and have fun and, and, you know, just just to push and see how we can, how we can start a regenerative farm, you know, in a coastal place, and yeah, another journey, we have no idea how it's gonna end out. But this is a good start.
Do you do you view you have a responsibility for like, sort of stewardship of the future? It's something I sense from you that like, you know, again, you've told me before but domaine de la cote, it's a project for future generations, it will be you know, two or three generations before you see the full quality or before it even becomes commercially viable. Like with with the new part, is it the same idea like you want, I suppose push the boundaries, see what is possible in California for for future generations.
Many plant a vineyard, you know, it's in all seven, it's, it's 13 years old, it's Pinot Noir needs, time, needs time on the ground. So it's just kind of getting interesting, and, you know, maybe, in the minds at 2025 years old, you know, we're gonna have fun with that, but we might not be able to have a fully mature glass, maybe we will, we will. The young managers are still still pretty fresh right now. There is a responsibility because to showcase a place to grow vines, and then pass it on.
For my for my mycareer today and Cambria. It's more about the idea of regenerative farming, its idea of regenerating Mother Earth. And to understand that and doing a very small scale, because it's only me one person helping me so it's, it's nice, it's different. It's it's more to kind of create a template that maybe someone else can use later on in their, in their, in their life. And to be fully involved from, you know, seeding to, to bottling the whole journey of and I picked a bunch of random varieties, the varieties I love the most. To see if you can do that here. We've made the wine a little bit of wine this year. And I'm excited about the next vintage
brilliant. It is Randall Graham doing something his pollution projects like an Arctic. That's a much larger range, but I know he's, he's been doing some kind of fun stuff, growing lots of varieties and trying to hybridise.
So yeah, he's been Yeah, yes, he's been crosses,
Because we plant different seeds of different varieties and they all have The same theology is meant for them, they'll all be crosses, they'll create different different in a way, Nate is doing that too, but he's throwing different different cuttings and just grafting them randomly in the same mind that could be a white or red. Wow. Right? It could create something else. So you know, all these things happen for decision a place. And it's also the creative side of people like, like, you know, Randall and Nate who are doing these things. For me, the first step of this journey is just to understand how we can incorporate these ideas in farming and how we can because I'm not I'm not working with a consultant or somebody, I'm just doing it from just my field. And by talking to people and reading, it's it's a it's a meditative journey. It's not it's not rushed, you know, there's, there's no,
It’s got such a great memory as well.
Yeah, you know, it's Yeah, and I still taste that a wine. I'm unfortunate, I can still have a small restaurant here in Santa Barbara, so I get a chance to taste too. So taste one, two wines. Hopefully, once COVID pandemic is kind of somehow under control, we can do more and, and I still plan to continue to taste and evolve. And, yeah.
All right. Well, look, let's if anyone hasn't got into it yet. Talk us through this a little bit. This is the this is Brian. We just got this in obviously, a couple weeks ago, middle of middle of November. I think we're the first people in Western Europe to see it and it's really smart. It's
Yeah, yeah, no. Special vintage 18 for sure. You know, 16 and 1716 was slightly creamier and 17 also slightly creamier. We had an 18 is again, Bachelor, cool vintage. It is so pretty Zippy acidity, most of it is fundamental code, all fermented and 500-litre barrels and then aged for 12 months and then in a silicene tank for six months after that. And yeah, all ambient yeast organic farming and small dose sulphur at bottling only.
it's 40 at the very start of our conversation; I asked, you know, how do you appraise wine quality? You talked about energy. I've always found in Sandy wines this incredible energy that comes through and you know, there is this natural vibrancy to them, but specifically this this wine this vintage, it's just like a it's like a lightsaber. It's I mean, it's it's crazy how energetic it is. And crisp and yeah, lively. Brilliant.
You said there you find more organically, very little levels of sulphur I know from talking to over the years you know, you've become more and more interested in in natural wine and you know, I was remembering I the first time you came here, we had an event on the first night I guess at some level I was trying to impress you so opened up as much good as what I perceived good stuff as I could put the following day we went for lunch in this tiny Middle Eastern place. And we opened little carbonic reoka, and you were like lights out.
That's amazing. And that wine is two euros 30x seller, and that taught me a massive lesson in, you know, you know, you can find greatness everywhere, like at any price or region or grape wine maker. It's just it's there. It's you've got to do a lot of digging sometimes but doesn't have to be burgundy doesn't have to be Tuscany doesn't have to be month it can be anywhere. Yeah, you know,
yeah, sure. It's just about finding authentic you know, authentic flavours in the right places and the right you can feel it you can taste but sometimes it tastes like it just doesn't seem something is off and nothing is off. It's just you, your perception of the wind is like it's not singing to me. It's good responses to me, and that's something that comes to you after you taste the wine and you know what you like you know that that's important is Important to note you like and it can be anything. Yeah, it can. Anyone and that's that's the most important
because it's Christmas I was just when I got home See, just before we went online, I had these two books here, if anyone's looking like to learn a bit more about wine, stocking fillers, this is Raj his book from last year called the Smelly Atlas of wine, which is a it's a really smart read. And it's all about the classical regions of Europe and you know, you give some context on how those classic wines should taste and why they should taste like that.
Or if you're interested in California, this is one of the best one books I've ever read. I think it's absolutely phenomenal. It's an incredible piece of work the New California Wine raishin sasheer in there and some of the other people we work with, like Stephen, Jill Mathias and Pax maley. Kenny gets a mention. But yeah, there are do you enjoy? Do you enjoy the writing part? Is that is that something that's? Yeah.
No, it's really. I have a great partner who is an amazing writer. So Jordan McKay. So we kind of go, and we've travelled together, and we interview and we, you know, I ask the questions, and then we transcribe it and then put it down on paper. Yeah, it's the process is amazing. It's, it's, it's a lot of work. It's even now when I write a, if I write something, or I'm giving a speech or something like that, I always make sure Jordan checks it and, because we have we have a similar process. And it's his he's a brilliant, brilliant writer. So So I think the collaboration is is really fun, but it's a lot of work. That That book was like six years,
months and months of travel to Europe. And it sounds like fun, but it gets old after like, the second week is cold. Like, you know, you can't take a day off but you have like, what three appointments? And you have to like, you know, be focused it's it's such a Yeah, no, it was, it was the most amazing experience but the most most difficult one
share and on your travels to write that book and to research it was there any visits that really stood out for you of people you matter? Yeah, so
many, I mean it is there's so much there's so much information to download. To your brain there was you know, I visited the luar was was extraordinary was we had an amazing four days in Bordeaux as really special to kind of to be there for four days and to visit the shadows and really talk to you know, people who are like, seriously like a different level. Of course bringing his natural colour, champagne and rolling those are like things I noticed they were just like points to kind of come back to and it was though it is hard to kind of ride burgundy because everything is written in one burgundy. So it was a definitely a different difficult to write about.
But Spain was amazing was like it was a treat. Italy was tough because getting information out of the Italians very hard.
But overall, it was you know, it was just an experience of a lifetime and,
something I think about often
it's funny you say that obviously we import some grappas on tomorrow and very old recipe for Muth from this tiny disciplinary called Koba. So when we went to visit them two years ago, on Gianluigi is the eldest sibling, and the way it's worked for maybe six, seven generations deep is the eldest son gets the recipe and none of the other siblings are allowed to have it. Like that's just the most Italian like it's just Gianluigi gets it no one else gets a lock in. You know, it's it's, it's a it's an incredible culture. But look, thanks a mil for tuning in and having a chat. It's great to see it's it. Ordinarily, you might have been here in July, but eating some oysters and drinking some Guinness as usual bus unfortunately not this. Looks like we may have to go visit you in Cambria instead
Yeah, I'm locked in here for a couple years. And when I do when I can travel again, and I will I, you know, I spend my time feeding my animals and and, and that's, that's my duty and and still they're new to me and the farms so yeah, eventually they'll you know, be more you know be more independent and and yeah
that's a special project it's worth devoting time and sitting tight on it Yeah,
Yeah no it's good it's good
All right, well look thanks a mil for your time Raj really appreciate it. So it was good to see you and
Happy Christmas everybody.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, good luck with everything hope. You know, life realised everybody and hope that this vaccine actually works and everyone stay safe and you know, life realigns and we move forward.