CHAPTER 2: ADAM LEE CREATES CLARICE WINE COMPANY
by Andrew Chalk
The 2018 vintage vaults this winery to the top tier of California pinot noir producers
by Andrew Chalk
Clarice Wine Company is likely a winery that you have not heard of. That is no surprise as its first vintage was 2017 and its output is miniscule, in the hundreds of cases. It is the product of Adam Lee, one of the best known pinot noir winemakers in California and founder of Siduri Wines. After 21 years, Adam sold Siduri to Jackson Family Wines (JFW), the legacy of Jess Jackson. He continued as winemaker immediately after the sale and eventually had an instrumental part in the selection of his successor, Matt Revelette, in 2019.
Siduri was a pinot specialist. Clarice is also. So why start a new winery when Siduri’s star had never been higher? In an interview, Adam explained it was a question of artistic (winemaking) freedom. It wasn’t constraints from JFW, they gave him a free hand, it was that he wanted to make pinot noir outside the style that Siduri was known for. At the same time he did not wish to disappoint Siduri’s loyal customers, so a clean break was the only thing possible. He founded a new winery, naming it after his grandmother.
When you buy Clarice wines, you are buying Adam Lee in a glass. As his tastes change, so will the style of the wines. You are, so to speak, buying the chef, not the meal. You will be one of 625 subscribers to Clarice wines, receiving an allocation of the output each year. Clarice will not get any larger. Adam wants to keep the vineyard and winery logistics manageable. Without inciting too much FOMO, if you don’t get in now, you can get in later, when someone else drops off. I expect the queue to become very long, and not just based on reputation. Adam took me through his 2018 creations and they are very good. Good enough to acquire cult status.
All of his three current wines are sourced from the Santa Lucia Highlands, which he modestly describes on his web site as “the finest wine region in California…that no one knows about”. Certainly he knows it, having forged long-term working relationships and friendships with two particular wineakers, Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. Together, the two Garys are business partners in Garys’ Vineyard (note the placement of the apostrophe) and, aware of its cachet, picky about who they sell fruit to. Pisoni and his wife own Rosella's Vineyard, which carries her name. Adam made wine from virtually all the pinot producing areas of the west coast and these vineyards are the ones he chose as the ones for Clarice. He gets two acres of fruit from each and buys acreage, not tonnage. He is actively involved in the growing season interacting with the Garys to get the crop he wants.
The wines are a blend of two sections of Rosella’s and two sections of Garys’ treated as a field blend (unusual with pinot noir). At Rosella’s he picked 18 clusters at the lower end of the vineyard and 16 at the upper end. Adam was conscious that this amounted to blending lots of different ripeness but felt that this imbued the wine with a greater complexity. He puts it as “You make wine out of juice, not grapes”. Ripeness, to him, has always been something measured on the palate, although he has conceded to confirmation from instruments in recent years.
In his involvement in the growing season, referred to above, he is also looking at the vines for yellowing and rolling up on themselves, indicating water stress, getting close to harvest. The vines want to grow shoots and leaves so in 2018 he had them thinned in multiple passes.
Harvest at Garys’ began on September 16th and at Rosella’s on September 22nd.
This comparatively late harvest meant that there was a high level of lignification in the stems so he increased the proportion of whole cluster fermentation over 2017 to 75% at Garys’ and 80% at Rosella’s.
After two days of cold soak he bled off 20% of the juice and gave it away in order to concentrate the must. He also lengthened the duration of the cold soak. Punchdowns three times a day during cold soak and twice a day in fermentation also added pigmentation.
Fermentation, both primary and malolactic, was spontaneous. The latter took a long time and Adam points out “There is an adage in Burgundy that the longer the malolactic fermentation the better the vintage”. While he thinks that may be apocryphal it turned out to be true for these wines.
Clarice 2018 Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
Pisoni and Pommard clones. 80.8% whole cluster fermented. Aged in 72.7% new French Oak (3 Boutes Gran Réserve, 3 Francois Frères 3 y Marsannay 3 year air dried Quartz toast and 3 once-used barrels).
A translucent ruby wine that effuses its fruit out of the glass and into the room. The nose is dark fruit (blackberries) and raspberry, thyme, and mocha. In the mouth the blackberry and raspberry fruit is primary with toasty notes and healthy acid levels. Long fruit-driven finish. Tannins are velvety but firm enough to assert their presence. Overall, a complex wine with a delicate feminine persona. Could be aged 5-10 years.
Clarice 2018 Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
76.2% Whole Cluster Fermented. 72.7% new French Oak (5 Francois Frères 3 Year air-dried VTG M toast, 3 Boutes Gran Réserve and 3 2017 barrels)
Darker than the Rosella’s and presenting itself as a thoroughly different personality. The nose is more closed in but augurs immense promise. More structured mouthfeel than Rosella’s and more dark fruit. The two vineyards seem to play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Expect to age this wine 10-15 years and see considerable evolution.
Clarice 2018 Santa Lucia Highlands
77.9% whole cluster fermented. A blend of 62.5% Garys’ Vineyard and 37.5% Rosella’s Vineyard. 37.5% new French oak from an alphabet soup of coopers (1 Boutes Gran Réserve, 1 Francois Frères 3 year air dried VTG M toast, 1 Marsannay 3 year air dried Quartz toast and 5 once-used barrels).
The blend of the two preceding wines. Adam says “Not a lesser wine but rather a different and complex expression of the Santa Lucia Highlands”. Agreed. The lower new oak coefficient and sanding down of the angularities of the two vineyards means that this is a wine for sophisticated palates, likely long-term Burgundy aficionados.
In summary, even with only two vintages under its belt Adam Lee’s Clarice is emerging as individualistic and memorable. Definitely a name worth following.
Samples provided by the winery.