Dunne on Wine

Pinot noir specialist has a new way to sell wine. Will other vintners follow suit?

Bottle shot of the Clarice 2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Bottle shot of the Clarice 2017 Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Adam Lee was about to start picking wine grapes this fall when he realized that 2018 already was an exceptional year. This was his 25th harvest, for one. Secondly, his wife, Dianna Novy Lee, was introducing her first sparkling wine, a dry, taut, feathery and finely beaded Sonoma County brut under the brassy brand Flaunt ($48). And Lee just had learned that the experience and respect he had accrued over the past quarter century as a winemaker was paying off with what is believed to be an unprecedented vote of confidence by wine consumers.

This past spring, Lee, who had built his standing largely on the range and quality of pinot noir wines he made under the brand Siduri, which the couple founded in 1994 and sold to Jackson Family Wines in 2015, launched a new wine company, Clarice, and with it a daringly novel way to sell wine.

In short, would 512 consumers each be willing to put up $965 a year for a case of his latest pinot noirs without tasting the wines beforehand, relying solely on where Lee is getting the fruit and on his track record with the varietal? I’m math challenged, but my calculator says that works out to almost $81 a bottle. Nevertheless, 512 consumers calculated they’d take the risk.

With their investment, they get a bit more than the wine. They get access to a website where Lee is posting wine-related articles by industry insiders. Through the site they also can join private forums where members swap information about such topics as restaurant wine programs and wines worthy of stashing for long-term aging. Lee also is to play host at a couple of parties a year where members can meet one-on-one with growers, taste barrel samples from the latest vintage and so forth.

Clarice is not so much wine club as a gated wine community, he is fond of saying. Whether the early embrace of Clarice is a one-vintage wonder or the harbinger of a new marketing strategy to be emulated by other members of the trade remains to be seen. Lee is encouraged by the response but not emboldened to boast of its sustainability.

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Adam Lee alongside a bin of apples to be made into cider at the Santa Rosa warehouse where he also makes his wines. Mike Dunne

“If I provide enough value. I don’t think there will be a problem,” he says when asked if he thinks the annual subscription plan can endure. He originally wanted 625 subscribers, but lowered his goal for the first year to 512 because the payment routine he’d adopted proved more cumbersome than anticipated and because he was surprised by interest among restaurateurs who want Clarice on their wine lists.

Subscribers are to get their hands on the first Clarice wines in early November. Subscriptions for the 2018 Clarice wines are to open in February.

Clarice is the clever culmination of what he’s learned of growing grapes and making and marketing wine since he broke into the business by working at a wine shop in his native Austin, Texas, in 1989. The name “Clarice” itself pretty much sums up his accumulated wine philosophy. It is a tribute to his maternal grandmother Clarice H. Phears, who in dealing with her husband’s unpredictable working hours on their farm maintained a steadily warm slow cooker on the kitchen counter, ready to supply sustenance at any time of evening or night.

She taught Lee that the best culinary results derived from cooking all ingredients together – roast beef, potatoes, carrots, spices – without any last-minute additions.

“That taught me a lot about winemaking,” says Lee, who similarly picks all grapes from a vineyard at once, regardless of varied levels of ripeness and varied clones, and then ferments them together. “That’s how to get more interesting flavors, hopefully,” Lee says. “It harkens back to her.”

Early samples of the first three pinot noirs under the Clarice label – all from the 2017 vintage and all from the Santa Lucia Highlands viticultural area in Monterey County – drew high praise from wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., who anointed each with between 93 and 96 points.

I recently tasted the same three. They were just bottled, and as a consequence tight, but each was notable for its individuality, precisely the kind of distinction that Lee long has sought in his pinot noirs. They were balanced expressions of classic California pinot-noir fruit underscored with varying degrees of earthiness.

The broadly designated Santa Lucia Highlands evoked suggestions of both strawberries and cherries with a dusting of cocoa. The Garys’ Vineyard stood out for its understated focus and quiet mettle, accounting for its lingering persistence in flavor. The Rosella’s Vineyard was my favorite for its strapping maturity and complexity, which included suggestions of raspberries, leather and cola. Subscribers are to get four bottles of each.

With Siduri, Lee became celebrated for releasing as many as 32 pinot noirs per vintage from 26 individual vineyards stretching from Santa Barbara County to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Though Siduri now is owned by Jackson Family Wines, he continues as the brand’s consulting winemaker and as someone constantly seeking new vineyards to tap for fruit. For example, after an absence of several years he is returning with Siduri to an area he exploited for his first pinot noirs, Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.

When he and his wife sold Siduri, they were turning out 25,000 cases a year, a total he has nearly doubled since the sale. Aside from increasing output, Jackson Family Wines hasn’t pushed him to do anything different in his approach.

“They haven’t pressured me to do anything more or less than what I was doing before,” Lee says. “Barbara (Banke, widow of founder Jess Jackson and now the owner of the company) is letting her winemakers do their thing. She’s told us, ‘Go with what works for you.’”

The aging of the vineyards he uses has had more to do with altering his winemaking approach than any direction from Jackson Family Wines, he adds. For example, he’s found that as a vineyard ages its grapes achieve ripe flavors at lower sugar levels, and that those flavors are earthier and more complex. Thus, he picks earlier and applies more whole-cluster fermentations at the winery. In contrast to Clarice, wines under the Siduri label are widely available in the Sacramento area, from smaller shops like Taylor’s Market to bigger stores such as Total Wine & More, Nugget Markets and Safeway, though the selection varies in range and vintage from outlet to outlet.

To this palate, the most impressive current Siduris include the husky yet silken Siduri 2017 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($32); the lean and precise Siduri 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($30); the unusually aromatic, dynamic and layered Siduri 2016 Willamette Valley Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir ($35); the fresh and charming Siduri 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($37); the deep, weighty and assertive Siduri 2016 Russian River Valley Perry Ranch Pinot Noir ($55); and the elegant and sharp-edged Siduri 2016 Russian River Valley Ewald Pinot Noir ($55).

While Lee appreciates the nature of grapes he draws from appellations scattered about California and Oregon, he is especially fond of fruit from Santa Lucia Highlands, the only area he uses for his Clarice wines.

“The Santa Lucia Highlands is probably where my heart is. If you have the money, it’s the best place to grow pinot noir in California,” Lee says.

He relishes Santa Lucia Highlands for the “fantastic acids” of its grapes, for its customarily sparse rainfall, and for its long and cool growing season, which stretches out the development of fruit gently and evenly.

Lee and his wife don’t own any vineyards, relying on contracts with assorted growers for their grapes. From the start, Lee has arranged wherever possible to buy grapes by the acre rather than by the ton, the latter being the customary practice among West Coast winemakers. Lee believes that the finest wines come from low-yielding vines. In buying grapes by the acre he retains control over factors affecting yield, such as canopy management and cluster thinning.

The total 625 cases that Lee expects to ultimately provide subscribers was determined primarily by the amount of fruit he expects to get even in lighter vintages from his dedicated four acres. Excess fruit is to be used for Clarice wines to be donated to charities with which the Lees are involved and to supply restaurants. No retail shops are to carry the wines.

Lee’s fascination with pinot noir began even before he went to work at the wine shop in Austin. On a break from studying history at Trinity University in San Antonio he visited a girlfriend living in California. On a picnic they shared a bottle of a 1984 pinot noir by J. Rochioli Vineyards & Winery of Healdsburg. He’s been smitten with pinot noir ever since, adoring it for its effusive fragrance, its transparency as to place of origin, its knack for delighting him regardless of the age of the wine.

“The relationship with the girl didn’t last, but the relationship with pinot did,” Lee says.

Flash forward to 2018 and his launch of Clarice. The inspiration for Clarice emerged from his conviction that standard approaches to marketing wine no longer work. Shelf space in grocery stores and wine shops is too limited for the growing number of brands. Wine critics who rely on scores in reviewing wines aren’t as influential (“Now a wine has to get 95 points or better to have any impact; it used to be 90 points or better.”).

Winery tasting rooms struggle to set themselves apart in drawing consumers. Social media has been a dud in selling wine, though he remains an active participant on several platforms. How do you stand out, he asked himself. Clarice was the answer he came up with. It is in its infancy, and whether it has traction remains to be seen. Lee understands the risk he is taking and is gratified by the early response among consumers.

“We’re walking the wire without a net, and we’re asking others to walk with us,” he says.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.