In the foothills of San Simeon, on California’s Central Coast and just a few miles east of the Pacific Ocean, Rajat Parr is driving a tractor through vineyard rows, spraying a homemade concoction of milk thistle, willow branch and stinging nettles that he fermented in seawater.
This is Phelan Farm, where Parr—who was born in Kolkata, educated in New York and rose to fame in the restaurants of San Francisco— is tending to his own vines with his own hands.
After years of buying grapes to make such brands as Sandhi, Evening Land and Domaine de la Côte, he’s exploring innovative techniques on the 12-acre vineyard. Aside from some preexisting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, he is growing grapes originally from the Savoie, Jura and Burgundy regions of France, as well as northern Spain, including Poulsard, Mondeuse, Gringet Altesse, Trousseau, Pink Chardonnay, Mencía, Gamay, Jacquère and Savagnin.
We caught up with him to talk about trying different grapes and farming techniques as the climate changes.
Matt: Do you see more vintners trying to chase the coastline as temperatures warm?
Rajat: Chasing the coast is important. We want acidity, that natural freshness, and we want to ripen as late as possible while holding acidity.
But on the flipside, sometimes you get those Santa Ana winds. Your grapes might get roasted early. There is definitely a toss-up there.
Matt: Why did you decide to plant these particular grapes?
Rajat: The first time I went to Phelan Farm, the clay reminded me of the Savoie or the Jura. It’s a canyon with sycamore, oaks and willows around. This does not look like normal California vineyards. We picked each vineyard to have its own identity.
Matt: Are the grape varieties you selected trendy right now, or is there something more here?
Rajat: These wines are wines that I drink regularly from the Jura. It wasn’t just to plant this vineyard anywhere. It was to plant it in a place where you can really get it right and retain the freshness.
I’m picking Poulsard in the middle of October and it might be 11%. That place is right. It goes there.
There’s a lot of Pinot and Chardonnay and Cabernet in the state. You can plant other things on the right sites and produce something very interesting. Poulsard is not a fancy wine. If you want to make a vin de soif [gluggable wine for immediate consumption], it’s delicious. It’s not too tannic, it’s not dark. It’s an easy-drinking wine. It’s a good alternative to Pinot. If you think Pinot is hard to grow, try Poulsard. It’s such a pain in the ass.
And there are a lot of curious people in America who want to try other things, because they travel and they drink European wines.
Matt: You’ve also been finding forgotten vineyards in different corners of the state without a lot of wine production. What drives that?
Rajat: When someone tells me California has a good vintage, I say, “Where in California?” California has 50 different regions, all the way from Cucamonga to Shasta. There are so many different climates. It’s not the same thing.
For me, it’s interesting to find vineyards in Cucamonga or in San Benito County or in Carmel Valley or in my backyard in Cambria. You find stories. You find vineyards that have been around for a long time, some over 100 years.
The wines of Cucamonga are some of the best wines in the cellar. They are from abandoned vineyards where the coyotes eat the grapes. The vineyards are own-rooted, dry-farmed, never irrigated ever. It’s not like these wines are dying. They’re doing well. They’re thriving. They only produce a few grapes, but they’re delicious.
Matt: Do these old vineyards contain a message for us today?
Rajat: One hundred percent. The world doesn’t need another vineyard with irrigation. It just doesn’t. These old vineyards teach us that you can plant certain varieties even in dry climates. It teaches us how you can dry-farm. In this world of changing climate, we are really going to struggle in the future of watering if you don’t have your own well. These old vineyards tell us what to grow and how to grow it. It’s amazing.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!