Phil Crews of Pelican Ranch, Interview

Ξ April 24th, 2008 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Winemakers, Wineries |

Peggy and Phil Crews Phil and Peggy Crews are the owners of Pelican Ranch Winery in Santa Cruz, Ca. *Though their website is in need of a serious overhaul useful information may still be found there. They enjoy a substantial subscriber base and sell a high proportion of their wines through their tasting room which is open from 12 to 5 Friday through Sunday. An eclectic mix of people pass through their door, university students, winemakers, tourists, and wine enthusiasts, of course.

They are active members of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA). I caught up with Phil at their winery located on Ingalls St. in Santa Cruz.

Admin When did you become a winemaker?

Phil Crews When did I become a winemaker? Well, that’s almost a philosophical question! At this point in time I don’t consider myself a winemaker because the goal is to buy the best grapes we can, to harvest them at the correct moment, to put them in the best available cooperage, and not to have to do anything. And the result of that process would be being a wine shepherd, not being a winemaker.

So I have been making wine since the early ’70’s. We established the winery in 1997 and moved to our current spot here five years ago. So, I’ve seen a lot of grapes come and go. I’d say probably 80% to 90% of the fruit we get is really great and so all we have to do is shepherd it from the vineyard into the bottle.
Do you have long-term contracts with grape growers. How does that work?
Phil Crews I would suspect we’re like other small wineries, and that is its pretty much a gentleman’s or gentlewoman’s agreement basically. I think a good example is that since ‘97 we began getting fruit from Los Carneros and the contract comes either simultaneous to the harvest and crush, or maybe a few moments before. By and large we don’t have any long term contracts with anybody. But yet we’ve been making the same wines from the same vineyards over and over again. There are some people who would like to engineer contacts and we’re willing to do that.

Actually, there is one exception, I won’t mention the vineyard, but the ideal situation is to become partners with a particular vineyard and then sharing in the risk in terms of the harvest and how Mother Nature is going to treat the grapes. So we’ve got a situation where we own fruit in about an acre of land, and we dictate what the tons per acre will be. We’re simply paying for an acre of fruit at a certain value. I think more and more people are going to go to that arrangement. That really develops the partnership with the vineyard and the winemaker.

And to return to the earlier question, winemaking really begins in the vineyard. The winemaker doesn’t do anything, in my opinion. Its the vineyard and the grower that really does it all. Of course, the winemaker is capable of screwing it up!

How many cases do you produce a year?
Phil Crews I would appear that we produce 1000 cases. And that number gets bumped up and down as a function of last minute changes in terms of grapes coming in. Our goal, our model is very different than a lot of places. What we’re doing is making about 20 different wines, exploring terroir under the circumstances of the different regions of Monterey, the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond. We’re going for maritime location of grapes, and were getting enough grapes to make as many as 150 cases but as little as just a barrel’s worth, which can be from 22 to 25 cases. So, let’s see, for the last four years we’ve pretty much followed that model, it’s been creeping up a bit, but usually no more than 20 wines from 20 tons of fruit. In principle that translates into about 1000 cases.

And your barrel program?
Phil Crews What we’re doing in terms of wood, and everybody is challenged at this point, the amount of euros that a dollar will buy, of course, we all know is going down. Still I feel firmly we have to use French oak. About 10% of our wood is Oregon oak and about 25% of the wood we get is brand new French oak. All the wines are barrel fermented. And we keep barrels only about 4 years. This is really what all wineries do if they’re trying to produce wine at the top of the flavor profile. So that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to keep experimenting. I’ve tried a few American oak barrels, I’ve tried Hungarian oak, I’ve tried Yugoslavian oak, but for the flavor profiles we’re going at it just doesn’t work. So French oak is the key. Oregon barrels, however, offer very unique notes, they provide a really interesting tool to produce flavors and aromas that are unmatched by French barrels, or other parts of the country.

What kinds of wines do you specialize in?
Phil Crews Our focus is wines typically found in the Burgundy and the Rhone regions, both red and white. In Burgundy the white grape chardonnay is the most renowned, pinot gris is close behind that. Another kind of obscure fact is that we make a dry gewurztraminer and in maps that I have of Burgundy going back 500-600 years ago show that Alsace was once a part of Burgundy. Recently someone asked why we don’t put our gewutrz in a hock-type bottle so I tried to remind them of this fact. Essentially we make any wine that I think will fit nicely into a Burgundy bottle by tradition.
Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

So the reds from Burgundy are pinot noir. For other reds we look at the Rhone; the top of the list there would be syrah. All single vineyard, like the whites. Now, there are blends we make as well, two unique blends, inspired by Rhone practices. One, Trois Amis Rouge, is a red blend of three grapes, again from a single vineyard, syrah, cinsault, and actually the petit verdot is a ringer. That’s the only grape we’ve ever had in the winery that is not traditionally Burgundy or Rhone. Of course, we know the petit verdot comes from Bordeaux. We also have a white blend, Trois Amis Blanc, that is based on fruit from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA and that’s a combination of viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. Two things that make these wines really great: firstly, the origins in the Santa Cruz Mountains, secondly, the co-fermentation, cold harvest, and barrel fermentation of all of these. And I would say that these blends are truly spectacular and something that is representative of things we’re going to continue to do.

In the past we made something we called Spectrum Rouge that illustrates our program with zinfandel, but we mixed in syrah and actually chardonnay. And there was a wonderful array of flavors and aromas that were found with the Spectrum Rouge. So zinfandel is another wine we make. And again, a question comes up, why do we bottle zinfandel in the Burgundy-type bottle? There is no short answer. The long answer is that most people… well, the short answer is that most wineries put zinfandel, for reason not at all clear to me, into a Bordeaux bottle. And given that we now know the origins of zinfandel are in Croatia it seems to me that Burgundy has a greater kinship with Croatia than does Bordeaux.

Anyway, that sort of lays out what we do here in terms of the various wines. We have about an equal mix of red and white wines, actually at this point its about 65% red, 45% white. When we started the white wines were all chardonnay but as the years have gone by we’ve expanded to these other things that really compliment the chardonnay nicely; the pinot gris, the gewurtz, viognier, roussanne, and marsanne.

One other thing to take note of, if the focus of the winery is to delve in Burgundy and Rhone style grapes then I think the ultimate expression of that is to have pinotage in the flavor mix. This coming spring we’ll release our first pinotage. Down the road we’ll add mouvedre. Assuming the wine staff can get their act together!

In addition to winemaking you have a career outside of the winery. Could you say a little bit about that?
Phil Crews Very briefly, because the readers of you blog would be quite bored with that exercise! Winemaking involves really capturing beautiful flavors and aromas that I regard as secondary metabolites or secondary chemistry and so my ability to look at that contribution to wines comes from the research I’ve been doing over the last thirty years that looks at natural products chemistry of marine organisms. Our lab on the University of California Santa Cruz campus is a thriving entity and there are many lessons that I’ve learned from doing academic research that I try and bring back to the winery. So on a day to day basis I’m a thesis advisor to all of the students who work with us; and on a day to day basis at the winery, as I said earlier, I’m the wine shepherd. I’m watching over the barrels, trying to steer them in the right direction, and not try to introduce any artificial influences. And that is also what I am doing up at the university, trying to steer student minds toward quality.

Is their anything else you’d like to add?
PassportPhil Crews I’m trying to bring the sense of education back to the winery. For every Passport what we do is a really fun thing: I set up a tent, I have a series of questions that I present to people and get them to participate in the answering of the questions. And generally the reward for correct answers is to be able to taste barrel samples! Its been a delightful experience that we’ll repeat four times a year. I think people have really have come to enjoy this and note that if they want to have that experience they come to us at Passport.

Something special that we’re going to do in the near future is have a series of tastings of what I call ‘mystery wines’…

Blind tastings?
Phil Crews Ah… I’ll just leave it at ‘mystery wines’. It will be three or four wines that we’ll present with questions that people will have to answer. It will be a very eye-opening. Another eye-opening thing we do on occasion is we ask the question: What would you do with a bottle of Pelican Ranch wine in the unlikely event at dinner you simply can’t consume the whole bottle? And I call that my ‘open bottle tasting trial’. We’ve explored here at the winery various regimes for preserving that wine for a twenty-four hour period or longer. The outcome has been quite surprising, based on trial and error.

One other thing for the future is an exploration of our labels, a review of all the unique information we provide.

Thank you, Phil.
*Their web site has since been updated!


One Response to ' Phil Crews of Pelican Ranch, Interview '

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  1. paul said,

    on April 24th, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks for filling in some of the holes about how you got where you are, Phil. Nice to meet you, too.

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