Winemaker Greg Brewer as the conductor of Melville Vineyards’ ensembles

Before he was a winemaker, Greg Brewer was a French teacher. The longtime winemaker for Melville Vineyards (and co-founder of Brewer-Clifton) does have a linguist’s flair for words, with plenty of slang and extravagant metaphors thrown into the mix. And he has a talent for explaining the complexities of winemaking without ever sounding preachy or dogmatic. What comes through loud and clear are his passion for wine and his fascination with its evolution from vineyard to cellar.

In a tasting seminar he gave recently for a group of wine professionals, we tasted through several flights of Pinot Noirs in which every wine had been made exactly the same — vinification, fermentation, the use of neutral barrels — except for one element. In some cases it was the type of soil, in others it was the varietal clone or whether stems were included during the fermentation. Considering that the barrel samples all came from just one area (the Santa Rita Hills) and one estate, the wines were astonishingly different. And yet each was a complete wine and could easily stand on its own.

Those wines were just a very small sampling of the palette of Pinots available to Brewer at Melville Vineyards, where he has made 17 vintages so far. The vineyards are picked in a certain order, so he can keep track of which grapes from which rows or blocks go into each of the 140 fermenters.

Brewer likes to compare the collection of wines that go into the estate wine blend to an orchestra. He calls the bright, high-toned wines picked earlier in the six-week harvest and wines from sandy soils the piccolos, while richer, more curvaceous Pinots picked later or from primarily clay soils play the part of the violin or maybe the cello sections.

Some winemakers taste through every barrel, make sample blends and then put their final blend together. Brewer’s strategy at Melville is a little different.

“We essentially craft the blend over a six-week period during the harvest,” he told me. “At the start, we’ll be picking early-season fruit that’s lighter, brighter and with a higher acidity.” That’s his piccolos. As the harvest progresses, he says, “different blocks and clones and soils and picking parameters offer grapes with more weight and more bass notes.”

Going deeper into the orchestra metaphor, Brewer explains that if you have, say, 90 musicians in a full-scale orchestra, you could go to each musician and have each play a piece of music, and each one will sound seductive. Then have them play the same piece collectively. “That’s the blend.”

But certain musicians stand out for the extreme beauty of their playing. If, for example, you pulled out the first violinist because you wanted to hear her on her own, he says, it wouldn’t compromise the sound of the orchestra as a whole. You’d still have several excellent musicians on violin. “So when we pull our Block M or Terraces Pinot Noir or any of the other small-lot wines,” says Brewer, “we’re letting their voices be heard without removing the core of the orchestra.”

As for the vintage, he compares it to going back to the orchestra the next season with a different score and asking the same musicians to play that piece. “Chances are the same performers might resonate with you as the year before and you might want to pull them out to be heard on their own,” says Brewer.

“You’re not starting from scratch every year. That’s the beautiful thing of being part of an estate for almost two decades,” he explains. “By and large, there’s a reason why there’s a hierarchy in an orchestra and in a vineyard situation.”

Wine’s elements of change: soil, clones, stems and more

Some of the elements that go into creating the tone or voice of the wine, according to Melville Vineyards winemaker Greg Brewer.

The soil: Sandier soils lead to Pinot Noirs that are more feminine, with high-toned aromatics and delicacy. Clay-based soils offer more power, richness and density.

Clonal selection: Different clones of Pinot Noir have different characters, like different instruments in the same family. Clone 115 could be a violin, clone 114 a viola, for example. But then there’s the variation introduced by growing that clone in different soils. Brewer would say that’s comparable to the difference in sound when a particular violinist plays the same theme on his or her particular instrument. It’s a matter of tone.

The ripeness: Grapes picked early in the harvest, generally speaking, are less ripe and more acidic, so offer energy, youthfulness, snap and verve as a brush stroke. Later-picked grapes offer more weight, more richness, more sensuality, more decadence.

Stem inclusion: The varying levels of stem inclusion contribute yet another cross-section of diversity. In pastry and desserts, the sweetness can be reined back by a savory element. And it’s the same thing with stem inclusion. It can rein in or mitigate the decadent nature of later-season fruit.