Given its current darling status among the wine media cognoscenti, I suppose that I should have been predisposed to like the wines that Rhys Vineyards is plying.
But the first two minutes of a Zoom tasting with winemaker Jeff Brinkman (formerly of R.H. Phillips, Antica, and Husch Vineyards & Winery) almost sealed the deal before we even got started. “I like that slimline Tele you have hanging up back there” he mentioned when he saw one of my “wall-hanger” IYV guitars in the background.
Very, very quickly our scheduled tasting discussion got very, very off track, and likely to the poor PR folks’ dismay we were down the rabbit hole of favorite music acts. When Brinkman mentioned that he’d once given wine to Rush legends (and wine collecting buffs) Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, I was, admittedly, at least partially, nerd-ily smitten.
Rhys’ backstory has been well-covered at this point, but the summary goes something like this: Owner Kevin Harvey made his money at Benchmark Capital and started spending a bunch of it on Cotes d’Or wines, going down the nerdy wine rabbit hole himself to the point where he wanted to create terroir-driven wines himself in a California-meets-Grand-Cru-Burgundy style, planting a “backyard vineyard” of Pinot vines at his Santa Cruz Mountains home (now called, shockingly, the “Home vineyard”). Call him a homer, but he felt that he’d hit pay-dirt, feeling that his (and other) SCM Pinots came closest to evoking his beloved Burgundies.
Rhys is a bit of a convergence of nature and science, maybe even more so than normal for the wine industry. Much research was conducted by Harvey on what went into making the Cotes d’Or wines so special in his estimation, and he brought on Brinkman who, at one point, was contemplating a PhD in biochemistry. As for nature, the Santa Cruz Mountains have one of the more interesting terroir stories in California.
The SCM are at t he meeting of two large tectonic plates, where the Pacific plate turned up, exposing the geologic diversity that lay underneath. As you move westward, the soils get younger, with Pinot’s favorite—marine deposits—at elevation. Rhys now has six estate vineyards, all employing the same farming and cellar methodologies, claiming that the marked differences in the wines results entirely from the different locations and soil makeups. “When we go looking for vineyards,” Brinkman explained, “it’s got to have unique geology. It’s really a philosophy-driven approach.” Their estate wines are all 100% estate, native yeasts fermented on the lees, and hand-harvested out of necessity due to the mountainous terrains (“we wouldn’t be able to mechanize it if we wanted to.”). And they are small. These sites range from 1.3 to 31 acres.
Brinkman has been onboard at Rhys since 2006, when it was “literally a garage operation.” The moved to their current core facility in 2010 (with a second winery now in Mendocino).
Given the focus on Burgundy, this Chard is an interesting opener, as it leans into the natural concentration of the SCM sunshine. “We have this thing in California where we try not to be California,” Brinkman lamented, and this white is a response against that to some extent. Tone of apple action open it up, with cream, blossom, pear, and spice all buoyed by the aromatic lift of whole cluster pressing. Rich, vibrant, mineral, and approachable in the mouth, the ripe apple flavors continue into a toasty, long, linear, delightful finish.
Peachier, creamier, sexier, more perfumed, and more voluptuous than its AV counterpart, this SCM Chard (blended from three different vineyards) has it all going on, with flavors and aromas of lemon curd, crème brûlée, lemon peel, white peach, and citrus rind. The structural astringency on the palate is downright fantastic. The long finish makes it a white that will help you fall in love with California Chardonnay all over again.
This vineyard, situated six miles from the Monterey Bay, sits about 1,000 feet in elevation on gentle slopes, with the Pajaro fault running straight through the vineyard’s black/brown, 30 million year old shale soils. “Everything is dialed up” and focused from this site, according to Brinkman, and in this case he does not appear to be wrong. Cream, freshly cut lemons, mandarin, hints of lime zest, blossoms/white flowers, and even some ginger… Just lots happening on the nose here. In the mouth: Wow. Zesty full, complete, and still young! Vibrant yellow apple, peaches, honeydew, spice, and fantastic length. Can’t get over how young this feels right now.
“`17 was a challenging vintage” Brinkman noted, referring to its big September heatwave that “shocked” the vines, which fortunately recovered quickly in a testament to their overall health. This Pinot is none the worse for the wear it seems, as it struts its earthy, broad, developed red fruit profile with affable aplomb. Tea leaf notes, dusty tannins, and palate-cleansing acidity and tension add complexity, but even without those it would be delicious.
This fabulous red manages an enviable balancing act of a lively, structured mouthfeel and rich flavors of black cherry and rhubarb. It’s spicy, crunchy, brambly, minty, and fun, and yet all the while feels dressed up without seeming pompous or overdressed.
When I noted how savory this red seemed, Brinkman told me that was “common for that vineyard.” Well, that’s about the only thing that feels common about this exceptional Pinot. Black tea, wild berries, rhubarb, all insanely well-defined and super fresh on the nose. Add sage and underbrush, as well as earthy hints. Again, the palate shows great energy and youth here. Incredible depth, purity, and consistency of the fruit from the nose, while adding cranberry, currants, and blackberry. Gorgeous stuff, with just a hint of wood and structure. If you dislike this one, you probably dislike Pinot in general.