Friends of Dedalus: Interview with California Winemaker Rajat Parr

Friends of Dedalus: Interview with California Winemaker Rajat Parr

Rajat Parr has been keeping busy in Cambria, California. 

Easily one of the most important winemakers working in California today, Raj recently began a new adventure called Phelan Farm: eleven and a half acres sporting more than half a dozen different varieties that he’s farming regeneratively, alone. That’s because he’s a  firm believer in the power of good farming, he seeks to make great wines that come from great vineyards. 

Raj began his career as a chef, then became a master sommelier, and now is a winemaker. Along with his collaborater Sashi Moorman, he exemplifies the new school producers who look to classic California winemakers of the 70s and 80s for inspiration, as well as the great winemakers of Europe. He prioritizes the vineyards, and quality of his wine, over all else.

Raj has his hand in a number of operations: Evening Land, Domaine de la Côte, Sandhi, and Scythean. Dedalus team members Sadie Williams, Ashley Bryant, and Brittany Galbraith spoke to him in January 2023.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ashley: How did harvest go this year for you?

Raj: Well, there were so many harvests I was involved in. It was pretty good. Oregon was okay. Domaine de la Côte was good. Sandhi was good. And then I farmed my own vineyard, which was a disaster.

Sadie: Where is that?

Raj: I live in a small town called Cambria, I have a small farm here. I took over this property in 2020 and kind of brought it to regenerative and kind of do all my work myself. I'm going to hire my first vineyard assistant later this year, but it's 11 and a half acres and keeps me busy the whole year.

Ashley: Yeah. That's a lot to do by yourself with all of your other projects.

Raj: Really, 95% of my focus is just on my vineyard here. Sashi runs most of the business now and Darren Palace sells the wine and we hired a few other people who now kind of do sales. So I oversee the vineyards for Sandhi here on the farming side and the picking side. And then I farm four of my own small vineyards and an apple orchard.

Ashley: Do you have any plans for making cider?

Raj: Well, I've been practicing. I've made cider from Hood River for the last three years. And I make an apple grape wine, I co-ferment. And by 2024, hopefully, I'll have my own apples. Until then I've been buying apples.

Ashley: What are you growing on your farm in Cambria?

Sadie: And are they things that have been growing there for a while or did you plant them yourself?

Raj: No, it was mostly Chardonnay and Pinot, which we used to use for Sandhi, and then I slowly started grafting, bringing over some cuttings from my favorite places. And then finally when the pandemic happened, I thought, It’s a perfect time to just peace out and just get away from the daily rut of life. And that's when I started this. So my new company has three different arms.

One is Phelan Farm, here in Cambria, which is 15 varieties, which are mostly Jura and Savagnin varieties. So Savagnin apples, Poulsard, Trousseau, Gamay, Pinot. We have Mondeus, Autrement, Misturada de Cambria, and a little bit of Mencia in one part of the vineyard and Pink Chardonnay from Tissot.

And then we actually make six wines from the vineyards east of Los Angeles, from old 100-plus-year-old vines in Monga Valley, and that’s dry farmed, no sprays, own-rooted, certified organic vineyards planted between 1880 and 1912. Those will probably make it out of your way. Jose Pastor is gonna sell them nationally starting later this year.

And then I have another called Brij Wines which is from growers I work with, friends, and we make a few different other varieties, things like Cabernet Franc, a Malbec blend. We do a little Grenache, Shiraz, a little Albariño, and a little Grüner. So those are all in SLO County around here.

Brittany: You're making me think of Ganevat and all of his experimentations with all of these different cuvets and different things. Where do you get your inspiration? Do you just use your gut and experiment? Are you inspired by particular producers and blends you've seen others do? How do you manage all of this imaginative work?

Raj: For my own vineyard, Phelan, it’s kind of a self-manifested idea. I don't have any farming background. I've never raised animals before. So I taught myself regenerative farming and got animals and sheep and chickens and dogs and all that kind of stuff and it's an ongoing experimental idea. We don't spray any chemicals: no sulfur sprayed in the vineyard, no copper, no nothing. We only use holistic sprays, only plant-based and seaweed-based sprays. It's a pretty wild vineyard. That's something that is an ongoing lifelong experiment.

And then the Scythian from L.A. — it was amazing. We ran into these vineyards and got to know the owners and that's been pretty amazing to work with Palomino and old Alicante, Garnacha Tintorera, Grenache, Mission, Zinfandel, and Salvador.

So I haven’t taken anything specific from other producers. But the vineyards have to have a cool story. They have to have some vine age, 20-some years, at least I try to kind of work with vineyards that are 20 to 50 years old. So they all have some personality. And then of course, having drunk lots of wines from the classic producers, this always why I make Albariño is of course because I'm a big fan of Nanclares.

The inspiration is that all the wines are made without any additives. There's in some cases, little sulfur used at bottling, but other than that, just kind of everything is made the way it is.

Sadie: In Somm 3, Jancis Robinson says that you've been trying to make Burgundy in California for years with Domaine de la Côte. Would you say that's accurate, or do you think of it differently?

Raj: Well, when you want to make anything — a dish, a wine, anything, you always point your compass toward someone who has done it before you. Of course, I don't want to make Burgundy in California because our weather is quite different, but yes: if I can achieve the profiles of Pinot Noir that have been mastered by people in the birthplace of the grape, absolutely, yeah, 100%. But that's not the goal.

When the vineyard at Domaine de la Côte was planted, it wasn't like the plant material came from Burgundy, it came off from Heritage California selections. It was planted in a similar way to how Burgundy's planted. But I don't live there. I live in California. So I have to make the best of what I have here, to fit that model. And I want to do that with every variety.

When I produce Syrah, my brain is like, "I want this wine to be as similar to Thierry Allemand as possible."But that's not about how you make the wine, that's informed by the vineyard you find. I've made Syrah since 2004, and finally, in 2021, I found the vineyard that fully expresses this grape and is completely what you want Syrah to be. But it took a long time.

Sadie: When it comes to California, is there something that you think people, the broader public, get wrong about the wines made here? And, is there something that you feel that you would want people to know about California that you think they might not?

Raj: The evolution that has happened drastically in just the last 10 years, maybe 20. I think there have just been more people who have wanted to push the envelope with farming, people like Ted Lemon and the Hirsch family and Tegan Passalacqua who's one of the most brilliant minds in California, or the world. These guys have really championed places and how viticulture will succeed in California because it's also the most misunderstood place.

It's a big place. You start from up in Amador County all the way down to Temecula. I make a wine from Temecula and when you taste it, it's gonna blow your mind. It's from a vineyard planted in the 1880s, so it's just a completely mind-bending wine but what do people think of Temecula wine? “It's garbage.” Because it's made at mass scale and it's popcorn Chardonnay and Cabernet. But we found a vineyard that was abandoned and resurrected it. So California wine has so many layers that it's hard to kind of pinpoint. It's the people who are slowly bringing back all these ideas.

When you say the wild, wild West — California is that. We can plant anything anywhere, and the collective group of people like Duncan and Nathan from Arnot-Roberts, and, Tegan, Abe Schoener, and many others, are still pushing and trying to define their own place.

I made a little Assyrtiko this year from Lodi — I got it from Tegan, who was buying the grapes, I was like, “Tegan, can I like have some? My girlfriend loves Assyrtiko, I gotta go and make her an Assyrtiko.” It's crazy — this Greek guy in Lodi planted Assyrtiko and Vidiano.

California is just misunderstood because there's so much of it. It's not black and white. The most genius marketing in the world is the French wine industry. What if Burgundy had planted 50 varieties? Or if Bordeaux had other varieties? Then it would be a whole different story.

Sadie: In terms of what you said about your compass, which is that you're not trying to make Burgundy, but your compass might point toward Burgundy. Does your compass ever point toward someone in California? Somewhere in California?

Raj: A hundred percent. The late Burt Williams, who I got to know towards the end of his career and end of his life, made the Williams Selyem wines, till they sold in, I guess, in '97. He had a house just above my house in Santa Barbara. So I would see him fairly often and I used to love pouring him natural wine and he used to love it. And he always said, “You always pick on acidity. You don't pick on ripeness, you pick on acidity.” And he's definitely been a huge part of what we do with Pinot Noir.

We've never acidified any wine. We always pick on acidity and we let the ripeness be, whether it's 11.5% or it's 14%. Burt used to make wine in old dairy tanks — I own two of them, and I still make wine in dairy tanks. That came from him. When you make wine alone —I had no pump and I was doing everything by hand. So the dairy tanks are easy to shovel out, and you can do punch downs on your own. I made lots of wine in these dairy tanks, and it's always amazing because it never gets too hot. You get a gentle extraction. And I've done three-day ferments in there. I've done all kinds of different things.

Ashley: Food is always a curiosity of mine whenever I'm thinking about wine because I do love that experience of having them together and visiting different regions. It's like this particular food with this wine, what does that experience look like? A lot of times it's people growing food on their property and that becomes part of the food and wine culture. What does that look like on your farm? Are you growing food? Do you still like to cook?

Raj: 100%. I cook every day. I love it. It’s a nice little spot here. We get really good produce year-round. Right now, we’ve had so many storms, so farmers' markets haven't really worked out. But we have an amazing. Cambria — I haven't been to Vermont, but people have mentioned Cambria could be in Vermont 'cause there are no chain stores, there's no... We have no fast food. We have... It's completely a blue town. And we have a really great organic store here. So as far as growing, I can't wait to grow things. Right now we don't because, again, manpower, I’m alone, so I have to take care of the vines. But I'm hiring someone who's starting in May. So hopefully, we'll be able to get some beds out.

Sadie: What do you think the future of American wine, California included, really looks like? And what do you want it to look like?

Raj: I want it to look like more people taking over vineyards to manage them in a more holistic way. In a more conscientious way, really thinking about the environmental impact. So I would love to see more people working with vineyards, resurrecting vineyards. I don't want anyone planting any new vineyards necessarily. But thinking about the carbon outputs and thinking about what is your personal impact?

So I would like California to focus more on vineyards and move away from just making wine. Now, every young person wants to make a light-colored wine in a flint glass and put a colorful label on it and that becomes a wine. And you gotta get away from that. A) flint glass is not good because it takes 60% more energy to produce. B) you don't want to just make wine. You really have to be a part of it. Everyone, all of us need to grow something in our backyard or in a kitchen or whatever. Because we have to release the pressure from the supply chain. We all can grow a little cilantro or a little parsley or a few tomatoes if we can.

Sadie: The future is farming.

Raj: The future is definitely farming, and I hope that the younger generation embraces it more than my generation.