A Conversation with Ian Brand, Winemaker & Owner of I. Brand & Family Wines
Ian Brand is one of the hottest rising talents coming out the Central Coast right now. Recently named Winemaker of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, he is an incredibly passionate winemaker with a vision, not only for his own wines, but for the region as a whole. With no formal education in enology and no financial backing, he has propelled himself forward into the spotlight in a short amount of time. In 2012 (after only five years of making wines), he was named one of the “40 Under 40” by Wine Enthusiast, who described him as “innovative, experimental and eager to push the envelope in Salinas Valley and beyond.” Fast forward to today, and he has three wine brands, La P’tit Paysan, La Marea, and I. Brand & Family, each crafted to capture the unique beauty of the vineyards, the grapes and this distinctive region.
Ian will be pouring his wines this Thursday in our San Francisco store (and February 15th in Redwood City) so I caught up with him this week to ask a few questions.
Megan: You had an unusual path to winemaking. Coming out of college at Middlebury, it looks like you were a Grizzly Bear Tour Guide in Alaska, Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, Ski Bum, and worked for Utah’s Fish and Game Wildlife. Is that right?
Ian: Yes. I also did some framing and finish carpentry jobs and washed tour buses in Denali National Park. I did whatever I could that was interesting, or if I was in the middle of an adventure, anything I could to eat and make it to the next piece. A couple times, like after I hitchhiked back to the lower 48 from Fairbanks, Alaska, I would call my mom, tell her I'm hard up, and she'd buy me a plane ticket home, where I'd last a couple months before I was off again. The third time, she politely declined, so I ended up in California.
Megan: When you combine those experiences with your first winemaking stint at Bonny Doon, there is a certain boundary-pushing, nonconformity that starts to take shape. Do think this is reflected in your wines? Do you think this influences your wines today?
Ian: I think classifying my time at Bonny Doon as a 'winemaking stint' is generous. I dug pits, dragged hoses, and used my street spanish to talk trash to the other cellar hands. I was best at the last part. But I think my perspective on winemaking is different than many of my compatriots because I never worked in service or aspired to be a winemaker. That part of wine - the unicorn hunting, the vintage bagging, the excess and one-upsmanship, sabering and magnums of rose - is still foreign to me, perhaps by design. Like a carpenter, I see being a winemaker as being a craftsperson who uses skills and tools to construct beautiful goods. In college, I studied conservation biology and had the good luck to learn from naturalists like Rick Bass, Dennis Sizemore and Jerry Scoville, who taught me to see places through the small clues of the natural world. This holistic, naturalist approach is the mainstay of how I see vineyards.
Megan: I know you are a big advocate for the larger Monterey Bay area. What is it that you like about this region and how do you think it can compete with other well-known wine regions in the state, such as Napa or Sonoma?
Ian: I don't hope that it becomes Napa or Sonoma, nor do I see something altogether different. Our vision is not to compete with those regions, but to find what is special about our region, it's history and growing conditions, and use that to define our wines. The wines of the Monterey Bay region do not, and should not, imitate what comes from regions north or south (or east) of us. Our hope is that we can use wine as a value-added product to support responsible, sustainable and locally-owned development that marries our agricultural bounty with our local tourist industry. The locally-owned and locally-produced element is critical.
Megan: How many vineyards are you working with at any given time? What are you looking for in vineyards?
Ian: When we look at vineyards, we ask a couple set of questions: First, should the vineyard be there? Are these winegrowing soils, and does the location support lower input farming? (Organic farming in the wrong location can be very high input.) Second, why is this vineyard interesting, and will the grapes be able to communicate that unique place? A part of this question is whether they have planted the right varieties for that site, and how they're planted and farmed. What is the vine age and clonal/massale material? All of these things come into play. If a vineyard meets those criteria, we see how we can work it into our program, or how we can adapt our program to bring it in. And that's the beginning of a very long process.
I think we're pulling from about 25 vineyards right now, but I haven't counted for a few years.
Megan: You have three brands, each with a slightly different angle on varietals and regions, but does your winemaking style remain similar throughout?
Ian: Our goal is to frame the beauty of a place while affecting the 'truth' of the place as little as necessary. The main difference between the P'tit Paysan wines and the I. Brand wines is the vineyards. The vineyards that go into the I. Brand wines aren't necessarily of higher quality, but through farming and their treatment in the winery, they are more complete ideas. In the P'tit Paysan wines, the various vineyards that go into the blends have their idiosyncrasies that we haven't quite figured out yet. By blending vineyards and varieties together, we are able to compensate for their inadequacies and show a wider view of place. But each vineyard we work with, we work with for a reason. Each is a puzzle we're trying to solve in various stages of completion.
It's also worth saying that when we started our winery, we couldn't have handled making wines of the quality we wanted I. Brand to be. We needed to spend five vintages making village wines to gain the touch, tact and local knowledge to take on the vineyards that make up the I. Brand stable, but now we apply that same skill to all the wines we make.
Megan: I have to ask you about your labels, which I love. Is there a story behind them? An old man and a chicken? And the La Marea is equally as visual. I’m curious.
Ian: Each label came about differently. My younger brother, who was in art school at the time, drew the P'tit Paysan labels. I asked him to draw a country buffoon. He drew our dad. The La Marea labels are taken from a book of 16th century woodcuttings our label designer Robert van Horne has been carrying about for years. I threw a couple of words at him, and he knew exactly where to go. He pulled the images, added color, and they're beautiful. He's very talented. He probably does several of your favorite wine labels.
Megan: In 2016, you began making I.Brand and Family. What was the impetus for these wines?
Ian: We were gaining access to vineyards I had been pursuing for years, over a decade for some. They didn't fit in either the Le P'tit Paysan or La Marea concepts, and it would have broken my heart to turn those vineyards down. We decided that we had come far enough to begin to put our stamp on the region, and that these were vineyards that we knew we wanted seen.
Megan: In addition to making your own wines, I believe you also do a lot of work in the community to support local vineyards and winemakers, in order to lift up the reputation of the area as a whole. How is this being done?
Ian: One way we've begun working on this is through atypical relationships with some special vineyards. We've taken on some management responsibilities in partnership with the Enz Vineyard in the Lime Kiln Valley and Massa Vineyard (nee Durney Vineyard) in the Carmel Valley. These are vineyards farmed by the owners, who have committed to organic farming and pursuing quality. Both vineyards have older, own-rooted vines and storied histories. We help with the promotion of the vineyards, finding the right winemakers to work with the fruit, and making sure they receive what they need to be successful. We could keep more fruit for ourselves from those places, but that isn't the right thing for the vineyards or for the reputation of the region. We share in this way so that we know they will be properly cared for and sustainable.
We also mentor local winemakers when we can. It's a little strange for me to be sharing my deep knowledge and experience when I'm not so old or experienced myself, but we've been able to succeed because we were the recipients of great mentorship and its important for us to pay it forward. We have a handful of exceptional new winemakers just starting to spread their wings in the area, and that's very exciting to see.
Megan: Of your wines, do you have any favorites?
Ian: The dreaded question... I guess right now, I'm fascinated by the potential of Cabernet Franc in the area, and really sinking my teeth into pre-modern era Cabernet Sauvignon, which means wider spacing, own-rooted or on AXR-1 or St. George, and massale selections. There's some very interesting vineyards that were planted in Woodside and around the Stevens Creek area of Saratoga in the 1880's that were purported to have been planted to pre-phylloxera LaTour and Margaux selections. Supposedly, that budwood followed the Mirassous and Almaden into plantings in this area of the coast. We pick from a handful of those vineyards, and the Cabernet has a very distinctive, lithe and glorious, character.
Megan: What’s next?
Ian: It depends on the next thread that I find that I'm compelled to follow. Until then, we're working on incremental improvements, taking a few of our vineyards to the next level, and navigating the various difficulties every independent winery deals with. It's never ending. In the meantime, I hope to enjoy my family, our community, and our beautiful coastline as much as I can.