“For us, everything is moved by gravity. If someone were to watch me make wine for a year they’d be like, “damn, that really is a really simple technique”. Wine is so over-thought, and the really simple way of doing it is often the best.”
Drake Whitcraft is the kind of winemaker that reminds us that talking about wine needn’t be all business. He grew up around wine—it’s nothing short of second nature to him—but he is also a musician, a dad, and someone who understands, as much as anyone, that life is about balance.
It's this balance he also pursues in his wines. Having become a winemaker himself as California's In Pursuit of Balance movement was taking place, it's something that's been imprinted on his own wines.
But Drake takes it one step further; these are balanced wines, but there's also a certain rawness to them. They're always whistle-clean, but they're not sterile. They are living, breathing expressions of organic and regenerative California fruit.
Photographs by Jimmy Hayes
As we chat to Drake via Zoom, he’s standing in the middle of his own backyard vineyard. The Cali sun is beaming down; we comment on it, and Drake begins by discussing the 2020 heatwave.
“It’s been a rough year - I’ve never seen the kind of heat damage that we’ve seen this year. We had ripe berries, underripe berries, and shrivelled, dried-up raisins on the same cluster.”
But despite this, he tells us that it’s going to be OK. He has built a network of highly attentive and talented growers from whom he sources fruit and who he trusts inherently, and then for him, it’s about letting gravity do its thing; intervening only when necessary. Inspired by one of his father's first mentors, Burt Williams [of the iconic Williams Selyem], Drake’s philosophy is grounded in simplicity;
“Burt [Williams] would say that if you pick great grapes, then you need to put them in a barrel and then you leave them—don’t f*&^ with it.”
Perhaps Drake’s determined-yet-laissez-faire approach to his craft comes from having abruptly inherited his father’s business at the age of 32. His father’s health had been deteriorating for a few years, and so by 2008, Drake had taken over as head winemaker. After his father’s passing, Drake, who was then 32, found himself at the helm of Whitcraft—a much celebrated winery with a rich and fruitful legacy. But, it had also fallen into financial difficulties.
“When the economy took a shift—and we had already really felt it before 2008—things started to really go bad for people who had expendable income. It wasn’t something I was proud of, I tried to hide it for a while. But my friend has just written an article about it for a newspaper and he said to me… you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, you should be proud."
After filing for bankruptcy in 2011 (the same year that Drake took over the winery), he and his father found that no one would sell them fruit. But fast forward to 2020, and Drake has not only found fruit, but taken the winery in a new direction to become known as one of the most compelling organic and naturally-orientated wineries in the US. It's an understatement to say that his father would be proud.
But let’s rewind, back to the very start:
Drake’s father burst onto the wine scene through working at a wine shop called Mayfair Cellars. The owners of the shop were kind, generous people, Drake recounts, and the reason his father was able to buy the winery.
“They loaned him the money to buy it, and let him make his first couple of Chardonnay vintages in their basement, under the shop.”
The turning point for Drake’s father, as a budding winemaker, was meeting the well-known winemakers of the era.
“At the shop, he met Ken Burnap from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards. My godfather is John Graff, who is Dick Graff’s brother (Dick Graff is the founder of Chalone Winery) and that, consequently, was how my dad met Burt Williams, of Williams Selyem.”
In 1980, Burt came in to the shop to sell his Hacienda del Rio, Zinfandel and Pinot;
“My dad was like: this is fantastic! Burt was also cherry-picking all of the best Burgundy on the shelves and my dad said; hey, you’re picking all of my best wines…”
He laughs, and continues:
“Burt was like: yeah, so? They became friends really quickly after that, and he mentored my dad on how to make Pinot and my dad later taught him how to make Chardonnay."
After going public in 1985, he produced a number of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Cabernet cuvées. 1985 saw the first 'official' Whitcraft vintage—a Cabernet—and thereafter his father produced solely Chardonnay until 1990.
That’s why the first Williams Selyem Chardonnay vintage was 1990, he tells us, since they had been trading knowledge for a few years. The first Whitcraft Pinot was also made in the same year, with grapes sourced from a vineyard further up the river.
“He hooked us up with Hirsch Vineyards; he was super instrumental with what—and who—we are today.”
The Winery & Vineyards
After taking over the winery in 2008, Drake found himself in a catch-22 situation; in order to recover from the grave financial situation he had found himself in, he needed to make wine. But in order to make wine, he needed grapes. And no one, at this point, was willing to sell them to him. The thing is, Drake tells us,
“My dad was a great winemaker, but not a good businessperson.”
But despite the situation, the reputation of the Whitcraft wines remained.
“Pence was the first [to agree to sell us grapes]. He was new to the area, but he knew we had a good reputation. He took a chance on me and gave me really good terms.”
Slowly but surely, production increased.
“In 2010 we made no wine. In 2011, we made 120 cases of wine – that was it. In 2012, we made 300. 2013, 500. 2014, 900. I slowly—very slowly—built it back up.”
Continuing his father’s legacy, but doing it on his own terms, he also started a wine club. This allowed him to continue to make more wine each year.
We know that Drake has always been intrigued by organics—he worked at an organic grocery store as a teenager, spurring him on to eat more organic food, and consume better and more sustainably. This encouraged him to pursue growers working organically, but due to the financial issues, it couldn't be an overnight thing:
“Pence was organic—starting in 2013. I was also working with another vineyard who wouldn’t farm organically for me. But I had a five-year contract, so I had to make wine from them for five years. They were one of the only vineyards who would sell me fruit, so…”
His perseverance, knowing that in order to keep the winery alive he must do whatever it took, is admirable. First step: financial sustainability, second step: environmental sustainability. His persistence has paid off. He's proud as he tells us,
“In the last three years, it’s totally different. Now I can get fruit from wherever I want. I get some really special fruit from places that nobody else gets fruit from, like Jason Drew’s vineyard in Mendocino. All of these growers farm organically at the very least. Jason’s is organic, biodynamic, no-till AND dry farmed."
Today, Drake works with 15 growers (in California, vineyards are extremely expensive, so buying the land isn't a feasible option). He smile as he says,
“The good thing—and something which means I don’t have to worry too much—is that almost everyone that I buy fruit from has a winery too, and I know that I like their wines. We all have the same goal. We’re different people and we’re going to get there differently, but we all have the same goal.”
When it comes to farming, it’s all about trust: trusting that their methods and values are in line with your own, and also that they know their vineyards inside & out.
“I try to work with places where I don’t have to worry. It’s really hard to be a true vigneron when I can’t afford my own land, so I have to be spread out in order to make all of these wines. To go and farm 15 sites myself around California would be impossible.”
He does, however, have his own little gem: the small parcel of Trousseau vines next to his house. It’s 100% organic, he explains, but not biodynamic.
“I don’t do biodynamics because I don’t have anywhere to put the pit of compost that my dog wouldn’t get into. Every time I take her to a biodynamic vineyard, she finds it and start digging…”
We both laugh.
Although it's only small, the vineyard means Drake has an opportunity to learn and experiment with farming techniques. He says,
“We don’t till because the rows are tight—not only can we not till but we don’t need to, because we have riverbed soil. The dogs break up the surface a lot, and that lets all of it in.”
Who would have thought that dogs would be the perfect ploughs? He continues,
“The first couple of years, we were taking what we could get because it was so young… but this year, as we’ve been more selective with positioning, etc, we actually got a better crop. During the first couple of years we just wanted it to grow; to get some energy out. But 2020 is definitely the best Trousseau yet.”
Growing up as the son of a winemaker, Drake was naturally surrounded by wine. Drake tells us that it was never a taboo to drink, and for that reason, it wasn’t until his early twenties that he actually started to explore.
“I’d say the first wines that really spoke to me were those from Burt Williams. My dad’s were a little burlier. And his stuff from the early 90s, I was kind of too young to remember drinking those. When I really started to pay attention to wine, I noticed Burt’s more because they were lighter, more pure.”
To this day, it is the early Williams Selyem wines that Drake still refers to as a benchmark for his own.
“When you’re a kid, and your mom asks what flavour lollipop you want, you say ‘red’ or ‘purple’ or ‘green’ — you think of flavours like that. Burt’s wines always tasted so ‘red’ to me, they were always purely red fruit.”
His father’s wines of the same era were a little spicier, more tannic, with higher alcohol levels.
“Those wines have aged tremendously. But when they were young, they weren’t necessarily what spoke to me.”
For the first few years at Whitcraft, Drake worked under his father, who was still calling the shots. 2011 was his first solo vintage—working his own sites, sampling, and calling all picking dates and cellar decisions.
In terms of technique, almost nothing has changed apart from temperature control. This is key:
“Nearly everything is the same, except that I add sulphites differently because I have a very cold warehouse. My dad never really cared about the temperature of the warehouse, because twenty years ago it wasn’t that big of a deal. But with climate change, we have these heat waves that hit Santa Barbara now, and the cellar can reach almost 80 degrees. It takes a lot of life out of the wines."
“I pick like my dad did back in the 80s. Actually, at first he used to pick on pH, and then he started to pick on sugar, when he started to get some scores. His palate also changed—he really likes scotch, so I think he started to make wine which tastes like scotch. High alcohol... a lot of new oak.”
Drake, on the other hand, favours lighter, cleaner wines.
“The technique is exactly the same. We don’t own a pump, we don’t own a filter… we have nothing that plugs in to make wine except the corker, and that’s the last step.”
Now, it's just a matter of fine-tuning.
“Technique-wise, we get a little tighter every year. We figure out how to do something better, but it doesn’t change the essence of the technique—we just do it a little tighter, a little cleaner, and with less air involved.”
A pied de cuve (similar to a sourdough starter, but the vineyard version) is used for the Gamay. For everything else, he saves his wine samples (that he takes from the vineyards to decide on a picking date), and puts them together to start fermenting. A genius zero-waste initiative!
“I pour some juice into a beaker, and dump that out on top of my fermenter. It’s the native yeast – and it doesn’t have berries or stems involved, because when I go sample I take all of that out. It’s the safest way to try to do native because I truck my fruit, and I don’t want road yeast fermenting my fruit!”
He likes to get the fermentation going quickly, and uses liquid CO2 to protect the juice from oxygen before it starts fermenting.
“For the first two or three days, depending on how it’s acting, we use CO2. Ever since we started doing that in 2013, the wines have become so much cleaner.”
They hand-sort, hand-punch and lightly tread just to extract a little bit of juice.
When it comes to drinking his own wines, Drake tells us that he looks for energy and red fruit.
“I’m looking for energy, vibrancy and the perfume I remember from smelling Burt’s wines for the first time. With my Pinot, I want it to be really clear that this was made from red fruit.”
It sounds like a simple idea, but it's not so easy. With the hot California sun, red fruit can easily turn into black fruit. The answer? Stems and a gentleness of touch. From using whole bunches, he achieves a spicy character, and to keep extraction gentle, he only macerates for a short period of 11-12 days.
“I look for the baking spices that my dad and Burt always said were the trademark of a great Pinot. I think that’s one of the best aspects of stem inclusion; when you get it right, you get that sort of orange oil taste. When it’s good, it has an ethereal pine kind of smell. Instead of being a weedy, deep green, it’s more fresh; a little like walking in the forest when it’s been raining.”
When it comes to Drake's winemaking philosophy, it has always been simplicity over anything else.
“Everything about wine is so over-thought. There are so many over-made wines, because I think that people often feel that they need to include everything they learned at school. I always wonder: Are you actually supposed to do that, or did someone just tell you to?"
Listening to Drake talk feels like taking a huge gulp of fresh air; like leaving a busy city and arriving to the stillness of the ocean. It feels grounding. He reminds us that the best things in life often happen by following your intuition, rather than always yielding to the pressure to do things by the book. Sometimes it pays to follow your gut.