Art in Winegrowing: Chad Melville’s Samsara Wines

As southern Californians, we take advantage of our close proximity to lovely destinations with day trips as often as we can. Naturally, hitting up Santa Barbara county is a favorite jaunt and is beautiful no matter the season, but for me October and November are best. Driving through Buellton towards Lompoc on highway 246 in autumn, the setting is so idyllic it almost resembles a painted backdrop a la Truman Show: squat, crooked trees clinging to the last green leaves of the season, rolling hills, vineyards. Add the magic and excitement of harvest time to the crisp air, and you’ve got yourself one perfect day for wine tasting.

Why, then, would you keep cruising into Lompoc proper and trading your cheese and fruit picnic for a few romantic hours in an industrial park?

The Lompoc Wine Ghetto, a collection of tasting rooms tucked into a series of warehouses, is home to several fantastic small producers–and for wine geeks like us, it’s one major stop with a bounty of interesting tasting rooms within walking distance of one another. As an added bonus, we miss the stream of bachelorette parties in limos overcrowding many a local tasting room for the opportunity to actually talk to the people behind the wines.

About four years ago, my husband and I–along with a few friends–camped out at the Buellton Motel 6 and spent the entire weekend tasting wine. Since it was the off-season, a chilly and windy Saturday in March saw few fellow tasters and lots of time to chat with tasting room staff (as well as actual winemakers when we were lucky). Pulling into the parking lot at Melville Winery for the first time, we were in awe–naturally, the actual tasting room “house” is a stunning Mediterranean-style abode surrounded by vineyards. However, it wasn’t the romance of the setting that really killed us–it was the wine.

Ever since, Melville is a must-stop for us when we’re in the area. Through this particularly talented assembly of winegrowers, we’ve come to appreciate GregBrewer(head winemaker) on a level similar to Buddha or Jesus, drinking everything he makes–including Diatom (a Chardonnay-centric project) and BrewerClifton (a partnership with SteveClifton of Palmina). But the most intriguing serendipity among the Melville family is ChadMelville’s small production winery, Samsara. Housed in the Ghetto, this 900-case/year operation turns out stunning wines, whilst keeping us guessing as to what each vintage will bring.

More than a little curious to pick Chad’s brain, I was able to sit down with him early one morning at his family’s winery and ask him more about Samsara, his career path, and the overall “vision” behind his winemaking. For a gal who tends to clam up in the presence of people I admire, this was nerve-wracking, but naturally he’s a down to earth, friendly guy.

Samsara–sanskrit for the eternal cycle of life, the continuous flow–is the ideology behind Chad’s winegrowing endeavor, influenced by the sheer unpredictability of nature. “I’m inspired by the vineyard,” he said, “I’m inspired by the site. What really connects with me are the winemakers who have one foot in the vineyard and one in the cellar. That’s how I see my world.”

For his own small production, encompassing barely 900 cases per year, Chad carefully chooses special vineyard sites for each of his wines–primarily Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Grenache. Because of its small case size, Chad is able to really push the envelope and experiment, involving many techniques he learned when first on the job over ten years ago.

“My training in this industry is all practical,” he said. The Melville family purchased their Lompoc property in 1996 and planted the first vineyards the following year. “Normally you don’t see good fruit for three or four years,” Chad said, “so it gave me time to go out and work alongside other winemakers.” Chad treated this time like an internship, and asked winemakers he especially connected with for opportunities to help them at their own wineries. “My paycheck was basically the notebook in my back pocket–I learned, took notes, and it was invaluable,” he said. His first gig was working alongside Greg Brewer, who was assisting head winemaker BruceMcGuire at SantaBarbaraWinery. McGuire is one of the pioneers in the development of Pinot Noir and Syrah in Santa Barbara County.

Later, Chad moved on to work with CentralCoastWineServices, a custom-crush facility in Santa Maria which put him next to some of the great “garagiste” talent in the SBC wine industry. “The facility handled mass production predominantly, but I was the guy in charge of all of the small producers,” he said. “That was huge! I’d punch down LaneTanner’s grapes in the morning while asking her questions, then two hours later I’m racking with ChrisWhitcraft, and later filling barrels for JoeDavis and taking notes–that was all in one day.”

Chad’s intentions didn’t always lie in the wine industry. A finance student at USC in Los Angeles, Chad graduated and worked the stock market for two years before deciding it just wasn’t a good fit. “Grape growing was in the family, and I figured I’d possibly take it up later,” he reflected. “I really enjoyed working in investments but I didn’t see myself having a big future in it. Money doesn’t necessarily motivate me–it’s not something that makes me who I am.”

MelvilleWinery’s first vintage was in 1999 with Greg Brewer as head winemaker and Chad assisting in the cellar and the vineyards. “Just like being a sous chef, you have the opportunity to work with other chefs, you carve out what you’re most attached to,” he said. “That was my education in winemaking. It’s artistic but it’s still a job.”

The continuous renewal, or rebirth, of vintage after vintage resonates with Chad as a farmer and winemaker, and he decided to start Samsara as a unique expression of different vineyard sites he felt most connected to. “By making small production wines, you can take a lot more risks,” he said. “It came down to me having the desire to make my own wine, and I didn’t want to interfere with what Melville was doing, so I truly went out on my own with it – different location, different equipment.” Chad’s first Samsara vintage was 2002, featuring Pinot Noir and Syrah. Chad finds he’s most inspired by wines of the northern Rhone, and while staying true to each wine’s California roots, he aimed to showcase the delicate nuances of terroir in each wine, instead of overt fruit so common in modern domestic production.

“As a producer of California wine, my goal here is to ‘tuck in’ the fruit so you can see the other parts of the wine–more of the vineyard, more of the terroir, the vintage,” he said. “It’s the production style that I adore in French wine, and I have the same goal–but I’m not trying to do exactly what they do.”

Vineyards Chad has chosen for his wines include Ampelos (from which he makes an elegant, hauntingly beautiful syrah), LasHermanas and Turner; and his own family’s Verna’s and Melville Vineyard sites. Passionate about cool-climate Syrah, Chad felt the vineyards he’s helped farm spoke to him the most for this varietal. “I love working with cool-climate Syrah, and it’s hard to find,” he said. “When I buy this fruit it’s definitely a little more connected to me.”

Recently, Chad added Grenache to the Samsara line-up from the famed LarnerVineyard in Ballard Canyon, and has continually released a delicious rose of Grenache to boot, which wine critic Robert Parker deemed “the Central Coast’s answer to a full-bodied French Tavel.” However, Chad shies away from comparing domestic wine to that of the French, or any other region for that matter–pointing out that truly, his mission is the make the best wine he can, wine that speaks to each varietal and vineyard site. “I’m not making Coca-Cola, it’s not a formula,” he said. “You’re not going to see fruit and just ‘make wine.’ What you do in the cellar is all navigated by what you’ve done in the vineyard.”

As it’s a smaller operation, Chad’s wine tends to sell quickly after release, so it is best to visit the tasting room just after the vintage hits the shelves. One of my favorite Samsara bottlings is his Ampelos Vineyard Syrah; when I’m lucky enough to open a bottle, I’m excited–for I discover something different about the place and the varietal with each glass, and to me that is the very essence of his mission.

“Obviously every vintage will be different because Mother Nature throws us curve balls. When the fruit arrives to me, it’s already made. My job is really to junst give it a platform and say, ‘Here you go,’–and let it go.”

Samsara Wines, 1500 E. Chestnut Court, Unit A, Lompoc, CA 93436 (http://www.samsarawine.com)

Photos provided by Jeremy Ball / Bottle Branding

Written by Erin McGrath. A Los Angeles resident for nearly a decade, Erin McGrath works in the E-Commerce department at a renowned Los Angeles wine retailer. A veritable woman-about-town and lover of libations, Erin keeps up with the L.A. and Pasadena wine and dining scene, blogging at Vintwined as well as various online wine publications, including PalatePress: theOnlineWineMagazine.

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