Exploring the New Releases: A Wine Tasting Journey with Rajat Parr from Phelan Farm and Scythian Wine Company

By | 7 March 2024

Website: https://phelanfarm.com/

Californian winemaker and former sommelier Rajat Parr is renowned for Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte wines, which he produces with Sashi Moorman. However, he has embarked on two new ventures. One of them is Phelan Farm, a newly discovered passion of his. Phelan Farm is a small 4.7-hectare (11.5 acres) vineyard located off-the-beaten-track, nestled in a petite valley near Cambria, almost touching the Pacific. While within the San Luis Obispo region, it has few neighboring vineyards and boasts a cool climate. Wines from The Scythian Wine Company originate from vineyards near Los Angeles in Cucamonga, which Raj co-owns with his friend Abe Schoener. Southern California, despite its rich history of grape cultivation, has somehow slipped under the radar. Phelan Farm typically experiences a harvest in October, contrasting the southern Californian vineyards’ August yield. ‘It’s as though I inhabit two continents,’ Raj remarks.

Still maintaining an association with Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi, Raj shares that his role has undergone a transformation. ‘At the beginning, my primary activities were promoting the wines and participating in events. That, however, is no longer the case; currently, I am a farmer,’ he states. Sashi Moorman, faced with the responsibilities of a young daughter, couldn’t travel as much, but as she has grown, he has been freed to assume the public relations responsibilities previously managed by Raj. Raj, who is spending harvest season at Lompoc’s winery, notes that Sashi relishes the business facet of operations.

While Raj does not hold ownership over Phelan, he maintains a long-term lease on the vineyards, which were cultivated by the Phelan family back in 2007 with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on their own roots. From the inception, there has been no tillage and the viticulture has been organic. Sashi and Raj started acquiring grapes from Greg Phelan for Sandhi in 2015. During a grape tasting, an intrigued Raj asked, ‘where is this vineyard?’ Upon visiting, he fell in love with the location and decided to elevate its farming practices even more.

During the years 2017-2020, Raj transitioned several vineyards to different varieties, primarily from the Jura. He collected sticks in France before returning to graft. Grafting involved slicing the trunk’s top, creating a side cut, and attaching the graft. This method is similar to a whip and tongue joint. The graft is then taped. He has planted 15 different varieties like Trousseau, Gamay, Mencia, Mondeuse, Savagnin Vert, Savagnin Jaune, Poulsard, Jaquesse, and Gringet.

Regarding viticulture, his goal was to try something unique. Despite reading many books on biodynamics and regenerative farming, he decided against following any of those methods. He found them too rationalized and formulaic. His method was to apply a localized form of natural farming. This original method combines techniques from various agricultural thought schools. He sites Masanobu Fukuoka (permaculture) and Elaine Ingham (regenerative) as significant inspirations.

‘I obtained four sheep, two dogs, chickens, and learned to coexist with them,’ he reveals. Sheep roam his vineyard from harvest time until April, whilst dogs guard them. Currently, he has eight sheep, three goats, and 40 chickens (with enclosures in all vineyards that are relocated, and dogs guarding them). The presence of the animals enhances the soil’s microbial life.

Raj doesn’t remember the last time the vineyard was deeply ploughed – it might have been in 2007. The undervine growth is allowed to thrive. Depending on the season, its growth fluctuates, but the vines do not appear to be affected much. Even after the sheep have grazed, rows are left undisturbed. There are no attempts to roll the cover crop. Without resorting to tractors, sprays are conducted using a minor RTV to evade soil compaction. However, Raj does not practice no-till agriculture – he borrowing a two-shank plow that slices the soil rather than ripping it up, thereby avoiding soil disturbance.

Notably, Raj opts to abstain from the use of traditional plant protection products. He eschews both sulfur and copper in his vineyards, choosing instead to rely on naturally-fermented, home-brewed holistic sprays. These mixtures incorporate an array of local ingredients such as nettles, willow bark, oak bark, milk thistle, lupin, honey, thyme, kelp, seaweed, ocean water, fish bone emulsion, and milk. These solutions stimulate an active microbial community within the vine canopies, simultaneously serving as elicitors to bolster the vines’ defenses. This unique approach, Raj attests, works. ‘Everything revolves around forests,’ he asserts. ‘It’s rather wild, and that herbal note that comes through in the wines—that’s directly attributable to the forest.’

The year 2022 was marked by unusually arid conditions which resulted in drastically low yields, thus causing a significant loss of vigor in the ensuing year. In 2023, Raj produced a mere 10,000 bottles from an area of 4.5 hectares. That year, his vineyards were afflicted by a rare instance of downy mildew (though powdery mildew is a common occurrence annually). Milk is utilized as a remedial treatment for the vines. Also in that year, he hired an employee whose primary focus is on maintaining soil health, an aspect he believes is pivotal in the battle against disease. ‘In the final analysis, the only thing that’s going to save us from disease is soil health,’ asserts Raj. ‘The objective is to achieve a 2:1 ratio with regard to fungal and bacterial populations. That will strengthen the vines, thereby reducing the pressures from disease.’

The winemaking process is relatively natural. Raj, with his classical training, aspires to create a ‘serious’ wine and yet one that is completely natural. For the Scythian range of wines, he adds 2ppm sulfites. Phelan wines are entirely free of added sulfites for the reds. He avoids secondary fermentation, opting to bottle prior to August of the first year. Racking is delayed until the eve of bottling for the reds. The whites are kept in tanks for several more months after being transferred from barrels. Lunar phases are taken into consideration, with bottling taking place a few days prior to the waning moon. The wines are produced at a small local winery by the name of Stolo; Raj enters into an arrangement whereby he produces their wines and is thereby afforded use of the winery for his own wines. Typically, whole bunches are used with light extraction. All the reds are handled using a manual basket press. Pumps are eschewed in favor of a gravity-based method, even during bottling.

As Grenache-based wines, they command a certain profundity, and it seems even Raj himself has been taken aback by the outcome. ‘I had presumed the wines would be simple, delicious and easy to drink,’ he confesses. ‘But now, I’m rather astounded. They certainly have potential!’

Phelan Farm Pinot Noir 2022 SLO Coast
2 tanks, one whole cluster, one destemmed, then pressed and blended together. Ungrafted wines planted 2007. This is juicy, fine and digestible. Lively and energetic with red cherries and raspberries and a touch of cranberry. Such precision here. Lovely freshness and vitality, with some grainy tannins and lively acidity. 94/100

Phelan Farm Leon 2022 SLO Coast
40% Poulsard, 30% Trousseau, 30% Pinot Noir. Co-fermented, fully destemmed. Babies on the label. So supple and fine with beautiful fresh focused elegant red cherry and berry fruits with a slight prickle of carbon dioxide adding freshness. Lovely bright red fruits with layers of spicy complexity and some sappy green hints. So fine. 96/100

Phelan Farm Autrement 2022 Slo Coast
Raj thinks this is the most important wine in the line up. Every year the blend changes and this year it is 40% Gamay, 40% Mondeuse and 20% Pinot Noir. There’s a bit of structure here but also such freshness and purity with raspberry and red cherry fruit, with a freshness from some dissolved carbon dioxide. So pretty and energetic but with substance and complexity. Alert and vital, this is a beautiful wine. 96/100

Phelan Farm Mencia 2022 SLO Coast
11% alcohol. Just one barrel of this, grapes picked October 23rd. Fully destemmed. Cuttings from Camino Novo in Ribera Sacra, one of Envinate’s single vineyards. So distinctive with lovely red cherry fruit, and nice weight on the palate. Dry with some structure and good acidity, but some flesh and generosity to the fruit. There’s a fine green hint too. So beautiful! And really distinctive. 95/100

Phelan Farm Mondeuse 2022 SLO Coast
11% alcohol. This wine is intense and vivid, featuring keen acidity under vivid black fruits. Hints of redcurrant freshness, tar, and gravel savouriness combine with firm tannins, sitting just on the cusp of ripeness for a perfect vitality. This is a firm and serious wine. Rated 93/100.

Brij Wines Grenache 2022 SLO Coast
Brij, named after Raj’s father, is their negociant operation. This Grenache is whole-cluster and aged in Stockinger foudre. The vineyard was planted in 1996, and the wine expresses elegance and beauty. It offers lovely raspberry and red cherry fruit notes, showcasing real elegance in its fine-grained structure, purity, and focus. It has plenty of structure with an elegant overall style. Rated 95/100.

Brij Syrah 2022 SLO Coast
This wine is a blend from two vineyards, Bassi and Stolo. It’s entirely made from whole bunches, then aged in foudre. The resulting wine is concentrated and dense, with lovely complexity. Notes of meat, spice, pepper, and black cherry fruit add depth and freshness. The wine is well-structured with great concentration and depth, and has a nice grip on the finish. An exceptional expression of Californian Syrah. Rated 95/100.

Scythian Wine Co Misturado 2022 Cucamonga Valley
This wine is a blend featuring 50% Alicante Bouschet, 30% Palomino, and 20% Zinfandel from century-old vines. It’s whole-cluster processed and has 13% alcohol. The wine is fresh and easily enjoyed, with lovely red cherry fruits and a hint of redcurrant. It shines with energy and brightness. A touch of green adds a dimension that works splendidly. Fresh and energetic, it’s a lovely wine. Rated 95/100.

The Scythians 2022 Cucamonga Valley
Comprised of 50% Zinfandel, 30% Alicante Bouschet, 10% Mission, 10% Grenache. It features whole clusters with 13% alcohol content. The flavor profile includes ripe, energetic notes, sweet berry fruits with a sour edge. A teetering balance of sweetness, acidity, and slight volatility. Has a somewhat wild but desirable character. Received a 93/100 rating.

Phelan Farm Pet-Nat 2022
This bottle has been crafted by the skilled Michael Cruse. Due to the drought, the Gamay crop was severely affected leading to an early September harvest by Raj. Formulated with an even split of Gamay and Pinot Noir and was later disgorged. Presents with a delicate pink hue, accompanied by a slight biscuity aftertaste and pleasant notes of red cherry and subtle strawberry. Caution is advised for possible hints of mouse in the wine.

Scythians Palomino 2020 Cucamonga Valley
Offers 12% alcohol volume. Some degree of skin contact and presence of dissolved carbon dioxide was noted. Offers a fine, textured taste layered with sweet pear and apple notes, and a hint of white peach. The finish has a lovely freshness with a slight hint of salinity. Confers commendable depth: a textured portrayal of Palomino. The vineyard, originally planted in 1912 and autonomy-rooted, had been abandoned for a number of years. Enjoyed a 95/100 rating.

Phelan Farm Savagnin and Chardonnay 2021
The wine is extremely refined and unique, exhibiting a mealy edge to the sweet pear and citrus fruits accented with nutty and honey undertones and infused with a commendable depth. The experience is very unique and enhanced with meal, nuts, and honey providing an enjoyable texture and depth. Identifiable notes of weight to this wine, and a discernible salinity on the finish. Beautiful, with a 95/100 rating.

Bottle Baby Apple Grape Wine
Composed of 80% apples, and 20% grapes. This wine provides a fresh, textured taste enhanced by an appealing brightness and weight.

Featured in the previous release:

Freund Spear Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2021 Sta Rita Hills, California
A high-quality wine sourced from Phelan, it features concentrated green herb notes and spices, along with pear fruit and subtle traces of celery. A distinct, mineral, and concentrated offering. Score:93/100

Scythians Lopez Vineyard Palomino 2021 Cucamonga Valley, California
Originating from a vineyard planted near Los Angeles in 1918, this wine undergoes fermentation and aging in sherry barrels from Ramiro Ibanez, with topping up delayed six months to allow flor growth. The outcome is a remarkable wine exhibiting a tangy, savory nose of oyster shell, pear, and spiced apple. The palate is vibrant and mineraly, characterized by an enjoyable tension and a refined spiciness. Score:96/100

Scythians Francis Road Vineyard Grenache Mission 2021 Cucamonga Valley, California
This delightful 50/50 blend is marked by its characteristic lightness and subtle cloudiness. Taste the fine structure, balanced with the tart flourish of berries–a harmonious blend of cherries and raspberries, perfectly sharpened around the edges. The result is a vital, expressive and finely-crafted wine boasting a luscious fruitiness, energizing and refreshing in equal measure. A splendid interpretation of a lighter-style red. 94/100

Phelan Farm Leon 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
Indulge in this unique blend of 40% Poulsard, 30% Trousseau and 30% Pinot Noir with a secret dash of Chardonnay and Savagnin. The label features a charming illustration of two baby Leons, credited to the creative geniuses Michael Sager and Jaime Motley. This wine impresses with its textural finesse and ripe abundance of raspberry and cherry. Experience a stunning mouthfeel that juxtaposes the tartness of the cherry with an unexpected richness. Marvel at the delicate equilibrium of all these elements. 96/100

Phelan Farm Autrement 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
Dive into a gratifying blend of Mondeuse, Gamay and Pinot Noir. Despite the rich potency of this wine, it manages to retain an irresistible freshness. Revel in the finely textured profile punctuated by taut cherries and a delightful, lingering spice. Discover the subtle finesse that lies within each sip. 95/100

Phelan Farm Poulsard 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
Grace your senses with the evocative aroma of ripe cherries and spices that this wine offers. Savor a captivating palate of red berries and plums, complete with spicy, stony undertones. Its structure imbues the wine with energy and acidic elegance. The depth and focus are remarkable, leaving a memorable impression. 95/100

Phelan Farm Gamay Noir 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
This wine process involves true carbonic maceration, where any juice released by the berries is drained into a separate container for a separate fermentation. After the carbonic berries have been pressed and fermentation to dryness is achieved, they are combined with the juice. The result is an aromatic strawberry fruit with some fine green herbal hints. The palate is concentrated with spiciness and a tart cherry finish. It scores a rating of 94 out of 100.

Phelan Farm Trousseau 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
This variant offers lovely cherry and plum aromatics along with some spice and sweet strawberry. It’s very textural in mouthfeel. It is very expressive with a finely spiced fruit flavor and amazing texture. This wine scores 95 out of 100.

Phelan Farm Mondeuse 2021 San Luis Obispo County, California
The Phelan Farm Mondeuse is the deepest coloured among all the Phelan wines. It is fresh, powerful and structured with nice taut raspberry and cherry fruit. It has some grip as well as good acidity, a lovely purity and a firm finish with plenty of raspberry crunch. It scores 94 out of 100.

Phelan Farm Mencia 2020 San Luis Obispo County, California
This wine has a floral and vibrant scent with vivid red cherries and raspberry fruit. There’s a touch of sour cherry and cheese. The palate is nicely textured with bold cherries and raspberries and a bit of grip. It offers good tension and a silkiness to the fruit. It scores 95 out of 100.

UK agent: Sager & Wine

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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