During a very exciting portfolio tasting last month, I sat in a masterclass which dove deep into the vastly different terroirs of California. It's a big place, with huge climatic differences, a plethora of soil types and of course, a huge differentiation in the styles (and quality) of wines you can find. Justin Willett exemplifies this, heading up two very different wineries, both in California. Tyler and Lieu Dit each possess their own quirks and nuances, from different soil types, with a range of grape varieties cultivated and subtly different techniques used in the winery. Importantly, through Justin's careful attention to detail, minimal intervention approach, both estates produce wines where the place is at the heart of the winemaking. Truly delicious wines come out of both estates.
We have used his Lieu Dit wines in our Learn Your Grapes subscription, showcasing the Loire Valley-esque wines in brilliant fashion. Equally, Tyler's Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir has gone down a treat with a number of private clients. Let's hear what Justin has to say...
To kick us off, tell us a little bit about you, how you started on your wine journey…
JW - I found wine waiting tables in college, then found myself working at a more serious restaurant in Los Angeles post college, prior to finishing my graduate work (which is Art History and Architecture). There I really learned European wine, which was mainly centered around the classic houses and regions. I then met Richard Sanford at a tasting, and he invited me to come visit Sanford when I was back up in Santa Barbara seeing my family. I did, and it was really then spending the afternoon with him, that I was convinced I wanted to get into winemaking. That said, a degree in liberal arts doesn’t get you very far applying for an enology degree. So I decided to just go get dirty and make sure this is what I wanted to do. I began apprenticing just after 2004 vintage at Arcadian winery, and in 2005, I was encouraged to make a few of my own barrels to better learn. I did, and those were the first Tyler wines. For our customers who may not know, what are the key differences between Tyler Winery and Lieu Dit? The terroirs, varietals, winemaking ethos….
JW - Tyler is my middle name, and is the center of all things I do. Tyler also mainly focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but we now also work with some Cabernet Sauvignon, and I’ve just bottled my first Syrah off of my home vineyard. Lieu Dit focuses on Loire varieties grown here in Santa Barbara County, and was started by myself, and a buddy named Eric Railsback. I’ve since bought Eric out. HB - It's so refreshing to see Loire Valley varietals being experimented with, especially in California, with a reputation for EXTRACTION over everything. Times are changing. I love the hands off approach you can really feel in your wines, too
Does the Santa Ynez microclimate suffer from more or less vintage variation than the Santa Rita Hills? JW - I wouldn’t say one area has more or less variation from vintage to vintage. The Santa Rita is really just the western district of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. That said, it’s certainly colder and windier out here in the Santa Rita Hills. In the end, it really is just timing, and if you get a few days of cold or extreme wind at the wrong moment, you're going to struggle in either area. HB - Makes sense! What is your favourite grape variety to cultivate and why? JW - Chardonnay. As good as the Pinot Noir or Syrah can be here, Chardonnay is for me the most compelling variety to grow/produce. It’s so transparent, so good here both still and sparkling, and capable of a level of refinement and precision here few places around the world can rival. A Question for Tyler Winery here - What’s your opinion on Californian wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir being referred to as ‘Burgundian’, or compared to Burgundy? Is it something you would prefer to shake off, and the wines become highly regarded in their own right, or do you see it as a beneficial thing, as it demonstrates quality and site expression? JW - I get it, but don’t really think it means much. Obviously it’s an easy way to explain or express a goal, right? For me, I like wines with a certain palate weight, freshness, density, etc. That happens to be more along the line of what you find more so in Europe than the New World. This said, my goal is to best express this place. We’re not in Burgundy, so how would I make that here? I want to make Californian wines, Santa Rita Hills wines. What’s your favourite vintage you’ve produced so far, and why? JW - 2011. Terrible growing season. Frost, mildew, little fruit. But the wines are aging quite nicely, and for me, it’s the ones you really have to earn that mean the most. More recently, I’m thrilled with 2021. It’s killer, and going to live a long time... HB - This is really interesting. I must say I haven't tasted many 11s. I was told by my mentor, an incredible sommelier now turned winemaker Yohann Pinnol that no matter the vintage, never rule out 'poor' years on paper, they'll always surprise. 97 Bordeaux echoes similarities here, for me. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into winemaking? JW - The more you read, travel and taste, the better you’ll be able to really define what it is you’re trying to accomplish in winemaking. The feat isn’t growing grapes, or making wine. It’s clearly working towards a creative goal that is nourishing and compelling for you, and for the market. HB - I love this advice. Of course, only tasting or just putting your head into books won't make you a good taster, or good winemaker, it is a combination of both. But, for something that is relatively scientific, there is a huge creative element to wine, which needs to be considered to make truly great bottles, like Tyler and Lieu Dit! A bottle that has always evaded you? JW -’80 La Tache - my birth year HB - La Tache evades most! Petrus for me. Top 3 desert island bottles? JW -’04 Vatan, ’14 Raveneau MdT, ’95 Chave Hermitage Rouge.
HB - You can't go wrong there! Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne 14, Calon Ségur 98, Rinaldi Brunate 05 if I had to pick. Top 3 desert island discs? JW -’The Band - The Band, Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life, Radiohead - King of Limbs. And if I get a 4th, Wu Tang - 36 Chambers. HB - when the King of Limbs came out, I was infatuated! Great choices.
Do you have an NFL team, if so, who?! JW - more of a baseball guy. Dodgers!