His Royal Legit-ness - Chris Hammell

It takes a certain breed of man to yield to the land. We’re all at the mercy of Mother Nature day in and day out, but some of us feel it more than others. When you farm for a living, a sense of abiding respect for the land informs everything you do. You don’t get too cocky about anything you’ve grown because you know it’s a bit of a lark—it’s your hard work meeting the good graces of Mother Nature.

Vineyard managers are a special breed of farmer. Not only are they at the mercy of conditions often beyond their control, they also have to deal with a different, oftentimes mercurial force - the Winemaker. 


If you’re a vineyard manager like Chris Hammell at two large vineyards (Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills) where multiple winemakers source their fruit, then you’re not only managing canopies, shoots, and laterals, you’re navigating a broad spectrum of expectations, egos, directives and sensibilities. Each winemaker will want to tell you how to farm his or her particular block—and they should—after all, they’re oftentimes paying a premium for their fruit. They’ll have very specific ideas about when to call the pick and how every little detail during harvest should play out. Multiply that by lots of anxious, sleep-deprived winemakers, and you’ve got a project on your hands.

As in any profession, some vineyard managers are more emotionally invested in the outcome of their efforts. Some phone it in. Chris Hammell is widely respected as a vineyard manager for the simple fact that he wouldn’t know how to phone it in if his life depended on it.

“Chris is one of the most cheerful, fun, enthusiastic, yet serious assistant winemakers I know. That’s right—assistant winemaker. He has this knack of challenging you to make the best wine off of each individual block year in and year out. He is actually competitive about it and works hard to make it happen,” says Bill Wathen, winemaker and co-owner of Foxen Vineyards.

And indeed, ask Chris about one of the vineyard blocks he farms and he’ll talk about it like he’s talking about one of his kids. He’ll know nuances about how certain varietals perform in that particular block, given a certain type of growing season. He’ll cite memorable vintages and wines that passed through his hands like some parents quote good report cards.

I recently caught Chris on a rare day when he had some time to spare and we sat down for a chat.

R.H. Drexel: Work-wise, tell me what gets you out of bed every morning? What’s the thing that you love most about what you’re doing?

Chris Hammell: Year by year, trying to make the best wine we can from these sites collectively. That’s what’s appealing for me as well as client satisfaction. I’m really close with our clients. It’s a professional relationship, but it also goes deeper than that because we’re all in this together. The goal for all of us is to make the best wines we can make from these sites (in the Santa Maria Valley).

The client does their part. We do our part. The land does its part. What our crew does makes a difference. I’m super interested in the end product even though we may only have 20 or 30% influence on it in the end. I’m the go-between between the land and the winemaker, me and my crew. Primarily, I think of myself as a farmer. I’m an aggie and a redneck. I like to be out there with my crews. I like to be in the dirt. It’s more my nature. I hate being indoors.

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“Chris is one of those people whose obsessive-compulsive attention to detail and commitment to having fun while getting there put him in a class entirely his own. Among the many achievements that I’ve been able to watch him humbly attain is a pleasant, proud, easy rapport with his supporting cast in the vineyard that’s nothing short of inspiring and enviable. This particular skill set and his ability to utilize it, cannot be attained by someone with selfish motivation. I consider his friendship one of my greatest assets.” 

James Ontiveros, Native 9

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RH: Tell me about working with a crew. What’s that like?

CH: I’m just directing the crew. Since we farm on a fairly large scale, I’m more like a conductor, if you will. It’s too big to do by myself, so I have a super-experienced, talented crew and we go out there and execute decisions together. It’s different for each client. What’s the price point of their wine? What’s their ultimate goal? What’s their program like? Sometimes we hit it just right. Sometimes the vintage gives us problems. For it to work there has to be foresight—the development of a certain block, the clones, the rootstock, the trellis. All that stuff has to be just right, we have to be just right, the vintage has to be just right, and the winemaker has to be just right…and then sometimes you can do something really special.

RH: How open are winemakers to direction and advice about farming their block?

CH: Some of these guys are my mentors. I’ve learned a lot from some of our clients, not only about wine, but about farming for wine. I’m not talking about pruning, mowing, and things like that. Those are things that I or my crew can do without advice from winemakers. But, when it comes to canopy management, irrigation, fertilization, organic techniques, fruit thinning, and harvest dates and methods, the clients I learn from are very hands-on in their blocks. And, I have also learned on my own, so now clients are turning to me more, but that’s only recently started to happen. I’ve really made an effort to increase my knowledge of wine, the winemaking process, and the appreciation of wine. I’m interested in why certain grapes do certain things. I try and have an understanding of what my clients are going through. Even on a very practical level, I want to know about their barrel programs, temperatures during fermentation, every detail I can know. I care about cleanliness of fruit—these seemingly little things make a big difference in the day-to-day life of a winemaker. I want to know everything so that I can serve them better. I want to pick their brains—not to get into their business—but just so I can do better for them.

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Chris Hammell is probably the most knowledgeable and quality-conscious vineyard manager on the Central Coastand that is the weakest part of him. I say that because he is such an incredibly well-versed, multi-faceted, interesting-yet-always-humble, generous, kind, and all around fun human being, that the MAN himself overshadows his considerable gifts as grape grower. I have worked with Chris now for the better part of a decade and I can say that I have never enjoyed working with anyone more. I am fortunate to be able to call him a friend and I am lucky that he has never whooped my butt…which as a certified black belt-holder he easily could.

Manfred Krankl, Sine Qua Non 

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RH: Is it hard to switch between sustainable farming, organic farming, and Biodynamic farming?

CH: We farm organically for some clients and biodynamically for others. Everything else is certified sustainable. What I like to do is take ideas and concepts from organic farming and apply them to sustainable practices. Biodynamics is another topic completely but it tends to get lumped in.

RH: Talk to me about biodynamics.

CH: It tends to get passed over or people only talk about preparations and stuff like that. Some say it’s stupid and others say, “Oh, it’s so great!” But very few people have, to my knowledge, really dug into the philosophy here to any real degree beyond a superficial level. Biodynamics is first and foremost a whole-farm-unit principle. This is the first thing people forget when they apply biodynamics to grape growing.

Now, even (Rudolph) Steiner (considered the father of biodynamics) said that you’re never going to get it 100% right. But his first principle was to be a farm unit—have animals that produce manure which is then composted to help grow hay to feed the animals…and so on. That’s the spirit behind biodynamics. You get a few neighbors together and you create a self-sustaining farm, and it becomes this living, breathing organism. That’s the one thing that people don’t seem to really do. Even in Burgundy, you know, one person might have a few rows farmed biodynamically next to other blocks or rows farmed in another manner. But the true nature of biodynamics is to have a polyculture.

Certainly, there are exceptions. You look at somebody like Jim Fetzer (at Ceago). They have compost piles and they make their own preps. They have animals, a farm, lavender, this and that. To me, that’s cool. And, then there’s the spiritual side, the esoteric side that almost no one touches upon. This is the unseen world. This is the real thesis behind biodynamics—the thing that represents all of the mystery and the theories that Steiner developed from concepts that go back to the Egyptians.


RH: And that intrigues you?

CH: Yeah. Back in the day, a lot people believed in unseen beings: little fairies and water spirits. They called them elemental beings. Nowadays most people just wouldn’t believe in that stuff. You know, I myself have never seen one since I’ve never been able to see, as Steiner supposedly did, into higher worlds. But I like this idea of cooperating somehow with these elemental beings. Maybe I just like the idea of cooperation in relation to farming. You see, Steiner is mostly known for biodynamics in the wine business, but he was into all kinds of stuff—Paganism and Spiritualism. He was first and foremost a philosopher. He was a spiritual scientist and considered himself initiated into these mysterious traditions.

He was considered a true seer. But who knows? He could have been a fraud and a charlatan. He was one or the other, right? I think that’s why a lot of people end up thinking biodynamics is weird…because of that side of Steiner.

Personally, I think all of that stuff is pretty cool, but I’m probably a superficial biodynamicist. And that’s okay. I say superficial because we are not quite there yet. But we are creating a farm here (at Bien Nacido) in an effort to more closely follow a true biodynamics model. We have goats. We have lemons and avocados. We do some of our own preps and we adhere to the biodynamics calendar as it applies to those blocks.

RH: I have to say that I have a somewhat limited understanding of biodynamics. But, the wines that I’ve had that have been farmed that way—whether from Burgundy, Oregon, or from California—just seem to have a very specific brightness to them. I think I do notice a difference. But it could be all in my head.

CH: And that’s okay. If it’s a mental sort of state of mind, that’s okay too because…that’s wine. James (Ontiveros, a Santa Maria farmer and owner of Native 9) got to taste in Burgundy with some real biodynamics ballers. He’s got a great palate and he said it’s very clear to him. He can tell a difference in wine quality. That’s what really got me started on biodynamics. He came back from Burgundy pretty excited about all this so I started reading Steiner.

Honestly, I didn’t really understand a lot of it but it was still somehow inspirational. It was just the coolest stuff. Maybe I like reading about this stuff because it’s just so different. Maybe it’s the spiritual side of it. Either way, I just think biodynamics is great. Who knows, maybe some day Steiner will be exposed once and for all as some kind of fraud. Or maybe we’ll discover he was just way ahead of his time. Maybe he really did see into other worlds and maybe some day that will be commonplace for all of us. Who knows?

RH: I was reading an article in Decanter about an event that was going to take place. It was a lecture of some sort called “The Black Arts in Winemaking.” It was going to involve Richard Smart and some biodynamics guy I’d never heard of before. Anyway, there was this sense from how the event was being marketed, that it was about exposing biodynamics as some kind of a joke.

CH: That’s the whole thing, you see. If you set up a talk about biodynamics as if it’s some kind of a contest to prove whether or not it’s a crazy practice, well, even Steiner himself predicted that people would think it’s crazy. But I think Steiner wasn’t crazy at all. He was super straight-laced and very smart. He wrote a lot about culture, the humanities, world religions, Shakespeare, St. Paul, Buddha, The Bhagavad Gita. He knew something about everything. He gave lectures about honey bees and how he feared for their endangerment… even back then!


RH: So, it sounds like you find his writings credible.

CH: Look, I’m going to go on the record and say that I think this guy was legit—a genius beyond geniuses. That’s my personal take. If he were around to debate people today or defend himself, you wonder who would be able to debate him these days. I mean, if he really was some kind of seer, how would we know how to talk to him? How would I know how to talk to him? I’m not a seer.

Maybe in this debate between Richard Smart and the biodynamics guy, Richard Smart came out on top. Even if he made a really good argument against biodynamics, it still wouldn’t shake my faith in it. Smart’s a super bright guy. But I’ve done my own reading on this and quite frankly, I think if one were to do a lot of the stuff that Steiner suggests, it would make one a better person.

He taught these spiritual lessons. They were highly moral. He talked about the knowledge of higher worlds and its attainment. As a reader, you can go through these very formal exercises. They’re not incantations. They’re not black magic or anything like that. They’re almost like an etiquette course. When someone’s speaking to you, you ought to listen to them. That kind of thing. Let’s say I’m a right-wing radical and you’re a left-wing extremist. Steiner would have told us that if I want to develop myself spiritually, then I should listen to you without passing judgment on your soul.

He says that even if you pass judgment with your mouth, you must not pass judgment with your heart. That’s what counted for him. And he talked about building one’s chakras. He believed you have this wheel inside you—a sixteen-petal lotus. You are born with eight petals and then you have to build the other eight. The first one you would build in this way, the second one you might build through controlling your speech and speaking thoughtfully. That’s all the stuff that I don’t do.

So when I started to read Steiner, I thought, “That’d be cool to know that.” I’m not ready for a lot of those exercises—you almost have to be a saint and I’m not a saint—but it’s all good character-building stuff. He said that when a farmer plants his seeds, he should be in a certain mind set. He should be thinking in a particularly thoughtful way. And who wouldn’t want that to be true?


RH: Can you tell when you taste a wine how it was farmed? Do you try and guess?

CH: It’s hard to tell by tasting a wine exactly how it was farmed. But the wines I think are good are rich without being overly heavy. They walk that fine line between balance and being super pleasurable. Everybody has his own palate. Some people want wines that are very light and elegant. I want that too, but I want it all if I can have it.

RH: How else do you educate your palate?

CH: I taste a lot of wines: Rhône wines, wines from Burgundy, from Napa, and from Sonoma. I try and learn from these wines and these places. I also read books and watch videos. I like the Sean Thackrey videos. He’s a super legendary guy. I love watching those videos. They’re just fascinatingly good.

That kind of stuff gives me inspiration. It makes me want to drink wine. It makes me want to be a better farmer. I like guys like Thackrey. They aren’t perfect guys and their wines are not perfect. But bits and pieces of them are incredibly cool. They’re taking risks. Some pay off and some don’t. But they get points for effort…lots of effort.


RH: Tell me about Santa Maria.

CH: I love it. It’s a great place but there’s no question that it’s still completely untapped. It simply hasn’t been pushed like it should be pushed. There are pockets here and there that are farmed very well. We just need more people who really believe in it to come here. I like the attitude of some of the new up-and-comers that have arrived here. They’re in Santa Maria because they want to be here above and beyond anywhere else. That kind of attitude is perfect. I think Tepusquet Canyon, for example, is completely untapped. I mean really, don’t get me started…this place is so untapped!

What we need are a few more good restaurants and a few hotels. We’re not a destination place like Los Olivos. But we have to do it while focusing on the wine side. I don’t think we’re ever going to be Napa or even Los Olivos. We have pockets in Santa Maria that are just beautiful. It’s just going to take wine producers who believe in this area and push themselves to make exceptionally good wines.

We know from the producers that are already making great wines from this area that the land has what it takes. But people haven’t pushed themselves hard enough yet. Collectively, we need to take ourselves even more seriously. We all need to realize what an incredible gift we’ve been given in Santa Maria. It’s very diverse. Really, there ought to be at least five AVAs in Santa Maria.

And the other thing I love about Santa Maria is that it’s cowboy country. It’s about cowboy hospitality. It’s about open doors and hearty meals. We’re not braggers here in Santa Maria. We are good people…great people, even. This is our tradition here in Santa Maria: the fusion of cowboy culture and the rich Mexican culture. It’s about land grant history, good Mexican food, families that go back nine generations raising beef cattle. That’s what we’re about and that has its own charms.

We can’t offer a lot of things. We don’t offer snobbism, for example. Or that sense that snobbery gives you. We’re not a sophisticated city by any means. But we’re honest, hard-working winemakers, field workers, and farmers trying to make great wines.


RH: And do you see yourself staying in Santa Maria?

CH: I hope it’s my destiny to be here. It would be my preference, but you never know what happens in life. I like what Chapoutier said: “I’m not a wine chauvinist.” He’s this Hermitage guy who’s gone to Portugal to dabble there and also Australia. So yes, I can see myself farming in other places but this is my epicenter. This is my foundation.

RH: And what is the future of Santa Maria as an AVA in your mind?

CH: It’s incumbent upon all of us but especially my generation and the younger guys to carry things forward. I mean, you have guys like Jim Clendenen, Rick Longoria, the Foxen guys, Bob Lindquist and Adam Tolmach who got us here. What are we going to do now? Am I just going to thank Jim Clendenen for travelling the world over to promote Santa Maria and just cruise on his hard work? If we do that, then shame on us. I don’t want to sound cliché, but we have to build upon what’s been given us by that generation. We don’t want to consider the old days as the glory days. We want to keep this going. We want to be players in The Game. 


Editors Note: This article was originally published in Loam Baby Volume 1.

-- R.H. Drexel