A Philosophy of negligent control at Phelan Farm

Allocation wines from Phelan Farm received by the author

V SANJAY KUMAR favours Rajat Parr’s winemaking philosophy after tasting several of his wines

I received an allocation of wines from Phelan Farm, a relatively new vineyard in California. Some bottles had new varietals like Mencia, a couple had unusual blends. I was intrigued by one that looked like a beer bottle. There was a cute sheep on the childlike label. The thing was called Bottle Baby.

‘Is it a wine?’ asked my better half. It was four parts apple, one part grape.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. I popped the cap and poured. It was terracotta pink in colour, attractive, almost seductive.

‘Nice,’ said my elder daughter. ‘Must be sweet. Is it a bubbly?’ It wasn’t. We sniffed with enthusiasm, it did not smell fruity or sweet. We tasted it and there were two minutes of silence.

‘It tastes like kombucha,’ said my daughter, finally. She was right. It was acidic, sharp, sour, and very much like a dry Fino sherry. It was a seaside story in a bottle, the kind that is swept ashore.

‘What do we do?’ asked my daughter.

‘I know what it needs,’ said my better half. She brought out some Brunost cheese, a brown coloured slightly sweet award-winning cheese from Eleftheria, Mumbai. Thankfully, it was a perfect pairing for Bottle Baby.

‘Well done,’ I said. I was relieved because Phelan Farm is now cultivated by Rajat Parr, an Indian-origin sommelier, writer, winemaker, and – of recent vintage – a farmer. I had brought his wines home with great anticipation. This cider-wine thing was a difficult introduction. I opened the next bottle with some trepidation. It was called Pet Nat.

was called Pet Nat.

‘Petillant Naturel,’ I announced. ‘Single fermentation, that finishes in the bottle. A bubbly that is supposed to be natural in many ways.’

‘Yay,’ said my daughter.

‘Does he make normal wine at all?’ asked my better half, suspicious by now of natural anything.

The Pet Nat from Phelan Farm was made from Gamay and Pinot Noir. It was fresh, fizzy, and outright delicious.

‘Hey, this is fun. I didn’t know wine could be fun. Tell us more about Phelan and Parr,’ said my daughter.

Bottle Baby and Pret Nat sparkling wine 2022

Phelan Farm has a really small footprint; Rajat situated his vineyard in a county in California that was not known for grape cultivation. He travelled to France and obtained rootstock, and he planted lesserknown varieties from Jura and Savoie, varieties like Mencia, Trousseau, Savagnin, Poulsard, and a Rosé Chardonnay, if you please. All of this in just 11 acres. Has all this been done before in the USA? No.

See also  The punctilious and perilous protocols of pairing

Rajat decided to go natural from day one. He doesn’t irrigate the farm, he doesn’t till the land, he plants cover crops, and he uses homespun sprays that some might find mystical. It seems to be working. He has planted 15 varieties by the last count and he produces small quantities. Some are single varietals, and some are blends like Leon, Nithya, and Autremont. Is this the recommended Lesson 101 from Wine Business School? No.

Rajat’s views are not static, they evolve. He believes in minimal intervention, using minimal oak, and little or no sulfites, and he does whole bunches where possible. Alcohol levels are lower than California averages thanks perhaps to judicious picking.

His wines do not offer easy pleasure. They are not ripe, plush, dense, polished, or sweet. In sum, they are unlike the fruit-forward, oaked, extracted California wines that flood market shelves, or the expensive, available-by-allotment cult offerings that people in the USA chase. His is a different lexicon.

We opened a Syrah called Bassi. It was made by Rajat using grapes from Brij Vineyard. It was medium bodied in appearance.

‘Fresh,’ said my better half. ‘Sprightly,’ said my daughter. ‘Chewy?’ I suggested. ‘Savoury? Tart,’ said my better half. ‘Almost salty,’ said my daughter.

The wine was young yet it was approachable. The three of us finished the bottle.

Syrah is avowedly Rajat’s favourite grape and it is the one he made first way back in 2004/2005. More recently, this Bassi Syrah from Brij Vineyard was served in a Northern Rhône masterclass in Mumbai as the last wine. That took some courage. I tasted a Crozes Hermitage (from Alain Graillot), a St Joseph (from Pierre Gonon), a Cornas (Equis from Max Graillot), a Côte-Rôtie (Cháteau d’Ampuis from Guigal), and a Hermitage (from the redoubtable J L Chave). Each was from an established winemaker. Yet the Bassi came across as eminently quaffable. It wasn’t lightweight, it wasn’t patently serious as young tannic structured wines from Rhône can be. I could see where Rajat’s confidence came from.

‘Rajat is out to prove something,’ I told my family. By all accounts he is.

Negligent control is his way of achieving what he wants. It is how I would like to bring up my children.