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).
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
“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
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.
Chris Hammell is probably the most
knowledgeable and quality-conscious vineyard manager on the Central Coast—and 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
— Manfred Krankl, Sine Qua Non
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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