There's a commonality among winemakers I revere. Inherently, many encompass the following qualities: humility, nobility, and curiosity. The quest for acclaim is rare. In fact, it's consciously avoided. These are salt of the earth people, highly enlightened, embodying equal parts intellect and ruggedness.
These traits always carry through to their resulting wines. Simplicity permeates - the only goal being to produce consumable, delicious wine.
I came across Brent Mayeaux through Cole Thomas of Madson Wines (our interview can be read here) and was immediately intrigued. Being part of the natural wine community, it's easy to recognize another outlier when you come across one.
We had the chance to speak recently and he was as charming, endearing and honest as I had anticipated.
Brent is making wine in the AVA of Santa Cruz, under his label Stagiaire.
LM: How have you been impacted by the crisis?
BM: I haven't really had to stay at home too much and experience quarantine life. One of my silver linings of this is to see the great things that people create with all the free time they have. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for some great music and art.
That said, we do have this social conditioning that is super capitalistic - our self worth is often measured by what we get done. To not be able to slow down can be really challenging for our ego and identity.
LM: There isn't much about you "out there". Why is that?
BM: I enjoy a bit of mystery around what I'm doing, hence why I don't have much information on the internet. I was working in Australia, exploring starting my own thing in France. I wasn't ready but also scared to do it. I started exploring options in California, and had the opportunity to move to Santa Cruz and make some wine here. 2018 was my first vintage, and in 2019 I purchased grapes. I'm farming about 5 acres and have a bit of a co-farming deal for a small plot I'm hoping to take over completely next year.
LM: Why have you chosen to farm organically and what do you use in the vineyards?
BM: I'm just figuring it out as I go. Everyone I worked for in Australia and France we farmed ourselves, and that's the model I want to pursue. 80-90% are from vineyards that I farm or fruit that I co-farm.
Farming yourself is so crucial because you can make the changes you need to for the style you're after. It has to be organic at a minimum. For that reason, I use organic stylet oil, horse tail and nettle. If needed, I'll switch to sulfur because it's cheap and effective.
For my vineyards though, it's just stylet oil - it suffocates the powdery mildew with herbal remedies. You can't spray sulfur on the vines if there's stylet - it'll just cause a lot of burn. You need to wait 14 or more days between sprays/switching. In those days, I do compost tea that has a lot of good bacteria and fungi, and will add some horsetail with it. It re-inoculates the canopy with a good microbiome and works in a way that expensive biological sprays do. It resets the vines, and keeps them protected in the transition from stylet to sulfur.
LM: What's your opinion on using sulfur in the vineyard?
BM: Personally, I have no problem using sulfur - it's a pretty innocuous compound and entirely different than the compound that's added to wine.
If you spray sulfur too close to harvest you may see it show up. I don't spray sulfur more than a month out from harvest to avoid this and use plant teas instead. In a pinch, I'll use hydrogen peroxide. In using those things, post sulfur, you're washing off the sulfur residue.
LM: You're very open about your approach - something I have encountered that isn't that common, especially in wine. There's a lot of secrecy.
BM: No one gets better if you don't share what you're doing or what your struggles are. I hate the culture in California - everyone wants to be a rock star and everyone wants to be this incredibly successful person and no one is ever willing to discuss problems. I like to talk openly and talk about viticulture and it's so hard to do that here. My friends are very guarded sometimes and have their trade secrets.
LM: Tell me about Santa Cruz AVA and what makes it unique.
BM: Santa Cruz really is a special AVA for many reasons. Geographically, it's a large area which is problematic because there are a lot of soil types but the growing conditions change drastically. The sites closer to the actual town are much cooler and have fog and marine influence. Higher up in the mountains, things get dryer and slightly warmer with really big temperature swings. On the north side of the mountains closer to Saratoga, those sites are super hot where you find more Bordeaux varieties. So it's hard to talk about the region as a whole stylistically. There's no mono-culture - there's no massive viticulture happening which I think is amazing because it keeps the ecosystems healthy because they're not being dominated by bland grape growing.
LM: How did you get set up within the community itself?
BM: My family is from New Orleans, and I had made connections through travelling to this area. I met Ryan Stirm, and reached out to him when I was trying to figure out what to do. He happened to be moving into a new winery space. I asked him if it would be possible for me to make wines there and he was trying to find other people to share the space with anyway, so it worked out serendipitously.
Because I've moved around so much my whole life, I didn't have a sense of belonging anywhere in particular. I could pretty much live anywhere, which is challenging in determining where to settle down.
Since moving here I've gone back and forth on whether I like it or not. I'm developing a really great community of friends, with great stuff happening, I love Cole Thomas (Madson Wines) - he's one of my best buds.
LM: Do you think things will start changing slowly, with the community of natural wineries slowly growing?
BM: There is a shift in farming status quo here. The vineyards here are really good. It's one of the few areas in California that has naturally low pH.
Most of the wines though, are fucking terrible. A lot of older people are making typical gross old wine letting things get over ripe, adding acid to make the wine how they think it should taste, with lots of new oak. It's really upsetting. It happens everywhere but we have such great sites here and unfortunately most of them get used for bad wine. There is a 2.5 acre Pinot vineyard which is an awesome site and I have no idea what the grapes taste like, because all the wines made from that property have been terrible. It's sad, but exciting because there's lots of low hanging fruit. We have this rolodex of sites to choose from. People are getting older, not making as much wine or stopping entirely, so sites are becoming available to farm or buy fruit from. It's exciting to see the new kids.
I'm definitely in a bubble - I see it changing. The industry as a whole, I can't say. The lack of constraints and rules is what's so attractive for me in making wine. I'm so eager to see what my friends make out of a site, what their interpretation of a given vineyard is. Instead of trying to just make a typical Zinfandel - it's not interesting to me at all.
LM: How would you best describe the style of wine that most appeals to you?
BM: I really love wines where you see the winemaker's personality. If you are trying to make neutered or docile wine, ok that's fine, but it's uninteresting to me. If you're putting your personality or playfulness into your wine and experimenting it's so much cooler to me.
A good example here is my friend Avi who makes Absentee wines and he works so much differently than everyone. I always love them because they just taste like Avi, I could blind them and could guess that Avi made it.
In terms of caring about the general consumer, I really don't, personally. I don't make decisions based on what people want or like. I do what I think is fun. I'm making a small enough amount of wine that someone, somewhere is going to like it.
LM: Tell me about some of the wines you've made that you're excited about.
BM: I made a skin contact sauvignon blanc from 1970s plantings - on skins for 7 days, and old oak for a year - it has this complexity aromatically, an umami comes through. I also made a pet nat from 1945 plantings of sauvignon blanc that's really yummy. It was a little over cropped - a portion of it we're doing no till and no fertilizer to see what the vines do on their own and crop it a little lower. They lack a bit of varietal intensity, but it was planted such a long time ago so who knows what the plant material was like back then. It's good, but it's not intensely sauvignon blanc - more coconut water, chamomile, fennel, cucumber, lime and the pet nat has a touch of sweetness to it so it's like adult lime-made.
A lot of my reds I just do a third to a half whole cluster and the remaining bits I direct press on top so it's like a reverse saignee, reducing the amount of extraction and skin contact, but then I do longer macerations.
LM: Do you think the natural/conventional debate will ever come around?
BM: People will find their audience eventually. Younger generations are not being indoctrinated with how things should taste and are being encouraged to be a little more adventurous.
Be honest, and make what makes sense to you - just make what you like. If you do that, it'll turn out pretty good.