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Raj Parr is the unofficial Midas of California wine: Every vineyard endeavor this former star sommelier touches turns to winemaking gold. We’re always excited to see what he and his team are up to, but the latest project is the most hotly anticipated one yet. Raj and his small team partnered with Greg Phelan to rejuvenate his vineyards, known now as Phelan Farm, and for the past six years have engaged in a truly radical farming experiment in sustainability, regeneration, and biodiversity. Oh, and they are making fantastic wines with these methods too! Today’s discovery blew us away with its true-to-variety complexity, spice, and minerality. It’s on Parr (pun intended) with some of Raj’s favorite Mencía producers like Raúl Pérez and Envínate, but maintains a distinctly California vibe, too. This is the very first vintage of a wine that we think will one day be a legendary Central Coast tour de force. Consider this your opportunity to get in on the ground floor, but don’t wait: Only about 900 bottles of this wine were produced and there’s not much left. Hurry and grab some before it’s gone!
Phelan Farm can trace its roots all the way back to 1851, when the Phelan family homestead was established near Steiner Creek, outside of what is now Cambria. If you’ve never been, this beautiful little village is nestled into steep, rocky hills and forests of pine and oak that grow right up to the coast’s edge. The pebbly beach is famous for tide pools and “moon rocks,” and although it has its share of visitors, the drive there is just long enough, almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, to maintain a sleepy, coastal vibe. As such, it’s the perfect spot to take on a farming approach that is radically innovative and forward thinking, which is exactly what the Phelan Farm team is doing.
The details of everything they are working on in the vineyards are long and complex, and I encourage a visit to their website for the full explanation, but the gist of it is this: They use only locally foraged or locally grown materials to make a variety of sprays and treatments for the vines. These include, but are definitely not limited to: stinging nettles, thistle, thyme, oak bark, kelp, and cold Pacific Ocean water. They are not organic because they will not use sulfur, copper, or any other non-local materials in their treatments. They practice biodynamics but go well beyond what is generally required there, too. They do have some farm animals roaming freely through the vineyards to help fertilize with their manure, and they work hard to maintain microbial diversity in the soils, and biodiversity in the plants and animals that live in around the vineyards. The goal is a truly holistic, healthy farm that adds only positive outputs to the surrounding environment.
With all that focus and energy invested in the farming, the winemaking then is very simple and hands off. The Mencía was fermented with indigenous yeasts in steel tanks, macerated for 12 days, and then racked into neutral barriques for about six months. This was the first vintage of this wine for Phelan Farm, and it comes from some clippings that Raj received from his friends at Envínate, and grafted onto a small parcel of the vines that Greg Phelan had planted in 2007. Given the novelty of the vines, the project, and the entire approach, it is a true revelation to taste just how shockingly delicious this wine is. Serve it cool, in a Burgundy stem, and give it a quick decant first to allow for oxygen to wake up the bevy or aromas and flavors. The wine is a deep ruby red and the fruit is pure, and silky with a touch of sap that reminds you that we are on the Central Coast of California. But then there are waves of spiced red and black cherries, violets, wild thyme, rosemary, green and black peppercorn, and a chalky, slightly grippy finish of ripe tannins and salty minerality. It’s not hyperbole to say that the tasting panel had never tasted anything exactly like this from California before. To keep the Phelan spirit alive, serve it with your favorite locally raised or sourced proteins and be prepared to wish you had a whole case in your cellar, which you could have if you don’t delay!
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