We first met Bryan Babcock, proprietor and winemaker at Babcock Winery a year ago when we visited Santa Barbara hosted by their tourist bureau, Visit Santa Barbara. They sent us to the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, a very hip bar that pours a lot of very good local wine by the glass. We tasted 5 or 6 different Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County. Our favourite of the tasting was the 2012 Babcock Pinot Noir Radical. We told that to the bartender who then informed us that Bryan Babcock was actually sitting just a few tables away and would we like to meet him? Of course! We were introduced, had a brief conversation and he invited us to come up to Lompoc and meet him at his winery the next time we were in the area. That Radical was so darn good we knew we had to get back and learn how he made such good wine and to taste the rest of his line up.
The Babcock family truly are one of the early pioneers of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, the cool-climate viticultural area about an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara. (See our article on the Sta. Rita Hills AVA here ).
In 1978 Walt and Mona Babcock purchased 110 acres between Lompoc and Buellton along Highway 246. They planted their first 20 acres to cool climate varieties: Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Just 5 years later they were selling grapes to other Sta. Rita Hills pioneers and icons such as Rick Longoria of Longoria Wines and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. That same year they decided to make a limited production of their own wine.
In 1984 their son Bryan decided that he would not finish his Master’s Degree at UC Davis and instead devote himself full time to the family winery. But those studies obviously served him well as his first vintage of Sauvignon Blanc earned gold medals at both the L.A. and Orange County Fairs.
Our second meeting with Bryan took place at the Babcock Winery tasting room, which occupies a large old barn adjacent to the winery building. There is definitely a very cool vibe at their tasting room. It is part tasting room, part rock and roll archive, part country store and 100% a great place to taste wine and hang out.
In addition to the display of Babcock wines, there are shelves that have a very eclectic assortment of wine-related paraphernalia, local knick-knacks, and other unique and interesting things. Off to one side is a huge collection of vinyl rock albums as well as a bunch of old concert posters. Adjacent to that is comfy lounge area, complete with a pool table at which to enjoy a round of billiards while you sip some wine. All the while rock music plays loudly giving the room a vibe of excitement.
But where the experience got really interesting is when we jumped into Bryan’s car and got a tour of the vineyards. Tour is probably not the best word. “Deeply educational experience” comes much closer to describing the following 90 minutes. What Bryan treated us to was a comprehensive, live, real time treatise on how his innovations are beginning to re-write the text book on vineyard practices. It all started with his simple question: “How much do you guys know about growing, specifically vertical shoot positioning?” I managed to stammer out a sheepish and rather embarrassed “…uh…I’ve heard of it…but not much, really”. Brian was un-phased by my answer and said “c’mon, let me show you what I am talking about.”
We drove to a neighbouring vineyard that employed the system. Bryan showed that with typical vertical shoot positioning (VSP) the shoot comes up out of the ground and rises up to meet a trellis wire typically set at 2 ½ feet about the ground. From there it is trained to grow horizontally along the trellis wire. Canes grow vertically off that and are attached to higher trellis wires and held in place. Under this system during the growing season the grapes and leaves grow together with the leaves sitting above the fruit. The weight of the leaves makes them want to fall down below the fruit but this is prevented by fixing them to higher trellis wires. The result: fruit growing at lower levels with leaves above them. Bryan looked at this and it struck him as unnatural. Why force the leaves to sit above the fruit when it only causes you to prune them back to allow the sun on the grapes to assist in their ripening? It also struck him as expensive and inefficient. With fruit trained lower to the ground it means more stress on his workers lower backs as they have to bend over to pick the fruit and more work in terms of more intensive canopy management.
Bryan’s revolution was to develop what he now calls Individual Vine Architecture and what he has previously referred to as Pedestular Cane Suspension. It is radically different than the vertical shoot positioning norm, which is to have the fruit lower to the ground with the leaves on top. Bryan has raised the fruit platform up to roughly 5 feet and lets the canopy fall below the grapes. The canes want to naturally fall in a downward direction because of the weight of the fruit they bear.
Bryan’s system allows this. Canes are held up at the 5 foot level by loosely fitted pedestals of his own design that allows the canes to move more freely and naturally. With the canopy below the fruit there is great exposure to sunshine. Harvesting can be done in a single pass; bending and the associated lower back injuries are reduced and canopy management is significantly lessened. The result is lots of exposure to sunshine and significantly reduced labour costs in the vineyard. Picking is simplified as there are no wires at the fruit line. Brian estimates these savings to be 25% per acre per year.
Cost savings in the vineyard are very important to the consumer. Those savings that Bryan has developed get passed on to the wine drinker. Bryan produces premium wines, but given the quality, he could be charging as much as anyone in the AVA. But he doesn’t. He is able to keep fair prices because of his revolutionary methods in the vineyard.
A single block from their estate produces terrific and intensely flavoured Chardonnay. Fermented and then aged nine months in new French oak we picked up loads of pear, some peach and even a bit of honeydew melon. The medium+ body presents a smooth texture that is nicely punctuated by a lemon/lime note on the long finish. The medium+ acidity keeps the balance and accentuates citrus and mineral notes. Complex, balanced and delicious!
Excellent ($US45 at their tasting room)
This wine really deserves its name! Probably the most approachable of their Pinots, it shows earthy cherry flavours that are backed up by mineral, spice and barrel (caramel) notes. Bryan does not use stems in this wine which probably accounts for its charm at such an early age. Medium body with good acidity, delicious now but should improve for several years. (After tasting at the winery we had a delicious dinner at First and Oak in Solvang. This wine was on their list so of course we ordered it – superb with food!)
Excellent ($US60 at their tasting room)
2014 Ocean’s Ghost Pinot Noir
Here the earthy cherry profile remains but the complexity takes a step up. We detected a slight mint note on the attack, unusual in our experience for Pinot Noir. Even more dark-fruit than the Slice of Heaven, the fruit takes on some raspberry nuance together with baking spices and black pepper. Terrific long finish.
Excellent+ ($US60 at their tasting room)
Red and black cherries combine with herbs and minerals to create a complex, dark fruit flavour profile. Earthy notes take on a mushroom tone with a bit of swirling. There is a smooth texture that makes the mouthfeel slightly creamy and very seductive. From Block 3 at Sanger Vineyard West in Sta. Rita Hills.
Excellent+ ($US60 at their tasting room)
Big and peppery with a slightly grainy mouthfeel, this is one for your cellar. But all the ingredients are there now, black cherries, brown spices, wet stones and earth. They are asking for a bit more time to meld together but they are making a statement about elegance already. Medium body and intense flavours.
Excellent+ ($US60 at their tasting room)
2015 Radical Pinot Noir
Brian opened a 2015 Radical, which is not yet released, for us to try. Is it the terroir or is it the 2015 vintage? Regardless, the dials here were all turned up. This is a beautiful wine; its intensity impresses but it is superbly balanced and shows great finesse for a wine of this size. The black cherry and raspberry profile is joined by lots of spice and a sexy, full body, voluptuous mouthfeel.
Excellent+ (Not yet released)
Babcock Winery + Vineyards
5175 E Highway 246 Lompoc CA 93436