Babcock Winery and Vineyards: The Cutting Edge of Vine Evolution

It’s time to let gravity and winds sculpt the vines for a change. It’s time to let the shoots fall down naturally like a curtain. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for “Canopy Pivoting!” ~ Bryan Babcock

Another Wine Bloggers Conference in the can, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association pulled off a great event and should be congratulated, well done, kudos. It was great to see so many new faces entering the wine blogging fray and also getting reacquainted with old friends. I believe the focus of the blogger's conference is two-fold; one is to provide an environment for new and the bit more mature wine bloggers to grow, learn, experience and make new contacts, but more importantly, I think it's about telling the story of the region we visit. That said, I believe that is done by putting a big spotlight on one or more of the producers from this wildly diverse region. So instead of focusing on what did or didn't happen at the conference, I wanted to spend my time talking about Bryan Babcock and his winery.

The gentlemen in the picture above need minimal introduction, he is one of the 'old guard' on the Santa Barbara wine scene, and more specifically the Sta. Rita Hills where he and other pioneers of the region spearheaded a move to have SRH designated as an official AVA, their petition was submitted in 1997, and in 2001 their petition was granted by the powers that be. But there was just one little snag, as Bryan tells the tale about the AVA that almost wasn't. I remember reading about the story back in the day, but I didn't realize how the issue was resolved. As I wondered aloud, 'thinking, really just one winery, and in a different country?" Bryan was quick to point out, that they did have a genuine cause for concern, and we were receptive to coming up with an alternative, that didn't involve lawyers. 

Many folks may not be familiar with the story; about how the pioneers of the initiative were hit with a bit of a lawsuit, from a Winery in South America, whose name just happened to be the same as the proposed AVA. But instead of all the drama of lawyer jousting, which can be costly in more ways than one. Instead, Richard Sanford suggested to the folks of the Santa Rita Hills winery, that they get together, see the region for themselves, pop some corks and figure out a way to avoid the whole lawyer/court/lawsuit thing. You know what they came up with a compromise, which was to abbreviate Santa to Sta, and thus today the AVA is known as the Sta Rita Hills.

“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.” ― Paulo Coelho

As Bryan Babcock explained it to me, on a warm Monday afternoon in the vineyard, “Why fight gravity? Why not work with it instead? I said, right that makes sense, but how would you describe to someone unfamiliar with what you're doing? He said, "I'm using gravity to help sculpt the canopy, bringing the canes higher, basically, we're turning vertical shoot positioning upside down!”. Where did he start this project? This experiment, if you will? It all started on what he describes as his very best block, the Pacific Block, or the "Oceans Ghost" block, which I believe is more accurate. Wow, you talk about going all in, he's laid all his cards on the table and has called, it looks like he's going home a winner.

Many folks think he is 'crazy' and I have to admit, I thought it was a bit odd. So why does this approach seem a bit on the crazy side of the equation? Well, because he's about to kick what has become the gold standard in viticulture, VSP or vertical shoot positioning [good for shading and air flow] to the proverbial curb, in favor of a radically different approach. It's something he likes to call “Canopy Pivoting!" a new technique [you can see in the picture above] he plans to patent. Bryan says, "why should you fight with gravity if you don't need to" which on the face of it, VSP does seem to be a bit counter-intuitive and cost-prohibitive.

So he plans to work with gravity to make his vineyard more functional, thereby saving much of the front ended labor costs, associated with vertical shoot positioning. Some may think, it's ludicrous, but the results are in, and the bottom line is that this approach could radically change everything. The grapes will be hanging near or at eyeball level, the leaves angled downward and a shade screen to let in or minimize the sun as vineyard manager sees fit. All the while reducing front end labor costs substantially, some 30% already, according to Bryan, and what that ultimately could translate into is a nice saving [per bottle] for the consumer. Only time will tell if his gamble will pay off, but if I was a betting man, and I'm not, I'd put my money on Babcock for the win.

It has been quite some time since my return to Babcock, the last time I was there was it was in 2009, where I led an intrepid group of travels, on a trip to SBC, or what I dubbed it as then the Sideways Road Trip. No one else in the group wanted to travel out to Babcock with us, it's a long trip down the 246 from the center of the Solvang, the windmill capital. That said, the last time we were there we took some wines home and one in particular, which we still have, 2007 Fathom a label they no longer bottle under, a wine with a good bit of Cabernet Franc. Sadly a vine, which, according to Bryan, does not grow in their soils all too well, in fact, they dried up and withered away.  

There have been a few changes since my last visit, besides the demise of the Fathom and the shift from VSP to his new system set to revolutionize the wine world. They have also changed and expanded the tasting room, it's five to six times larger than what it used to be and even a bit more insulated from the heat of the day. The last time I was there, I kept thinking sheesh, this tasting room is pretty hot and the wines seemed a bit warm too and perhaps were not showing as well as they could have. So I was thrilled to see an amazingly well done, tasting room with a very long bar, which beckons legions of thirsty vino sapiens to belly-up, sip, slurp and hopefully spit. 

They also added a classic rock and roll salon or as they call it a private tasting lounge, which I guess is reserved for visiting VIP's, the press and Wine Club members. Speaking of Classic Rock, one of my favorite genres of music, you can expect to hear it playing throughout the winery, in the tasting room, crush pad and the barrel room. This is the room where I had an opportunity to sit down with an excellent selection of their wines, even one that is already sold out. And take a quick note here, if you'd like a really radical Pinot Noir, then it would behoove you to secure some of 2012 once it's released or will be long gone.  

One of the first wines I encountered was from a block they called the 2012 "Naughty Little Hillside" I think they'd like to call it something else, but those alternative names would likely be frowned upon by the label police, aka the powers that be. This had to be one of the very best and most interesting Pinot Gris I've encountered in a long, long time. I don't typically find myself this fascinated by what usually is a simple white wine. 

Oh no, this wine has crazy, drill down to the center of the earth complexity, and layers, upon layers of texture. To say it had incredible minerality, would be a significant understatement, the roots must have drilled right through solid rock. This wine has real weight to it, a blaze of acid helps carry the abundant fruit, papaya, peach and subtle grapefruit on the back end, the finish sails on and on. I took two home because I wanted to revisit this experience again and again. My score for this wine is 94 points. 

I have seven more wines, which I tasted that day left to write about, but I'm going to set those up for a part two and should have those published on Tuesday. And seeing Andy has a new piece which is running on Monday, and each subsequent Monday throughout the month of August, so stay tuned. Plus, I have two more wineries I'll be reviewing from SBC, before heading off to Champagne in September. I'll leave you with a picture of the Naughty Little Hillside, which gives the Babcock team so many fits to work with, but is so worth it in the end. Until next time folks remember, life is short so sip long and prosper cheers!


Krista L. said…
What a great way to really capture the essence of the conference - a lovely post. Now I wish I'd had time to visit Babcock on our visit, but that just means I need to plan a return trip.
Will Eyer said…
Hi Krista,

Thanks for the kind words, Babcock is definitely one of the iconic places to visit in the SBC and hopefully on your return trip to the area, you can stop by to see them.

So good to have meet you at the conference. Your genuine passion for the wine blogging format, is a breath of fresh air, rock on!

All the best,

Bill Eyer
Thanks for the history behind Sta Rita Hills AVA. During our first visit to this area back in February I was curious why "Santa" was written in this fashion. Now I know and feel oh, so much smarter!

And I agree, Krista. I would have loved visiting this vineyard and winery. I'm very curious now about "canopy pivoting" and would love to see it in person. Maybe on our next trip out.

Will Eyer said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Eyer said…
Isn't that an amazing story, would it not be so fantastic if the rest of the world's issues could be solved in this fashion??

I'm so glad I could help, sharing insights like that is what this blog is all about!

All the best,


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