Bryan Babcock, Disciplined Winegrower Pt. 1

Ξ October 16th, 2008 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Bryan Babcock, winegrower for Babcock Winery and Vineyards, is in the prime of his life. What I mean by that, apart from his youth and vigor, is the coming into focus of hard-won knowledge achieved through disciplined experimentation in the vineyard. He is a student of the vine and vineyard, a conscientious, responsible visionary. As you will read in this two-part interview, Bryan Babcock is perpetually exploring the nuance and elusive character of terroir. A true believer in the concept, he amply explains why terroir matters, how to coax its expression, and he demonstrates the attentive care necessary to ask the right questions of the land.
 
I spoke to Bryan Babcock over the phone on two separate occasions this past week.
 
Part 2 will post Sunday.
 
Admin I was reading on your website blog about the difficulties you had with the Syrah this year. What happened?
 
Bryan Babcock What happened, I don’t know. But it looks to be some kind of an inversion because we had a nice set, at least by my standards, on everything else. Usually it’s the other way around. Usually our Pinot Noir is very light, our Chardonnay is very light, the Sauvignon Blanc usually has half about as much fruit on it as it does now. But the one variety that always seems to set a crop is the Syrah. I usually attributed that to a) it’s a different variety so it just could be a little bit more hardy in general in its pollinating capacity. Syrah is typically known to be a pretty productive variety. And b), because it’s a later season variety, compared to my other varieties, bud break on the Syrah is last, and then bloom is last. So I always attributed a little bit of set on the Syrah to a little nicer weather because the longer we wait for Spring for pollination usually depends on how nice the weather is. Of course that’s just theory. But one way or another we usually have clusters on the Syrah but this year it was pretty shot.
 
Can you tell me what Pinot clones you grow?
 
BB We grow 667, 777, 115, 114, 113, Pommard, 2A, 459, and there’s a new clone, I think it’s, if I’m not mistaken, it’s a 900 number from Dijon. And then I have my own ‘in-house’ clone, two of them actually, one’s called Psi [see pic] and the other one is called ‘Mama #2′.
 
Mama #2?
 
BB Yes. In other words, the other mother vine. Psi came from the first mother vine, at least what looked like at the time the strongest mother vine. When you look at one vine you have absolutely no idea of what the future holds or what’s in store for you, but the strongest vine I named Psi.
 
Do you have preferred yeasts for the different clones?
 
BB No. I just use different varieties.
 
Have you ever tried to let a wild fermentation run to finish? Will wines ever go to dry out there?
 
BB To the first question, yes, I have tried natural fermentation. The second answer is probably yes, too, if there’s not too much sugar in the lot it would probably go dry. But I’ve never liked the characteristics of a natural fermentation so I tend to stay away from it.
 
With a wild fermentation what happens exactly?
 
BB They tend to smell a little more like hay, like fresh cut, wet hay. I don’t know what the compounds are but it tends to smell a bit more like creosote, some of these other sort of guaiacolish-like compounds; it’s just not a real clean fermentation.
 
I have heard you’ve undertaken innovations with vineyard orientation…
 
BB Well, I don’t know if I have any innovations at this point. I think I’m just starting to understand some of the factors involved. I’m experimenting with some different row directions and vine spacing, in other words, the overall geometry of the vineyard. I wouldn’t call them innovations until I have the answers which will take another five to ten years, and then if I actually get the factors installed, get results, and my logic is good then I might call it an innovation. But at the end of it all how innovative can it be when you figure somebody in Europe already’s done it this way for 100 years?
 
I just don’t know how comfortable I am with the word ‘innovation’. I would say what I am doing is innovative in kind of a microcosmic way in my own little part of the world. I would not want it to seem I’ve discovered any real or new knowledge. What I really do think is that I’m starting to understand here is what a number of Europeans understood for years and years, that the way you lay the vineyard out really makes an impact.
 
You have to go into each environment and study it at that point. Somebody might tell me something involving the geometry of their Sauvignon Blanc in Pouilly-Fumé but when I go home the because of the way the wind blows or the temperature through the day it may not apply. You have to figure out where the sweet spots are in the layout of the vineyard. If the shade has an effect versus non-shade, or if the way the row runs whether the wind has an effect versus the way the wind is broken up, or if radiant heat off the ground has an effect insofar as how high or low the canopy is off the ground, those are all things that you have to find out based on your particular place. So if I discover the causality, the causes and the effects, and what works and what doesn’t, let’s say for Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills and Babcock Vineyards, then I think that would be answering questions; it would be innovative in kind of a microcosmic way. But it’s not like nobody has ever known the overall effect of vineyard geometry because, like I’ve said, Europeans and probably smart domestic winegrowers have known that for years. I’m not the first.
 
I am probably one of the few people in my area to be as radical about it as I am. If you want a word that kinda pigeonholes me, rather than ‘innovation’ I like the word integration. Vineyard geometry is just one thing, that then has to be integrated with watering… irrigation.
 
Speaking of irrigation, at Babcock Vineyards you have different terroirs, your Terroir Exclusives line, for example, must have different water requirements. Could you say something of how you irrigate?
 
BB I think the basic difference between the way I irrigate and most of my colleagues is that I have gone back to using a significant amount of overhead irrigation with sprinklers. And for me there are two preferred targets, one is at verasion or slightly before verasion, depends on the block and variety. Pre-verasion with Pinot Noir I think is attractive; slightly before verasion or the early onset of verasion with Chardonnay, if you can catch it, right before bunch closure, I think that’s an attractive point. These are times where we will put down three to four inches, and I’m thinking next year it might be, if we can keep it all in the field without having it run off, five inches of overhead. And we try to apply the significant aspect of it, also, we try to get this all on in one night…. If the rig can deliver this much water.
 
And where does it come from, the water?
 
BB The well. We call it bore-hole irrigation. And the reason for that is the first time we did it I had all these ideas in my mind and I wanted to get out three inches in one night. We turned on the sprinkler, took it up to as much pressure as we could, we ran for probably twelve hours and we only got an inch and a quarter. We realized we were not going to be able to find, from the sprinkler head we had at the time, that it was going to be difficult to find a conventional nozzle of a big enough orifice, a big enough diameter to distribute that much water. So we had to unscrew the nozzles and take them to the shop to bore out the hole. So we call it bore-hole irrigation.
 
Bore-hole irrigation. Like a whale’s blow-hole.
 
BB (laughts) Yeah. You gotta bore out the hole in your sprinkler to get that much water out. (We finally found sprinklers that will accommodate it.) Another way to put it: three to five inches in one night at verasion.
Again, it’s all about integration. Bore-hole irrigation is integrated with the vineyard geometry and the farming of the cover crop. All of these things have to be put together. If you make one discovery, say with regard to lay out, and you discover that you want the rows here to go north and south, well, if you’re on a steep, west-facing hillside that means you have to cut terraces. And if the terraces are so crazy that they’re just not safe, that’s a problem, or if they’re constantly eroding out because of rain, that’s a problem, or if you can’t get your cover crop planted, or mowed because it’s too close to rain and the terraces are too mushy and easily damaged, well, what do you do? You may have to rethink the whole thing. So, it’s how it’s all put together. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who is as radical as I am with regard to integration, and that includes every European I’ve ever met.
 
On the other hand, there have been times when I thought I was right, I thought I was certain, when I’ve gone out and installed something and five years later I realize I wasn’t [right]. The exciting thing about farming is when you get it right it is very fulfilling because once you put it in it’s really hard to make an adjustment. Ripping things out and starting over again is not easy.
 
Can you tell me something of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA insect complex you guys deal with?
 
BB We don’t have a whole lot of insects, certainly not a lot of insect problems. What the beneficial insect profile is I really don’t know. I’m not that up on my entomology. We have a few problems, we’ve got these little bugs that bore holes in the trunks of young vineyards typically when they’re two to three years old. We get a little bit of that. Of course, mildew, not an insect but certainly a pest. Bees, we have a bee problem in some places, if you’re next to enough of a bee population. We have not had a serious problem with mealy bugs yet. We don’t have a really high population of sharpshooters because it is so windy and cold.
 
Bees?
 
BB Yeah, typically yellow jackets. And honeybees, too. Honeybees will attack a grape crop. They typically like to attack white grapes. They especially love Chardonnay when it’s ripe for some reason. Though they will get into Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. They tend to get into varieties that have a little rot on them. They think it’s damaged fruit. That opens the door. Once they discover there are carbohydrates then the whole hive is activated. Depending on the habitat, so if you’ve got a vineyard with alot of habitat, say maybe on three sides of it, like up in the end of a canyon, and there’s chaparral, places for bees close by then it can be a problem, not everywhere, just certain areas.
Even more problematic, you can you bait them or poison them, but if you put out certain baits to kill the yellow jackets and if you’re [also] killing a beekeeper’s honeybees that’s not good either. I guess the point of it is if I got a Chardonnay vineyard that the bees are going to eat every year then maybe it’s time for a different variety.
 
How do you ferlilize?
 
BB I plant legumes in the middle, between rows, and I will put down compost, as needed, from time to time.
 
Have you had TCA problems with corks? Do you ever have sourcing issues?
 
BB I used to. I’m getting to the point where my less expensive products now have synthetic cork. And my more expensive products have more expensive cork. So, for me I think the problem was at the lower end of the cork ‘food chain’. We were trying to spend ten cents for cork when the materials were not as good. And that’s when you always run into trouble. If you’re spending forty-five, thirty-five cents for a cork you ought to be able to demand from the supplier that there not be, you know, cork taint in this product. Sure, a few bottles here and there, one percent I suppose would be acceptable; but I would just tell my cork suppliers that if I’m paying thirty-five, forty cents a cork and you’re gonna deliver ten to fifteen percent TCA then I’m going to find another supplier.
That’s basically what I did for the better part of twenty years. I’ll tell you right now I buy from one or two suppliers, and as long as their product on the upper end is stable I’ll be back.
 
End of Pt. 1
 
Admin

 

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  1. on October 17th, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for the blog. I’ve enjoyed Bryan’s wines for some time, but more importantly, I’ve enjoyed Bryan’s ‘outside the box’ mentality to grape growing and winemaking as well. He certainly has ‘reinvented’ himself from someone hoping to carve out a niche making Alscatian style wines (he was, unfortunately, ahead of the curve on that one) to one who really understands the microclimates of the Sta Rita Hills and Santy Ynez Valley quite well.

    It’s also nice just to see his name mentioned again. People are always looking for the ‘next big thing’ that they sometimes bypass those that had been in favor in the past. This is especially true with folks like Bryan, Andrew Murray, and a few others in our area . . .

    Cheers!

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