Hear founder & winemaker, Bryan Babcock talk about new release wines.
2019 Dream Field
There is a place under an ancient Oak tree on the Peake Ranch, where if you look toward the west you see one of the most beautiful little hillsides in the Sta. Rita Hills. For me, part of its beauty is the daily breeze that all of a sudden cools down a couple degrees once it hits the shade of that massive tree. Another part of it, which is more subconscious, is the feeling of looking to the west in the direction of 99% of all the rest of the greatness that now lies along Santa Road in the Sta. Rita Hills. 30 years ago, the only thing there viticulturally was our primordial granddaddy, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Today there is a 10 mile long stage on top of which winemaker after winemaker unleashes their passions. Still, another part of its beauty is that this hillside is the home of one of the most meticulously farmed vineyards in Santa Barbara County. It’s the home of Peake Ranche’s Block 14B, which provides a sublime east facing climate for two acres of Hyde Clone Chardonnay, the fruit from which over the last couple of years has turned out to be a dream come true.
I am starting to hear some of the purists out there say that it’s Chardonnay, not Pinot Noir, that is the Sta. Rita Hill's best grape. Whether that’s true or not, my Dream Field Chardonnay is definitely one of those wines fueling the discussion. Once again, it's an expression of a complete Burgundian style, including just the right amount of new French Oak (33%) and just the right amount of time spent undisturbed on its lees/yeast sediment (9 months). But more than anything, it's an expression of a stunning terroir with a grower who knows how to bring all of its delicacy and richness into the foreground.
2019 Old Vines
Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Grown
The French have a term that you see occasionally on their wine labels, "Vieilles Vine”, meaning Old Vines. While this is a term that I have been contemplating for some time, I’m pretty sure the first time I saw "Alte Reben” on a German label, I thought to myself, ‘what the heck is that?’ Now I know. In her Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson writes, "Grape vines can grow for over 120 years. After about 20 years vines start to produce smaller crops, and average yields decrease, leading to more concentrated, intense wines.” Key words, “MORE CONCENTRATED, INTENSE”, and thus the reason for all the hoopla. Worldwide at this point, old vines are revered. But what does it really mean in vine language to be old?
There is no specific legal prescription as to the number of years that are required for vines to be considered old, but in France, if you try to designate a vineyard that’s anything under 20 as old, they probably kick you out of town. Most of the Vieilles Vine labels I see pretty much mean their vines are 30 or older. In the new world, where many wine growing regions are younger, there may not be many vineyards that are older than 30. Thus, with there still being a reverence for older vines, there is more of an impulse to talk about one’s vines as “mature” the moment they hit 10, and proclaim they are old once they hit 20. Our first Sauvignon Blanc was planted in 1979. Now that I have picked its magical fruit yet once again 40 years later, I think an Old Vines designation is in order.
Over the years my Sauvignon Blanc has gone through a number trials and tribulations. After the LA and Orange County Fair gold medals that I won for my 1984 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc (i.e. beginner’s luck), I then went through a decade-long process of experiencing how varietal (a.k.a. green, grassy, cat pissy, etc.) Sauvignon Blanc can be when grown in a cool climate. Through those years I did some creative blending with my Sauvignon Blanc and fruit from other, warmer climate vineyards in an attempt to tame the green beast. The efforts went so far as to produce a wine called Eleven Oaks Ranch, named after one of the vineyards that was a key contributor each year in the blends. Those Sauvignon Blancs probably brought more recognition to the winery than anything else I made, up until the fuse was lit for the Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir explosion, which has largely defined what myself and a number of my colleagues have been focused on for the last 20 years.
Even though the Eleven Oaks Sauvignon Blanc was a rewarding project, as time went on, I still felt like I needed to find a more beautiful window for my fruit alone. It was sometime in the late 1990’s when I started to understand the relationship between direct sunlight on the crops, and the resulting flavors in the wines. The moral of my story was, grow Sauvignon Blanc in the shade, and you get the more vegetal side of the grape, ranging from lime at best, to jalapeño at worst. Grow it in the shade and pick it too early (oooh!), unless you like wines that smell like green beans, you might as well not bother. But, grow the fruit directly in the sun (which, of course, takes more work) and pick it dead ripe, then you begin to render the magical side of Sauvignon Blanc; mango, guava, gooseberry and an elusive component that I have always loved; cherimoya. Even when grown in the sun, there would always be at least a whisper of green, which would basically serve as the wine suggesting to your nose, ‘. . . after all, I am Sauvignon Blanc.’ It was after I became confident that I could consistently deliver a more beautiful and elusive side of the grape that the I arrived at a new designation for the program; “Simpatico.” In other words, I was finally simpatico with the overall farming and the results. It only took me 30 years, but I guess, better late than never.
And so it is that my four acre of Sauvignon Blanc has turned 40, and what was Simpatico has become Old Vines. For me, it’s a great point to reflect back upon and appreciate all the development that comes with any craft as long as you have the passion to stick with it for 40 years. Not only is my Sauvignon Blanc producing, in the words of Ms. Robinson, smaller crops and more concentrated wines, now there is an added dimension of stress; Pierce’s Disease. In 2019 I could not pick every vine because many of them were just too weak. At this point, I can only pick sun drenched clusters off of vines healthy enough to offer a true window into Sauvignon Blanc's beauty.
40 years later, I hope you enjoy the product of the Old Vines.
Happy Birthday Sauvignon Blanc.
2018 Opportunity Knocks
This Grenache has been called Opportunity Knocks for the last few years because my discovery and relationship with its vineyard source, Spanish Springs, has really been a story of opportunity. More accurately, this wine should probably be called Perplexity to Opportunity, or perhaps even Panic to Peace. In 2016 I crushed my first fruit from this vineyard hoping to find a Grenache that would have some muscle. I had already worked with Grenache from three warmer climate vineyards, only to find their wines lacking in color, tannin, texture and flavor. I was trying to find a way out of the window of insipidity, and liked Spanish Springs’ location just a couple miles from the Ocean in a cooler, Edna Valley-like climate. What I ended up with was something beyond my wildest dreams.
We dumped the first bin of fruit into the crusher and the juice squishing out of the berries was black. For the first time in my life, I saw a juice that seemed to be staining the edges of a fermenter. I had seen at my crusher some dark juices before from varieties like Syrah and Petit Verdot, but nothing like this from Grenache, a variety that is supposed to yield something lighter.
I ran into the lab and called the grower. “Is there any Alicante Bouschet on your ranch?” Alicante is one of the only European winemaking varieties that has ink for juice. I had never seen Alicatne Bouschet myself, but declared to the grower anyway, “That’s what this stuff must be; whatever it is, it's not Grenache!”
After being consoled by the grower that it really was Grenache, that he had watched his crew pick and load the fruit directly onto a truck, and that to his knowledge, “The fruit was not hijacked and swapped out for something different during the hour and a half drive from Pismo Beach to Lompoc," I was still perplexed. I was planning to make a white wine out of a portion of the fruit for this crazy program that I had going years ago called Identity Crisis. Being impossible to make white wine out juice that looks more like motor oil, that plan waved bye-bye. So, I stood there at the crusher thinking, what now?
The numbers on the juice that came out of the lab were, like its color, extreme. It was dead ripe, so the sugars were high. But so were the acids. It was when I found myself contemplating relationships that I had never contemplated before that I started to realize, whatever was about to happen, was going to be extraordinary. Rather than manipulate or try to normalize the juice in any way, I decided to let it ride in an effort to gain a foundational understanding, if there could even be such a thing, for the Grenache from Spanish Springs.
The red wine that we made that year was, and still is, a beast. I mean, it’s a beautiful, world-class beast, but from the standpoint of structure, it is extreme. In my wine notes, I found myself for the first time saying, “This wine will beautiful in 20 years,” and it felt particularly weird saying that about a Grenache. At that point I also commented that if there was anything to gain going forward in the finished product, it would be perhaps a little bit of refinement. Most winemakers, me included, spend their lives trying to build and construct flavor and texture; in a word, volume. Even the so-called "hands off’ or "natural wine” players still recognize that not all vineyards are equal, and that the best fruit, regardless of the vineyard, always gives you some semblance of flavor. For me, the Spanish Springs Grenache is an exception to that rule. Like my Sauvignon Blanc I suppose, it’s more about harnessing raw power, and then hoping to be able to guide it to the door of tenderness.
Ladies and Gentlemen, refinement has arrived.
Don’t get me wrong, this 2018 Opportunity Knocks still has to be one of the darkest, most structured Grenaches on Earth. It’s just that now I’m not saying 20 years of bottle age is necessarily an interesting target. Oh, it will go 20 years if you want it to, but I have been drinking and enjoying this stuff now. Is it chewy? You bet it is. If you have a dark, cool place to lay it down in, 5 years will no doubt have it singing. While 10 years would be sublime, there is no need to hide your corkscrew. If you are having a big juicy steak, you should be just fine anytime.
I have been contemplating this new idea for the last couple years, and I’m sure Opportunity Knocks is one of the subconscious impulses behind it. It’s the idea of Legacy Wine, in other words, wine that may very well still be on this earth and drinking great long after I am gone. While I have not stamped those words onto a wine label just yet, it’s wines like this one that are starting to speak to me in these terms.
2018 Sta. Rita Hills
18% Babcock Estate
Once again, this bottling is a tour de force blend of great vineyards, and once again, its color, flavor and texture are a true expression of all that is great about Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir.
I am very proud of the fact that we have been able to capture a blend of Pinot Noir from such great sources for well over a decade. I am not even sure how many years we have bottled this flag ship wine, but I am pretty sure we never raised its price.