Santa Ynez Valley Journal
April 10, 2008
Typically, ghost stories are told around a roaring campfire on a dark and stormy night.
But when Bryan Babcock told his ghost story, we were standing at the top of the Babcock Winery estate, overlooking a grand expanse of vineyards on a bright and cloudless day.
It was the tale of Ocean’s Ghost, one of the most revered Pinot Noirs produced in the valley. This mystery, however, is not hard to unravel. It’s all about terroir: the climatic and geophysical aspects of a specific wine region, vineyard or block.
In Babcock’s case, it is deeply embedded in the diatomaceous earth and the cooling ocean breezes rolling in from the Pacific Ocean that blanket his family-owned winery, located on the far western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, in the Santa Rita Hills wine appellation.
“All the soils here are remnants of an ancient sea – deep sandy loams and shallow decomposed sandstone. ‘Ocean’s Ghost’ is my description of the west mesa that reaches out to the ocean. It’s the first point that gets the rapidly moving cool air,” explained Babcock.
This fascination with terroir turned out to be just the beginning of a multi-layered discussion about a wide range of subjects that revealed his approach to winemaking.
Any winemaker is expected to be someone steeped in hardcore viticulture and enology, a master of nuance with a sensitive palate. With Babcock, you get all that, but also find yourself discussing 18th-century philosophy, current global business issues and challenges faced in the continued quest for excellence.
Starting in the early 1980’s, he abandoned the pursuit of an MBA and received a master’s degree in Food Science at UC Davis. Despite walking away from a business-centric direction and into the esoteric world of winemaking, he clearly did not lose his sense of business practicalities.
This is not to say that his wines aren’t seductive, layered and sometimes even a little naughty (more about that later). They are. Yet, they seem to be born out of equal parts cutting-edge creativity and pragmatism.
With 23 vintages under his belt, Babcock has had plenty of time to refine his approach to grape growing, terroir, style, and most importantly, an evolving philosophy about what constitutes great winemaking.
As we walked through his vineyards, he was equally animated about his next 20-year quest: the geometric reconfiguration of the vineyard and all that this new challenge entails.
An exact understanding of the sun’s influence on the fruit is another subject he wants to develop better control over. Not just how much sunshine, but exactly when and exactly where it hits the fruit.
“The bulk of our experimentation is with the geometries of the vineyards, not so much with the varieties. Over the last ten years, I’ve become really taken with the influence of the sun on the wine – the way the sun interacts with the grapes, with the actual cluster,” Babcock said.
As he proudly showed off some new field machinery prototypes built in their own shop, Babcock explained that the change will impact not only vineyard layout, but everything involved in growing the grapes, right down to the machinery modifications needed to accommodate his vision.
This new approach is important to Babcock because of how much weight he places on the specific and varied terroirs that the each block in the vineyard represents; and his desire to exploit those differences in a unique portfolio of terroir-based vintages.
“What I try to do with each of the wines is to identify a soil that expresses itself in the wine; then it’s a process of trying to describe soil,” Babcock said. “I think the process of creating names for these terroir-specific wines is kind of interesting and fun as well”.
The result is an unusual mix of nomenclature like Nook & Cranny, Frying Pan, Under the Radar, Top Cream. And that’s where a Pinot Gris named “Naughty Little Hillsides” came from.
Grapes grown on one of the first blocks his father planted were fraught with problems from the beginning. Anything that could go wrong did. But the fruit was still intriguing enough for Babcock to pursue.
He has not entirely abandoned his trademark experimentation with new varietals though.
The latest one to pique his interest is a little-known Spanish grape, Loureiro.
“Loureiro is intriguing to me for a number of reasons. It’s so far out there. First of all, nobody’s ever heard of it. But, it hits the human senses in a way that smells good and taste good. So maybe I’ll finally have something that nobody else is doing. It’s bizarre, but it’s good at the same time,” he said.
Not content to rest on the laurels of award-winning wines, Babcock continues to push himself. Early in his career, he was singled out by the Los Angeles Times and the James Beard Foundation for his courageous style. Some twenty years later, it’s evident that he continues to earn that description today.
Which leads us back to that ghost story.
“While everything can’t be perfect all of the time, when you put the words Optimum Quod Possum (Latin for “As best as I am able”) on your label, it’s good to have at least a few avenues where you can practice your best, regardless of the cost”, Babcock said.
“For me, Ocean’s Ghost is one of them.”
If you’re interested in hearing this ghost story first-hand, you might pay Babcock a visit in the course of the annual open house during the upcoming Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Festival weekend. Just don’t blame me if it keeps you up at night.