Santa Barbara County California has proven to be one of the most interesting and dynamic young wine regions in the world. Behind its rapid growth from rural coastal pastureland to world-class wine growing territory there have been a number of passionate and hardworking individuals who have helped carry the torch. Long before the movie Sideways revealed this idyllic coastal paradise to the world there were men and women who got their hands dirty every day to create something truly special here.
Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery & Vineyards has had his hands in wine production in Santa Barbara since the early 1980's and there are few people who have done more to help realize the potential of this beautiful stretch of earth than him. Bryan's family property sits in the heart of the Santa Rita Hills appellation right off of Highway 246 between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc. Some of the best Pinot Noir in California grows on the Babcock estate, and the Babcock team also sources a wide range of grape varieties from vineyards across the county.
We recently got the opportunity to sit down with Bryan Babcock himself to discuss the past, present, and future of wine in Santa Barbara. If you're interested in hearing what’s next in Santa Barbara, the history of Babcock Winery, the development of butterfly sanctuaries, or what it takes to make great Pinot Noir you won't want to miss this.
Question: What originally inspired the Babcock family (yourself included) to venture up to Santa Barbara County and plant grapes?
Bryan: It was my parents idea to buy land in Santa Barbara originally. My family is in the restaurant business - my parents own Walt's Wharf in Seal Beach - and they were looking for a certain place or a property they could go to and just stretch out to get some fresh air. They wanted to get out of Los Angeles to have some peace and I think that's what really motivated it more than anything in the beginning. They got out a map and a compass and stuck it in Long Beach and drew a 150 mile circle - you know half of which is in the ocean and the other half kind of skirts down around Temecula and then goes back up towards Santa Barbara. And so they sort of explored. Part of it is desert of course but they explored all of the areas south between Orange County and San Diego County and then north into Santa Barbara County.
When my parents first came up to Santa Barbara they immediately loved it. My mom had more of a vision of a quaint five acre property over near Solvang by the Santa Ynez river, but my dad was always a farmer at heart and he found this property. When the realtor showed it to him there was nothing on it - it was just bare ground - but he fell in love. My dad proceeded to start planting a vineyard and both of my parents became more and more interested in wine as their growth and development in the restaurant business took place. The whole thing mushroomed together in the restaurant business and in the wine business and they really got started with about 20 acres planted up on the main bench of our property.
I started getting involved driving the tractor and working in the vineyard when I was a sophomore in college and would come up and work during the summers. At the time I really didn't know what I wanted to do after my undergraduate studies. More or less as a default position I decide to go to University of California Davis and start graduate work in fermentation science, food science, & enology after taking biology & chemistry at Occidental College up there. That was pretty much my entrance into the wine industry.
Question: When did you personally know that you wanted to be a wine grower and winemaker?
Bryan: There was no one moment. In fact for the first five years I had to ask myself the question - do I want to feel like I live at home the rest of my life? You know my parents are my partners so I never really separated. It's not like I went to New York to become a stock broker and got a real life. I was sort of still trying to grow up every year. The question became do I like farming and winemaking enough to stay and do this for the long haul? Fortunately I got pretty good at it and I really did enjoy it. I mean I've always really enjoyed alcoholic beverages since I started. It's a great craft, It's a glorious craft.
There was this one special moment when I was on a trip with a friend of mine in Italy to study Sangiovese and Italian varieties. It was interesting to pull into various appointments and have this feeling for the reverence in those cultures for food and wine and the winemakers there. Winemakers are heroes in Italy and it really showed me that you can go back to the new world and you can take it just as seriously. You can build this thing into whatever you want! You can become a master craftsman as long as you dedicate yourself. But I think it's really more or less been a progression for me.
I think the most compelling thing for me was realizing how much biology, how much chemistry, how much becoming a good entomologist, soil scientist, microbiologist, biochemist, geneticist can really be employed in this trade. It's exciting to do something for 20 years that you think you're pretty good at only to find out you're just now starting to develop a deeper level of understanding. And that's when you really get creative! That's when you see opportunities. That's when I think you're really truly fascinated by things. I've been doing this for 35 years and have gotten good at it and am having a lot of fun.
Question: What changes do you see happening in Santa Barbara (and specifically the Santa Rita Hills) that are going to shape the future of this region?
Bryan: Since my family first arrived in Santa Barbara there has been so much development. It really has exploded! There is going to continue to be more growth, but the more the Santa Rita Hills is developed - and the more money, good winemakers, and attention that's this area gets - we will reach a critical mass of good products. I mean there's a reason Burgundy is Burgundy. Yes they have good soil and they grow Pinot Noir, but they've been doing it a long time. There aren't only two producers, there are hundreds and it's developed into a culture and an institution. And I don't know if that's something that will just click over here, but it will continue to grow and it will just continue to get better with more notoriety.
On the downside we have challenges. We have a huge problem with Pierce's disease. We need to find some remedies because it's not going to make any sense to plant a vineyard and then have it be dead in 10 years, and then try to replant and have it be dead in 10 years. So we're going to figure that out along with the development. Then comes the issue of oversupply in case of a downturn in the economy. I think we might start to see a collapse in prices. The worldwide supply of wine continues to grow, the amount of wine and fruit coming out of Santa Barbara continues to grow, so if there will be a pull back it remains to be seen. Some producers will go out of business, but the strong will survive. Thankfully we've yet to see that kind of thing happen.
I would also hope that there might be a little more exploration in terms of varieties. I'm really keen lately on a Spanish grape called Mencia, and I'll be planting some here and looking at that sometime in the next few years. They're planting some for me at Sebastiano and I think it can be a wonderful red variety here. I don't know if the interest in Syrah will continue with so much of it out there. Right now the focus in reds continues to be Pinot in the Santa Rita Hills but it might be nice if we could generate a little diversity.
I also think there's going to be some exploration with unique white varieties - like I'm working with Piquepoul, Clairette, and hopefully getting my hands on some Bourboulenc, which are white Rhone varieties that nobody really knows about yet. We have development in the entire county - in Santa Ynez and Happy Canyon - to look forward to. I don't just make wine in the Santa Rita Hills. It's like being a kid in a candy store when I see what's happening over in Happy Canyon, Santa Ynez, and along Aliso Canyon Road. It's really exciting!
Question: What excites you most about the future of Babcock Winery specifically?
Bryan: I'm currently working on a brand new concept called agrostetics. Agrostetics is the treatment of an agricultural domain as a piece of art. It's very exciting and will really push me to become a better entomologist and agronomist. I have to be better at forestry. I'm in the process of reforesting my property and hopefully by the time I am all said and done with it that the 110 acres will have 30 or 40 acres of it reforested. It's not enough to just plant a few oak trees; that's not a forest. It's going to take time, but I'm working on developing a large periphery of forest around the vineyard so that the forestry and vineyard integrate so there's beauty in every inch of it.
I'm also excited about the retail side of the business with my wife being the retail genius that she is and seeing the animal that she has created for us. We have the most interesting tasting room in the industry. There's so much soul in that room and it is mind boggling that people are responding to it so well. That's really Lisa's work in the tasting room and it was one of the things that really motivated this whole idea of an aesthetic. Lisa has turned our tasting room into essentially a 5000 square foot piece of art. I just looked at what she did in there one day and thought "why can't we just of have the same mentality with the rest of the property?" So I have a nursery right now with fifteen hundred oak trees from acorns growing in it. By the time we're done with I'll probably need another 3000 or 4000 oak trees to really get things planted and growing the way I envision it.
Part of it has been the development and design of butterfly sanctuaries. We're looking at different species of flowers and milkweed that like it here - that like the climate and the soil. We're looking for a flower that will bloom with a sustainable a bloom so it's pretty for more months out of the year. Agrostetics is the treatment of the domain as a piece of art so it's all built on beauty. We want flowers that are beautiful and that like to grow here that then attract butterflies along with that. We're looking at different species of milkweed because the butterflies need the milkweed to reproduce here, since they lay their eggs in milkweed.
I've been saying the last couple of years that I'm a pretty good grape grower but milkweed is absolutely kicking my ass. Its a learning process, but we'll get there! If the property is beautiful that is everything. I want it to be pretty the moment your tire hits the driveway and when you drive up you park under an oak tree. Then there's a sign that says tasting room this way and butterflies that way. It's an integration of business, retail, farming, winemaking. It's pretty basic theme but it's all about making people happy.
We want to give a massive shout out to Bryan for his time and for allowing us to pick his brain. If you have not yet tried the wines of Babcock they specialize in single vineyard terroir driven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also make a series of very interesting wines from all over Santa Barbara. They make everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Pet-Nat to Chenin Blanc and are one of the most unique and exciting producers in the state. Make sure to check our their beautiful property and tasting room on your next visit to Santa Barbara, you'll be glad you did!