It's mighty easy to go along doing things the way people before you did things. After all, you figure they knew something. Plus if you do something differently and it doesn't work, everyone's going to say, "Why didn't you do it the way we all did?"
Add it all up and innovation doesn't come easy. But that hasn't stopped Bryan Babcock. Not to take all the thunder out of the story, but as the owner of Babcock Winery & Vineyards in Santa Barbara's premium Sta. Rita Hills appellation, he was on a James Beard Foundation list of Top Ten Small Production Winemakers in the World.
A big part of being included on the list is what he calls Revolutionary Farming (he even trademarked the term and has several other patents pending) on his 65-acre estate known for pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot gris. His biggest idea, one that he admits "did not come to me over night," was "the epiphany that I had to stop fighting gravity. It was a battle I'd never win."
This might sound wonky, but stick with me and try to draw the image in your head as I describe his revolution. Most vineyards around the world use something called vertical shoot positioning (VSP) for the vines. Think of pretty much any glorious photo you've seen with rows of grapevines -- lots of green leaves at the top of the rows, and if it's harvest, the fruit is beneath.
Babcock flipped that method upside-down. If you walked along his vineyard now, you'd see all the fruit on top, and the leaves below, on plants that are taller than you'd be used to seeing. Babcock has been harvesting grapes this way since 2011.
"You save twenty percent per acre on farming costs," he says. "And I'm starting to sense a difference in the wine quality, not a quantum leap, but I am in control of the amount of sun on my crop in a way I've never been and that ultimately goes to quality."
As his ideas have evolved, so has his name for the process. Babcock started with the term "canopy pivoting," but says, "I'm more excited by the idea of 'vine sculpting.' We get to evaluate architecturally what each vine offers, which puts us in a better position to approximate 50/50 sun and shade. It's making good if not great wine. The whole approach feels more artistic than it ever did."
The benefits to his system are deep and wide -- he sprays less, as it's easier to mitigate mildew with the canopy higher. There are no wires, so pruning is easier and more efficient. He even gets some frost protection with the shoots higher off the ground.
"Shoots that volunteer at the old position are damaged, at two feet above the ground," he says, "so it must be colder there as the shoots at five feet are fine."
Babcock says, "A number of my colleagues think I've gone just absolutely nuts, but once they see the vineyard, they get it."
That conversion is similar to one he often has with wine buyers in Los Angeles who are getting his special project pinot noir from his Psi Clone, which has roots in two of Burgundy's most legendary properties. This variety of pinot has an incredible, lengthy story that can be read on the Babcock website (think plant material smuggled in suitcases and possible disease in the vines too).
"Almost every buyer I saw in L.A. was a level 2 or level 3 sommelier," Babock says about a recent sales trip south. "They're sophisticated, they're picky, and the coolest way you can answer the question, 'What is this wine?' is 'I developed it in-house, but the rumor is that it's either La Tâche or Romanée-Conti.'"