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Babak Shokrian: Buying a Vineyard for the Long Haul

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It's not unusual for people from the film industry to wind up involved with wine -- it's a cool thing to blow money on -- but Babak Shokrian's got a more complex back story than that. Born in Teheran, Iran, he moved with his family to the U.S. at an early age, got a degree in anthropology from UCLA, and began work in film.

While he just released the film Shah Bob on the festival circuit (where his previous one America So Beautiful met much success) he's also got a burgeoning project in Santa Barbara County, the Shokrian Vineyard -- what used to be known as Verna's and owned by the Melvilles.

"I was kind of at a boiling point at the end of 2013, having just sold a building I was living in for ten years and looking for a change," Shokrian says. "I came up to Los Alamos to celebrate a friend's birthday who recently moved to Buellton to make wine. After that I started to fantasize for months about buying house and growing grapes out there. One day I noticed Melville's Verna's had fallen out of escrow. It seemed familiar. Looked it up and saw it was right across the street from White Hawk [Vineyard], where I had visited on my friend's birthday months ago. In fact, I had even taken a picture of Cat Canyon Road [the property's address] at that time. I drove up that very night and stayed at Pea Soup Anderson's."

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After checking in with his friend and learning it was a well-regarded property, Shokrian says, "I was all excited the next day; I drove out there, standing outside of the gate. I knew I had to make this happen. It was kind of a light bulb moment. But also a very passionate and visceral feeling at the same time. It was the game-changer I was looking for but hadn't seen until right then. It was obviously much bigger than what I was imagining but it was beautiful and well worth their asking price. One hundred acres of land, nature with the fruit of the vine. So I picked up a rock and went to work."

His work began by finding winemakers willing to take a chance on his project. Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven Cellars was wondering what she could do with it, largely because she was intrigued with Verna's fruit. She's currently making viognier (her signature varietal) and syrah.

"Babak really does bring something new to the project," she says. "He doesn't have a background in wine. But the world of film seems to suit him well to transition into the world of wine. He listens, he looks for talent, and he perfects. He coaxes. First in the vineyard, and now he's beginning to focus on the cellar, too."

It's quite a mutual admiration society. "I was fortunate enough to get Morgan Clendenen on board," Shokrian says. "She has a real feel for making wine. A mixture of science and the touch of an artist."

The two then met up with Drake Whitcraft of Whitcraft Winery at a concert he played in Lompoc. And so at a rock show, several futures became entwined -- Whitcraft was brought on to work with the pinot noir from the vineyard.

All three major players seem in it for the long haul. "Babak brings a moldable point of view that is really needed when you enter an industry that's new to you," Whitcraft says. "You can't walk into Batali's kitchen and tell him how to cook if you're not a cook. He's taking the Warren Buffet approach of not trying to change things too much. He gets that and does not micromanage, which is beyond awesome. I think as he gets a feel over a decade for what the property is capable of, he can start to expect certain things, but he needs a decade to understand the ups and downs of this industry."

Shokrian certainly seems willing to think long game. "The first year I paid close attention to the seasons and what needs to happen in each," he says. "This year Coastal Vineyard Care [one of the best vineyard management groups in the region] is doing all the heavy lifting and I deal with the bills. Lots of bills owning a vineyard. One day I hope to farm it myself with a small crew. I feel it's much like making movies: Getting ready to make a movie all year is like pre-production. Harvest is the shoot, production. And now we've added a winery to the mix, which is post-production for a vineyard but production in winemaking."

As of now, that means small production -- especially after the low yields of the current 2015 harvest. Five barrels last year, 10-12 this year. At 300 bottles per barrel, well, you can do the math as that total is tiny. But there are dreams of a vineyard tasting room in Los Alamos on the crazy hip Bell Street. And there's Clendenen's claim, "I do think Shokrian could be the future of Santa Barbara County vineyards" as she could imagine owners working more in tandem to promote their vineyard through their clients' wines. "I stopped putting vineyard names on some of my wines because I felt I only made them more desirable as I worked to sell my wines with their names on my labels. They ask top dollar, sell you grapes and that's it," she laments. "This vineyard is interested in having the best clients, working to promote their clients, and earning its name. Not just a person coming in, buying the vineyard, and slapping his name on it. It's way more interesting, to me, what Shokrian is doing. It's a slower process. But it's organic and way more amiable to grower and winery."

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