In 1984, about six years after his parents had purchased and planted a variety of wine grapes on a 110-acre property on Highway 246 in the heart of what would become the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, Bryan Babcock took a break from getting his master’s degree in enology at UC Davis to work on the family ranch. “I started crushing grapes and forgot about school,” explained Babcock earlier this year, while driving around his 65 acres of vineyard planted mostly to pinot noir. “I’ve been making wine ever since.”
Watching grapes grow for three decades might spark lightbulbs of invention in even the most disinterested observer, but Babcock’s piercing eyes seem to be analyzing everything at once, so it was only a matter of time before his imagined creations became reality. Driven by the overarching goal to lower farming costs without sacrificing wine quality, Babcock was on the verge of a major breakthrough a few years back when he was about to weld together two tractors into one tall machine that would have made managing his vines a lot cheaper and allow him to plant tighter rows. But, with torch in hand, Babcock realized, “If I bring these rows closer together, I’m going to be in VSP forever, and that spooked me.”
Though there are dozens of ways to train your vines as they grow each year, VSP (which stands for “vertical shoot positioning”) is the trellising system preferred by high-end growers because it uses wires to hold the grape leaves high in the air, allowing plenty of airflow and proper sun exposure to the clusters hanging below. “It’s just so expensive,” said Babcock, divulging that it can cost as much as $5,000-$6,000 an acre to farm. “It’s a constant battle against gravity. I figured that I’m better off working with nature.”
Enter “Pedestular Cane Positioning.” Or “Canopy Pivoting.” Or “Curtain Farming.” Whatever the wavy-haired Babcock feels like calling it, his vines are now almost all arranged in a revolutionary system that raises the top of the trunk to nearly eye level (VSP trunk tops are closer to waist or knee), lets the canopy of leaves spill toward the ground as it grows, and keeps the clusters above the leaves. In addition, he practices “shade throttling” with the use of blinder sheets that can be adjusted to block sunlight when necessary. “I’m using wind and gravity to sculpt the canopy,” explained Babcock with a wide smile. “We’ve turned vertical shoot positioning upside down!”
And it’s turning heads, quite literally, as anyone familiar with vineyards has had to crane their necks when driving on Highway 246 past Babcock Vineyards, where the vines stand noticeably taller than any neighboring property. “Some people think I’ve gone totally crazy,” laughed Babcock, but the early results are anything but ludicrous. He’s already saving 30 percent on labor costs because this system is easier and quicker to manage, particularly at the start of each growing cycle when his crew prunes last year’s wood growth. “Pruning is one of the highest-cost aspects of farming,” said Babcock. “It’s sped up pruning by six or seven times.”
Because of that, Babcock is no longer front-loading a lot of cost on each vintage and, in a really bad year, can abandon the crop rather than struggle to eke out cases of overly expensive wine. “By the time I have to make that decision,” he said, “it’s just been growing naturally.”
And that’s not all he’s been up to. Perhaps even more interesting from a wine-geek side, Babcock has spent the past 20 years developing his own pinot noir clone from a suitcase cutting that was supposedly brought into California from either the renowned Romanée-Conti or La Tâche vineyards in Burgundy, France. Called Psi Clone, which Babcock hopes to trademark and unleash on the viticulture market one day, the limited amount of grapes currently go into a blend of the same name. The long story of how the clone came about would take up pages, so it suffices Babcock to say, “It’s like a saga.”
And who knows? Maybe in 20 years, thanks to Babcock’s visionary and cost-saving inventions, we’ll all be drinking Psi Clone pinot from vineyards trained with canopy pivoting for a mere $20.
The Craft, Production, and Business of Wine
Matt Kettmann talks Ampelos Cellars, Babcock Vineyards, and Sashi Moorman in this wine-centric podcast.