Babcock Winery & Vineyards: A local winery with world class appeal (published in January of 2010 in the SB News Press)

Recently I had dinner at Lucky’s (my favorite restaurant), and chanced upon a bottle of 2005 Babcock Déjà Vu Pinot Noir.  This wine was the least expensive of the three we ordered, and was the only local wine of the three.  It was, by far, the best wine of the evening, and I must say one of the best I have had anywhere.  I knew immediately that I wanted to know more about this vineyard and its winemaker.

I found that in 1978, Walt and Mona Babcock were seeking a retreat from Walt’s dental practice and the rigors of being restaurateurs (Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach).  Their search led them to purchase 110 acres of land on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley.  At that time the area was considered a fledgling wine region, and this inspired them to plant a 25-acre vineyard in 1980.  By the end of 1983, various notable winemakers had purchased Babcock fruit and made compelling wines. It was quickly becoming apparent that the soil and cool climate of the Babcock estate was ideal for producing ultra-premium wine grapes.

In 1984, Walt and Mona decided it was time to seize the opportunity to produce their own wine.  Just as they were setting the stage for their winemaking operation, their son, Bryan, who had graduated from Occidental College with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry, was attending the University of California – Davis, working toward his master’s degree in food science, with an emphasis in enology.  Fortunately, his studies primed him for the first Babcock harvest, as he was awarded a double gold medal for Babcock’s 1984 Estate Sauvignon Blanc.

Still family-owned and operated, Babcock Winery and Vineyards is an expanding 20,000-case winery with 80 acres currently planted to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Experimental varieties such as Albarino and Tempranillo from Spain, and Pignolo from Italy, are being evaluated.
Bryan Babcock has won numerous awards including being selected as one of the “Ten Best Winemakers of the Year” by the LA Times, and the prestigious “Top Ten Small Production Winemakers in the world” from the James Beard Foundation; the only American to win. 

Babcock wines, as described on their website, feature cool climate, estate-grown fruit as well as grapes from select local vineyards. Highly intellectual and flavorful, each wine possesses distinctive characteristics. These unique qualities are further showcased in a “Terroir” program with multiple annual offerings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon labeled with specific vineyard block designations. Within a vintage, one varietal may have several different designations.
Intrigued, I wanted to know more, and I wanted to taste their wines, so this week, I ventured north to Babcock, which is only about 50 miles north of Santa Barbara.  To get to the tasting room, one simply drives north on the 101 to 246, and heads west about 9 miles.  Babcock’s tasting room, located at 5175 E. Highway 246 in Lompoc, is immediately adjacent to Melville, is easy to find, and is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily.  (For more information, you can call Babcock at 805.736.1455, or visit their website at: www.babcockwinery.com.) 
Arriving at the tasting room on Tuesday, mid-day, my fiancé Kelly and I were the only ones there besides one local, Pete, who said he tries to make the rounds to all of the local wineries about once per month.  I was extremely disappointed to find out that the 2005 Déjà Vu Pinot I had enjoyed was a limited production wine and had been distributed to wine club members only. 
As Kelly, Pete and I enjoyed our tasting, a door suddenly opened and a young, robust individual stepped in to ask the pourer, Fred, if he had shipped a bottle of wine for a customer.  As he was about to leave, Fred told him that we had come for the Déjà Vu Pinot that we had just enjoyed at Lucky’s.  With a smile, the individual asked if we would like some and if so, how many bottles.  Not wanting to seem greedy, we mentioned we would be happy to have one or two, and he disappeared behind the closing door.  The pourer then told us that this individual was Brian Babcock, the owner and winemaker. 
Bryan was wearing faded jeans and a plaid shirt, and was clearly a hands-on kind of guy.  He returned shortly thereafter and asked if we would be interested in tasting their 2008 Déjà Vu Pinot that was within a month of bottling.  We jumped at this offer, and were treated to a tasting direct from the barrel.  We were not disappointed, as the 2008 Déjà Vu Pinot is very close to the 2005 in every delicious way.
Bryan then took the time to explain the complete story behind this amazing wine, including his original trip up to Paso Robles seven years earlier when he was looking for cabernet grapes and he spotted a freshly planted slope in an ideal spot with white soil; the telltale sign of a heavy limestone content.  He ventured up to the property only to be told by the property manager that the grapes were not for sale and that he was trespassing.  Three years later he received an email, explaining that the Russell family had pinot grapes for sale.  As he looked over the email and the attached picture, he realized that he was viewing the exact same picturesque scene he had witnessed three years earlier.  With an intense feeling of déjà vu, he contacted the grower and after confirming that this was, indeed, the same tract, he bought the grapes.  His Déjà Vu Pinot is the result of the combination of those grapes and his winemaking expertise. 
I hesitate to write about how good I believe this wine to be, for the simple reason that there isn’t very much available, and I want as much as I can get!  However, my point in writing about Babcock Winery and Bryan Babcock is to point-out the characteristics of a well-run and successful business.  Bryan was clearly busy, and did not have to take time to tell us this intriguing story, much less offer us his amazing 2005 Déjà Vu Pinot from his private library stock.  He did so because he clearly appreciated our interest in the wine, and more importantly, he loves making wine.  This is the kind of businessman I aspire to be, and showcases what it takes to be successful in today’s competitive economic landscape.   
We could all take a lesson from Bryan’s approach to his business.  If you aren’t familiar with Babcock’s wines, I strongly recommend taking a trip up to the tasting room.  (Just leave some Déjà Vu for me!)   I joined his wine club on the spot, and am looking forward to my first shipment, which will include a bottle of the 2008 Déjà Vu Pinot Noir.  I can’t wait!
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