by Laura Ness
Owner/Winegrower Bradley Brown of Big Basin Vineyards has been on a long, tumultuous journey as a self-taught winemaker in the middle of an appellation best-known for its eccentric, self-made legends. In that, he has good company, to wit, David Bruce, Jeff Emery, Tony Craig, Jeffrey Patterson and Ryan Beauregard, to name a few. When he decided to pursue wine as a second career in the late 1990s, after a successful dance with high technology, Brown couldn’t have chosen a more obscure spot, deep in the redwoods adjacent to Big Basin Park in Boulder Creek, to plant vines.
At first, he was wholly dedicated to Rhones, sourcing cuttings from one of his best mentors, John Alban, who inspired the robust and dense wines for which he gained immediate notoriety. Those were the days of the high flying, high alcohol, high Parker scoring wines that came to define the Rhones of Paso Robles, and Bradley kept good company among their creators. Syrah was the darling, made massive and tempestuous: no alcohol was deemed too high to defy its inherent gravitas. Grenache was elevated to the bombastic, and GSM blends cemented their place in our collective consciousness. Ah, if only we could have actually enjoyed an entire bottle before passing out.
But that was then, and that now seems so very long ago. The road to one’s style as a winemaker is often paved with torturous side trips that lead to sheer cliffs, from which one must fly like Icarus or carefully retreat. To Brown’s credit, he knows when to sail and when to bail. And he knows how to read a trend.
Fortuitously, he began to shift from the solitary infatuation with Rhones to the allure of Pinot Noir, around 2004, when Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard needed a place to crush after his partner, Ken Burnap, sold the Jarvis Road property in Scotts Valley. Emery ended up crushing at Big Basin Vineyards. Brown became intrigued with the myth of Pinot, and began sourcing fruit from vineyards in Corralitos, including Alfaro, Lester and Woodruff, sources he still uses today. He recently began grafting his estate Syrah over to Pinot Noir, choosing Mount Eden and Swan clones.
At the same time, he was developing, along with John Allen, a trippy, high elevation, limestone-studded vineyard called Coastview, in the Gabilan Mountains, south of Salinas. At first, he wanted Rhones, planting more selections of Syrah, and some Viognier, but eventually added Pinot Noir and god forbid, Chardonnay.
Some will remember Brown’s ardent exclamation in his early days as a winemaker that he would never make Chardonnay. Ever. You know what they say about never: it so rarely ever completes the forward pass. Brown now makes some absolutely stunning Chardonnay: so graceful of spirit, so light on its airy feet that you have a hard time wrapping your head around the fact it’s the same winemaker. But then, he isn’t. He’s changed. Evolved. Grown. And grown up. Fatherhood will do that to you.
Each assistant winemaker he’s had along the way, and he’s had a few, including Ian Brand, Lindsey Otis and currently, Brad Friedman, have influenced his evolution and helped him orient his compass towards his true North, which is grace, purity and balance.
Says Brown, “Two things happened in concert that changed my perspective. 2011 was the coolest vintage on record. You were never going to get things ripe. The Lester Vineyard Pinot (located in Corralitos, a coastal sub-region of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA) that year turned out great. Our estate Syrahs were very interesting: much more savory. I showed the 2011 Lester at WOPN (World of Pinot Noir) to Raj Parr who posted on Delectable that he really loved it. Picking the fruit earlier seemed to amplify the texture, mouthfeel and structure, but also produced more character and integrity. The other thing that happened was a tasting with a friend who is a heart surgeon and a collector of DRCs and Grand Crus. At the time, I didn’t get the hype around Burgundy. We opened up a 1990 Domaine Dujac Bonne Mares Grand Cru: one of the greatest vintages, and a warm year. It blew my mind. It was so ethereal and complex, filled with perfume. It was otherworldly. That experience changed my mind so completely about what Pinot was capable of.”
Consequently, in 2012, he picked all the vineyards earlier and made Pinots that he says, “completely blew my mind!” About that time, he became aware of IPOB (In Pursuit of Balance) and submitted to join. At first, his wines weren’t accepted, but he got in on the second attempt. “It was a big Aha! moment for me,” says Brown. “I was among great company, with great producers and renowned vineyards.”
Another factor that changed his winemaking was the use of whole cluster. He notes that in Burgundy, they use native yeast, as does he, along with abundant whole cluster. Being part of IPOB brought him in contact with other winemakers employing whole cluster to boost the mid-palate and texture in wines picked at lower brix.
“I became increasingly aware of whole cluster, but I was scared of the impact it would have with lower alcohol, higher acid. I worried they would be green and lack structure and color. With whole cluster, I didn’t want tannin or astringency. Starting in 2012, we did some whole cluster and upped it to 75% in 2013 on the Lester Pinot and 40% on the Alfaro Vineyard Pinot (also in the Corralitos area). We liked the whole cluster lots and didn’t find any bitterness. So, we really went for it in 2014, with 100% whole cluster on the Lester and Alfaro Pinots, as well as the Coastview Pinot.”
The Coastview Vineyard in the Gabilan Mountains sits at 2200 ft., above the Salinas Valley, on the eastern side of Highway 101. This warm, sun-drenched microclimate features decomposed granitic and limestone soils, and is capable of producing bigger, brawnier, more tannic wines.
Brown also began employing whole cluster in Syrah, venturing as high as 40% in 2014 with Coastview fruit. “You have to be careful with Grenache, though. The skins and stems are so thick, that 50% whole cluster is max,” he notes.
Equally important in the evolution of the Big Basin style has been the use of oak: much less of it, and much more judicious selection of wood. Says Brown, “In the early days, we tended to use lots of oak, mostly M+. I’ve definitely started to move away, beginning in 2009 and 2010, with a shift to different oak for different varietals. For Pinot, we use mostly M toast. Our goal is transparency. I don’t want to get oak flavors. New barrels can amplify the characters that are already there in the fruit, or by adding a specific oak flavor. We have used 100% new in the past.”
He’s been gradually stepping down the use of new oak, to 1/3 or even 20% new, depending on the vineyard: a seismic shift. Through rigorous testing, Brown and Friedman have isolated a former master cooper from Hermitage who uses only wood from the Alliers Forest. They’ve selected a very tight grain and light long toast, which they feel is ideal, especially for Chardonnay.
Yes, Brown is making Chardonnay, both from the Coastview Vineyard and from Bald Mountain, in the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA, another sub-AVA of the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 2014, Brown used only 20% new on the Coastview Chardonnay. He prefers the mouthfeel and aromatics of used barrels with this fruit. “It’s an amplification,” he says. “We only like certain forests and coopers. We’re not going to use Francois Freres or Taransaud.”
On the gradual ratcheting down of new oak and toast levels, Brown says, “Small shifts can make a big difference. In 2015, we used very minimal oak on the Bald Mountain Chardonnay. Our goal was to accentuate the purity and minerality. It actually didn’t finish ML, so we ended up with a very high acid wine.”
Sometimes people mistake the wine’s inherent spiciness for new oak. “The Alfaro Pinot has huge spice that confuses people. It’s not oak: it’s the wine. The barrel provides a polish early on that amplifies the perfume of the wine.”
For his Syrah program, Brown says the shift from 70% to 80% new down to 10% new, started in 2013 and 2014 when they went to Hogsheads with light long toast for both coopers. He says there is no detection of toast or char on the palate, as the wood does not caramelize, and therefore does not release that telltale vanillin. In 2015, they did just 20% new oak on the Syrahs. “I like the purity of Syrah with minimal oak,” he admits.
With Grenache, he’s even more restrained, preferring 100% neutral oak barriques. In 2015, he used an amphora for Grenache and tried concrete tanks last year in 2016. “I don’t think the fermentation is hugely different,” Brown says. “The thermal mass might impact temps with 3 to 5 ton ferments, but we’re doing very small lots.”
And then, there is oak aging. He’s taken a page out of the Burgundy playbook, preferring to leave Pinot in oak for two winters. “Deux hivers is an affirmation of my style,” he notes. “Some wineries are cutting barrel aging short. If you are using any significant new oak, you need more than a year.”
As for Syrah, Brown notes that 21 months elevage is standard in the Rhone: some might do 18. “Syrah experiences an evolution in barrel, especially our estate fruit,” he says. “It develops a much better finish.” His Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah, though, does only 11 months in oak to produce a fresh and vibrant young wine, that helps keep the price down for distribution.
Assistant winemaker, Brad Friedman, who has been with Bradley for two years now, has experience at 13 different wineries on five continents. He’s learned a lot about translating terroir to the bottle. “We are all about transparency, across the board. We look for the best way to express sit and vintage.”
Friedman says they are both Aquarians, so they have to keep each other in balance. “We’re both super lofty and up in the air. I’m really trying to level him out. I do lots of the logistics and planning.”
He’s been 100% behind the move to use less wood, arguing that their vineyard sites are so expressive, that even the slightest hint of over-oaking drags down the end result. “We’re at about 25% new oak, and it needs to come down even more, even with these new barrels,” admits Friedman. “I feel like I can see where he’s headed, and I want to get there faster.”
One of the things they did in 2016 was to stop keeping press fractions separated. Instead of putting each press fraction in a separate barrel, they all get settled in tank, resulting in less solids to bind together and ultimately, to less tannic wines. “It also helps them become more complex,” Friedman says. “It also preserves the ‘wholeness’ of the wine.”
Since they don’t rack at all until bottling, some of the wines are sitting on the gross lees for up to 2.5 years. In the past, this has led to what Friedman calls “a sappy sweetness,” even though the wines are bone dry.
Overall, Friedman admits, Brown’s transformation has been amazing to watch. “It’s been extremely challenging for him,” Friedman says, acknowledging that Brown’s new style of winemaking has confused some of the wine critics.
“I get it,” says Friedman, a musician, who pursued music as a major before switching to Biotech. “It’s like a performance where you played every note perfectly and you think you crushed it. And somebody says, ‘That sounded like shit.’ It’s intense to get past that.”
Critics be damned, the Big Basin Vineyards following is very loyal, despite the shift in wine styles. The results are there for the tasting.
Most impressive from the estate in the current offerings is the 2014 Homestead Block Estate Roussanne, a sophisticated, white-gloved wine that exhibits guava and kiwi with a smack of Asian pear.
Beautifully floral, the 2014 Coastview Chardonnay delivers an abundance of apricot, pluot and baked pear, with a raw silk minerality that provides a perfect balance between acid and creaminess.
The 2013 Woodruff Pinot Noir, a hearty, earthy, cinnamon stick and basil scented wine that comes from some of the oldest Pinot vines in the AVA. Native yeast gives it a mysterious surge of mid-palate power that carries to the long finish.
From the nearby Coast Grade vineyard in Bonny Doon, the 2014 Coast Grade Pinot is already phenomenal for such a young wine: it romps like a thoroughbred discovering its speed, filled with racy pomegranate, blueberry and cranberry.
Perhaps Brown’s present philosophy regarding Pinot can be summed up by this statement: “I’m not a big fan of that austere style, but Pinot shouldn’t be ripe and fruity.”
Tasting the current releases, it appears he’s definitely found that “just right” Goldilocks spot, and we hope he’s happy with it. The critics might not “get it,” but right now, his 2014 Pinots and Chardonnays, along with 2012 Syrahs, are in what he calls “the right place at the right time, vis a vis the market trends.”
Observing the tremendous uptick in interest in wine education and sommeliers, Brown notes, “All this wine education and awareness helps people appreciate the Old World styles. Millennials are geeking out on wine. People are digging this kind of thing.”
Friedman adds, “Anyone can make over overripe, extracted wine in 100% new oak. They all taste the same. And frankly, they’re terrible. The industry needs to be set on its ear.”