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bradley_hdr2009smAs I swirled the wine around inside my mouth and took the first swallow, I turned to owner/winemaker, Bradley Brown, and said, “Wow!” If I was one of those wine writers who wax poetic with strings of words to describe wine, I would do it here, but I’m not one of those wine writers. Let’s just say Big Basin Vineyards’ 2008 Coastview Vineyard Syrah is mighty fine wine—like WOW!

A day later, I crossed paths with local wine journalist and consultant, Laura Ness, at Poetic Cellars in Soquel, and said to her, “Laura, yesterday I was with Bradley Brown at Big Basin Vineyards, and I tasted his Syrah.” With no further prompting, she said to me, “2008 Coastview Vineyard—outrageous!” Let me tell you, this wine is already developing a fan base, and it’s still in the barrel.

Proprietor and Winemaker
Born and raised in upstate New York, Bradley has been around wine most of his life, starting with memories of his father making wine at home. As a young adult, Bradley moved to California, worked in Silicon Valley and transitioned from his business development career with Check Point Software to full-time vineyard proprietor and winemaker while still in his mid-30s.

Around this same time (late 1990s), he fell in love…with Syrah…and he fell hard. From his love affair with Syrah, Bradley set a goal to produce extraordinary, world-class Syrah wine.

Estate Vineyard
Situated on 150 acres, geographically dead-center in the Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation, Big Basin Vineyards currently has 10 acres of organically-grown Syrah, Grenache and Roussanne vines. It is the only vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains planted exclusively to Rhone-varietals. The vineyards are planted on ridge tops and fairly steep hillsides that soak up sunshine from their south, south-west and south-east orientations.

While a relatively young vineyard (the Syrah was planted in 2000), the site has an early history with grapevines. At the turn of the century (early 1900s), the acreage was homesteaded by French pioneers, who planted orchards and vineyards where the redwoods had been recently clearcut. By the time Bradley purchased the property in 1998, old redwood grape stakes were the only artifacts of the vineyards past.

Since most of our appellation vineyards are planted in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, it’s no surprise that Bradley found little Syrah viticulture knowledge in our area. Thus, he turned to John Alban of Edna Valley, CA, one of the original Rhone Rangers, to provide the expertise and mentoring he needed. John was a consultant for rootstocks, vine spacing and trellis systems; he also provided the Rhone varieties of field selections (cuttings taken from old vines). The choices were made based on pedigree for the best wine, and not yield.

To begin, the vineyard was ripped before planting and 10 tons of lime and 10 yards of organic compost were added per acre. To control erosion on the hillsides, extensive drainage systems were installed including surface and tile drains and a cover crop was planted between the 10 miles of rows that is never plowed, only mowed using weedeaters under the vines—an arduous task on these hillsides.
Viticulture Practices
Bradley believes that wine is largely made in the vineyard and he must grow great grapes to make a great wine. To that end, he incorporates diligent, organic and sustainable viticulture practices that produce low yields of high-quality fruit. He also believes organic viticulture will help promote the indigenous yeasts that he relies on for fermentation, and he strongly believes those yeasts enhance the quality of his wines.

With two helpers, Bradley practices a program of pruning, shoot thinning to achieve a subsequent balanced canopy, vertical shoot training and then leaf pulling to allow access for morning and afternoon sun, along with better airflow. Hedging (trimming vine tops and sides) is employed, along with fruit thinning, so that he ends up with one cluster of “perfect” grapes per shoot at harvest. Organic sprays control powdery mildew, a common threat in this high mildew pressure area.

Future plans include applying for organic certification later this year, use of spray organic teas, miniature sheep to graze the cover crops between rows and solar power.

DSC_0030The Wine
Equally diligent in his winemaking, Bradley employs some equipment not usually found in most wineries. One is an ozone generator to sanitize the winery; another is a high-powered microscope to scrutinize the wine as it develops.

Employing a Davis-trained assistant winemaker, who had to learn many new techniques such as native yeasts fermentations, the vineyard buys enough extra fruit to produce close to 2,300 cases of wine. To pass muster, the suppliers must offer an outstanding vineyard site, viticulture to a high standard, super clean, “perfect” fruit and Bradley determines the pick date.

After harvest, the fruit is placed on a sorting table, where all leaves and less-than-perfect clusters are eliminated. The grapes are de-stemmed, but not crushed, as whole berry fermentation is the method employed. Then the destemmed berries drop onto a berry shaker table where raisins, oxidized juice, earwigs, shot berries and other undesirable MOG (material other than grape) is sorted out, since sound, clean fruit promotes better native yeast fermentations and makes for better flavors in the finished wine. Next, the fruit is chilled for several days for a “cold soak”, then heated to start fermentation. Only French oak barrels are used for aging.

Aside from its excellent wine, Big Basin sells budwood from all three varieties of grapes (a total of five different selections sourced from John Alban) and is currently seeking Cabernet Sauvignon grown from the Black Mountain/Saratoga foothills area.

Currently, the majority of grape production in our appellation is riding the Pinot wave of popularity. Inevitably, fads and tastes will change and Syrah might gain the spotlight. If so, Bradley Brown could be the 21st century pioneer for establishing the Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation reputation for yet another grape variety that is ideal for our cool, yet sunny, hillside vineyards.