Growing & Winemaking


The Radical Reshaping of Babcock Vineyards

January 2017
by Tama Takahashi

Since 2008, Bryan Babcock in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA of Santa Barbara County, Calif., has radicallyreshaped Babcock Vineyards using a new approach he calls “pedestular cane suspension” (PCS), which has reduced vineyard costs by 25%. Babcock coined the term “pedestular” to note the innovative use of metal pedestals that support and contain the vine’s fruiting canes and support the subsequent crop.

The PCS system has a superficial similarity to a high-trellised simple curtain (or California sprawl) in that the canopy grows outward and downward. The critical difference is cane pruning in the fruit zone without wires.

“A cordon is too rigid and, over time, requires too much space in the core of the system,” Babcock explains, “leading to the same problems that the industry experienced years ago, when the dominant system was the California sprawl. Simply taking the California sprawl and lifting it 3 feet higher above the ground does not solve all the congestion issues that led to powdery mildew, bunch rot and a lack of control of sunlight on the fruit prior to the advent of vertical shoot positioning (VSP).”

The PCS system employs layered cane pruning, which allows for a very strategic selection of buds in the fruit zone. This results in higher potential for the placement of strong, productive shoots in a location on the vines that is notoriously weak (mid-cane), resulting in a more symmetric delivery of down-line crop placement overall.

Babcock’s goal is to retain approximately 18 to 22 buds per vine with his main varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. About 25%-35% of the shoots are removed during shoot and cluster thinning. However, only 15-20 buds are retained on Chenin Blanc vines since this more vigorous variety typically yields fewer buds and the internodes are longer.

“This is commensurate with the fact that Chenin Blanc clusters are bigger,” Babcock notes. “You need fewer of them, and thus you need fewer shoots overall to hit your production target.”

The heart of Babcock’s patented system is the pedestals, each topped with a metal spiral helix that holds two fruiting canes—one from each neighboring vine. The canes are not tied or wired, they are loosely captured in a 2-inch diameter metal helix. Vines are spaced 42 inches apart with 8-foot-wide tractor rows.

Although the canes are not in contact with wires, there is a 10-gauge high-tensile wire that supports the pedestals 52 inches above ground. There is a lower support wire 32 inches above ground with a drip line wire underneath at 18 to 24 inches above ground.

There are two pedestals between adjoining vines. The fruiting canes are suspended in space, creating a production platform that, on average, is 66 inches above ground (about eye level). The canopy is not confined to a two-dimensional “wall” as in VSP. It can grow naturally in all directions and undulate in the wind, leading to more sunlight-exposed leaves. Increased airflow and a larger space between clusters helps mitigate the spread of powdery mildew and bunch rot. Fewer sprays translate into cost savings.

PCS saves money in canopy management, pruning and harvest
Another advantage of PCS is a reduction in labor costs for both canopy management and pruning. In VSP or other “wire-dense” systems, tendrils encircle and harden around the wires, making pruning more labor-intensive. Small pruned pieces may litter the berm and become vectors of disease or insect infestation. With PCS, each vine only needs four—or at most six—cuts for the pruned wood to be free for removal and deposited in the tractor row for shredding.

The flexibility of the canopy in Babcock’s PCS leads to a 50% reduction in man hours for mechanical harvesting. “With my old VSP system, the crop was down low to the ground,” Babcock explains. “VSP has metal stakes (line posts) that are 3 to 4 inches wide. Because the line posts were so thick, the harvester had to hit them extremely hard to shake the fruit off. It was hard on the equipment and very slow.

“In the PCS system, there are no wires in the fruit zone, and the stakes are only half as thick as the line posts, so they wiggle better. The energy from the harvester is now being delivered very efficiently.

“We found that if we did not go at a certain speed, the fruit would fly off the vines in front of the machine. Now we go twice as fast.” Babcock is operating the harvester at 3.5 mph with a 325 rpm picking head oscillation compared to the former 1.75-2.0 mph with a picking head oscillation of 375-400 rpm. The shaker rods last approximately three times longer at the slower rpm.

Babcock mechanically harvests 10 acres of Chardonnay, 30 acres of Pinot Noir and 4 acres of Sauvignon Blanc with a 15-year-old Korvan pull-behind unit. For enological reasons, 4 acres of Pinot Gris and 2 acres of Chenin Blanc are hand-harvested. For the most part, mechanical harvesting has become a necessity due to costs and shortages of vineyard labor.

“We have taken mechanical harvesting to a state of the art.” Babcock notes. “This has become more important in the past several years as we have not been able to obtain labor to hand harvest. Everyone is either tied up at bigger ranches or they are working with other fresh fruit agriculture.”

In Babcock’s mind, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new system comes from realization that the canopy of a naturally growing vine provides a whole new set of opportunities for controlling sunlight penetration into the fruit zone. From this line of thinking, Babcock developed a new individual vine architecture approach in canopy management.

“When you farm with VSP for 20 years, you start to forget what a naturally growing vine looks and feels like. Now that the vines are growing more three-dimensionally, I have noticed that most vines have some canopy out on their periphery in a space that is often between the fruit and the sun. What we do now is ask each v ine, ‘What are you giving me?’”

For Babcock’s leaf-removal crew, if a vine is offering canopy in this sweet spot, then it is taken into account during leaf removal in the fruit zone. If the desired amount of sunlight on the fruit is, for example, 50%, then the location and the number of leaves removed from the core is commensurate with the amount of shading being provided at the vine’s periphery. To Babcock, the crews are not so much leaf pullers as they are “vine sculptors.”

“What I love about it is that it allows us to improve wine quality on an individual vine basis, and the whole thing is still practical,” Babcock adds.

Babcock Vineyards, established in 1978 by Mona and Walter Babcock, was one of the first sites to plant vines in what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The Babcocks’ son, Bryan, finished harvest in September 1984 instead of returning to complete his master’s thesis in enology at University of California, Davis. His 1984 estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc won gold medals at the Los Angeles and Orange County Fairs.

Babcock, along with Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria and other pioneers, submitted a petition to establish the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in late 1997, and approval was granted in 2001. The AVA has 2,700 acres planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and 18 other cool-climate varieties, almost all using the VSP system.

Rebounding from the 2008 recession
Babcock’s inspiration for developing a new farming system came in the wake of the 2008 recession. Beforehand, he was dead set on high-density planting and higher yield per acre farming. Babcock thought the economy of scale would be such that everything would pencil better with higher yields, and he had his sights set on doubling production to 40,000 cases.

Then came the recession, which depressed sales while material costs increased. Babcock made the decision to halve, rather than double, the vineyard acreage and concentrate on making truly great wine that he could sell mainly direct to consumer rather than through distribution. Current production is between 10,000 and 12,000 cases per year.

“It was the same year we used a machine to pull leaves,” Babcock recalls. “When you have VSP, you create a rigid wall of canopy with a very thin wall of leaves between the grape clusters and the outer environment. You can just shave off the leaves from the fruit zone automatically, which we did, going through the vineyard three times because the machine was not perfect and did not remove enough leaves on the first pass.

“But we ran into powdery mildew, which just exploded. We made three or four mechanical passes through the vineyard and then still had to bring in a human crew because the powdery mildew was like a wildfire. This started my thinking toward a whole new system.”

The final push toward change came while working on a double-high tractor that was automatically lifting up and clipping the vine’s shoots into a VSP system. When Babcock realized that it was costing 25 cents each for thousands of little plastic clips, he began to think that there must be a less stressful, more cost effective way to farm.

Babcock used more than 20 years of experience in the vineyard and his travels, including visiting the Rias Baixas in Spain, to see how Albariño is grown and visualize a new system. He spent hours with his vineyard manager just looking at individual vines and talking about what they needed in terms of sunlight, nutrients and support. He evaluated how grapes would grow in the wild, paying attention to their natural tendencies and the effects of gravity and wind.

Babcock wanted to raise the fruit zone and let the vines grow naturally with gravity, but he realized, “You can’t make the mistake of putting a cordon on top—you do not want a trunk going horizontally, because then it is very rigid and everything has a tendency to snarl up. You get congestion, and you cannot untangle it early enough.”

Babcock’s field workers appreciate the improved ergonomics of the raised fruit zone, and it has reduced workers’ compensation claims. Another benefit has been some frost protection. “On cold nights in the spring,” Babcock remarks, “three out of the past five years we saw frost and how the little volunteer shoots down on the trunks got burned, whereas young shoots up in the raised platform were all OK, just by virtue of being 3 feet higher above ground.”

There is less concern with frost when the cover crop is fully grown. With VSP, a common strategy is to mow to try to get the cold air to drain out of the field, but with PCS’s fruit zone above the sinking cold air, Babcock does not mow nearly as often.

Potential downsides to PCS
However, converting non-PCS vines to PCS can be problematic. Babcock advises, “If you are going to do my kind of farming, get the right stake and grow the vine up to that height from the beginning.” Otherwise, to convert vines, one must turn the canes upward to extend the trunks, creating a kink in what should be vertically straight. There are also issues with row orientation, vine spacing and tractor-row width.

Most vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills are oriented north-south to provide some protection to the crop from mid-day sun. When Babcock was farming VSP, he fine-tuned vine rows to a 210° northeast-southwest orientation. “That put our fruit under the canopy as much as possible at 1:30 in the afternoon, when the fruit needs the relief from the sun the most.”

With PCS, east-west orientation is best to take advantage of the prevailing daily breeze, which helps with mold and powdery mildew mitigation and lowers the need for aggressive early season leaf removal. A north-south vine row planted with PCS would find the eastern side of the canopy congested as the wind would push it in that direction.

There could be another downside for established vineyard managers wanting to convert to PCS. “If you have a static amount of fruit you can produce per vine,” Babcock notes, “an amount that you cannot exceed and maintain fruit quality—for example 3 pounds per vine, or 1 pound per linear foot along the vine row—then 6-foot-wide tractor rows allow for more vines per acre, and thus more yield per acre.

“Because the v ines in my system are allowed to grow naturally, it can be impossible to get a tractor in the field with 6-foot-wide tractor rows. With my system you need 8-foot-wide tractor rows.”

Babcock aims for 3 tons per acre for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—more specifically, 3.6-3.7 pounds per vine at 1,555 vines per acre. He notes, “The distal two buds on each of two opposing canes are strategically placed in the typically weak centers of each set of opposing canes. This results in good symmetry in the fruit placement.

“One issue growers normally have with overlapping canes is how to tie the canes onto the fruiting wire. Since the canes overlap, tying the end of one cane to the wire may lead to girdling of the opposing cane, certainly if the tie is very tight. This illustrates one of the benefits to the helical design at the top of the pedestals. Because the canes are held loosely in space, there is no chance for girdling.”

Babcock’s yield per vine is the same with PCS as it was with VSP. “The system has not changed our yields, which are static, based on 1 pound per linear foot down the trellis wire. What the system is doing is lowering production cost per ton and producing better quality fruit resulting in better wine.”

Chenin Blanc needs to be restrained to 2.6-3 tons per acre (TPA). “It tries to set
6 TPA,” Babcock says, “but if we let it keep anything over 3 TPA, it does not get ripe. If it’s ripe, it’s incredible. If it’s not ripe, it’s worthless. In fact, if it does not ripen, it has a weird green characteristic that actually reminds me of the smell of the fungicide Lorsban. Totally bizarre. We do not use Lorsban, so that can’t be the source.”

Babcock does see potential for increased yields in varieties that have naturally high fruitfulness. Because PCS greatly increases the volume of space in the fruit zone, it facilitates a much larger number of individual, free-floating clusters, allowing more naturally fruitful varieties with large clusters to yield quality fruit that is not as plagued with bunch rot due to cluster-on-cluster contact.

For example, the Sauvignon Blanc yield is 4.5-5 TPA. “The flavors in our cool climate are so intense,” Babcock explains, “wine quality is not as yield-sensitive. At 4.5 TPA it still screams Sauvignon. We need more sunlight directly on this variety for attractive flavors, which is fine, we just pull more leaves.” Babcock’s Pinot Gris is farmed at 3.5 TPA.

Potential development of total control of sunlight
One might think that after the accolades Babcock has received for his wines and the confidence of seeing PCS working well for seven years, he might rest on his laurels. Far from it. He is busy visualizing a potential future aspect of his revolutionary farming, which he calls “shade throttling.” He is still far from proving that this method of controlling the exact amount of sunlight on the crop is viable, but early tests are promising.

On trial vines, all leaves are removed from the fruit zone, so disease problems are greatly reduced. Different thicknesses of mesh screen have been installed and are held in place with a metal device Babcock calls “the hotel” to shade the clusters. Babcock found that the ripe fruit at 24°-26° Brix hanging under a less dense shade-screen that provided a lower degree of shade (40%) had a much higher degree of dimpling, scorching, desiccation and raisining compared to fruit at the same sugar level hanging under a shade screen that provided a higher degree of shade (60%).

By controlling the amount of sunlight on the grapes, Babcock could develop ripeness while avoiding damage. He is still working on this concept, but in 2016 he was not able to dedicate the acreage to the testing he feels is necessary. Babcock could not afford to commit 2 acres of 40% sunlight and 2 acres of 60% sunlight in order to make wine from different amounts of sunlight. “To really understand, you would have to make wines like this for 10 vintages. I’m not there yet,” he notes.

Validation of PCS in reduced labor costs
For Babcock, proof of the superiority of the new trellis system has been in its ability to produce quality fruit with significant savings. Babcock’s vineyards are now 95% PCS. The only vineyard remaining with a VSP trellis is a Psi Clone Vineyard to preserve his Psi, Mama #2 and Long Shot clonal material that he believes derives from cuttings from either the Romanée-Conti or the La Tâche Vineyard owned by noted Burgundian winegrower Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Babcock summarizes, “I have come to the conclusion that VSP is very problematic from the get-go. You are working against gravity, and you are working against the nature of the vine.” He recalls when the idea for PCS first came to him, “Why didn’t I see all this 20 years prior? Why didn’t I just open my eyes? It is kind of a weird feeling, to wonder why it took me so long to do something that is so stupidly simple.”

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