Big Basin Vineyards: Expressive wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains

View from above the fogline in the Gablian Mountains.

View from above the fogline in the Gablian Mountains.

Winemaker and owner, Bradley Brown, established Big Basin Vineyards in the Gabilan Mountains back in 1998 and has been producing soulful wines from his estate and select other vineyards ever since. His wines come from high elevation plots that enjoy cooling ocean breezes, ancient mineral rich soils and meticulous organic farming. In the cellar, his restrained approach allows his wines to display their sense of place. They are aromatically intense, with layers of complex flavors and supple texture—I love them! Enjoy my interview with Bradley, below.

When did you first become interested in wine and then decide to start a winery?

I grew up with a dad who was a home winemaker and would often let us try wines during special occasions. Hence, my interest in wine began at a young age.

I first started contemplating a career in grape growing and winemaking in the early 1990s. I got to know various local vintners, their stories and followed their wines. In 1998 I purchased our current property with the intent of moving forward to establish a vineyard. Closer to our first harvest in 2002 I decided that I really wanted to be a winemaker as well.

What drew you to the Santa Cruz Mountains and your estate plot in particular?

The Santa Cruz Mountains has one of the longest histories in the US for the production of fine wine. In 1935, Martin Ray produced the first single varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, to be marketed and sold as such in the United States. Estates such as Mt. Eden and Ridge have clearly established themselves as iconic wineries and leaders in producing wines with old world appeal. My feeling was that this was some of the most exceptional and overlooked terroir in California, and with a proximity to the Bay Area, was poised for success.

Do you have an overarching vision for Big Basin?

Really, it is about producing soulful wines that put these exceptional vineyards in the best light and help establish both the Santa Cruz Mountains and Gabilan Mountains as among the best grape growing areas anywhere in the world.

What is the origin of the name “Big Basin Vineyards”?

California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, is just five miles down the road. It may well be the most heavily visited state park in California and it contains some of the most beautiful old growth redwoods anywhere. As I am a ‘nature freak’, it seemed like the best place name to use.

Subscribing to the notion that “Great wines are grown, not made”, how do you approach vineyard management? Does your terroir have any unique challenges? 

Each vineyard presents its own challenges, as does each vintage. I would say that substantial challenges are driven more by varietal and vintage than anything else. Grenache for example grows a very dense canopy so canopy management is critical to producing clean fruit. At the same time, Grenache is highly susceptible to bleaching so you need to be careful about what leaves you remove. Grenache can also overcrop which requires not only cluster removal, but also the trimming of individual clusters to remove excess fruit. Steep hillsides also present challenges as vigor often changes top to bottom, so careful attention must be given to canopy management and crop loads. Lastly, since we farm organically, a great deal more attention must be paid to how powdery mildew and botrytis are controlled.

You also source some fruit from other, non-estate vineyards—notably Coastview—how do you select those?

Every vineyard we work with was selected for the exceptional quality of fruit that they are capable of, and the high level of farming employed to grow that fruit. The minute I laid eyes on Coastview, I knew I had found quite possibly one of the most exceptional vineyards in California. Its location overlooking Monterey Bay, high elevation and decomposed granite and limestone soils all make for tremendous potential. Most of the vineyards we source from, we have been getting the fruit for over ten years.

In the winery, do you follow any specific philosophy or have any unique practices?

Our philosophy is that a winemaker cannot improve on a truly great vineyard. In other words, it is our job as winemakers to ‘get out of the way’ and let the nuance and detail of the vineyard shine through transparently. In other words, interventions you employ  to ‘improve’ the wine, such as excessive ripeness followed by water adds and acidification, adding tannins, excessive extraction, fining and filtering or whatever, will simply obscure what is there and make the wine taste more like other wines. While this might impress some critics, it will not make wine from truly great sites better. While this notion might seem radical in California, it is the dominant ideology  among the great winemakers of the Northern Rhone and Burgundy.

Currently, you make over a dozen different wines—mostly Rhone and Burgundian varietals—are there any other varietals you want to add to your portfolio?

In 2015, we were able to secure the owner’s special block of five Bordeaux varieties at Coastview Vineyard. Given the exceptional nature of this vineyard, and how similar it is in some ways to the iconic Monte Bello Vineyards of Ridge (elevation, proximity to ocean, mountain top, presence of limestone), I wasn’t going to pass on it. Having made three vintages so far, I feel vindicated in this decision. We release the 2015 later this year.

That said, we do have a clear focus on Burgundian and Rhone varieties and we do not plan on adding more varietals to this mix, beyond the Coastview Bordeaux varieties.

What excites you most about the future for Big Basin?

After over 15 years of making wine, I feel like we are really starting to understand our vineyards, and have a much better idea of how to realize the exceptional nature. Turning that dream into reality  and beginning to be recognized for it is very exciting.

What is your favorite thing about working in the wine industry?

Really, it is many things. One is the great people that we get to spend time with – from other soulful winemakers to chefs and Somms. People really like to enjoy the soulfulness of wine and food and appreciate sharing them with others.

When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?

A craft beer that keeps it fresh and not too heavy.

Enjoy a virtual tour of Big Basin’s vineyards and wineries with Bradley at