Soulful Wine: A Vineyard Hike and Tasting at Big Basin Vineyards

By / Photography By Chris Chowaniec | October 01, 2014
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big basin vineyard

Driving along the twisting roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains near Boulder Creek, you begin to wonder if there’s really a winery among the redwoods here. At the end of a narrow residential road you come upon a clearing, arriving at Big Basin Vineyards.

“Welcome to the middle of nowhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” is the greeting from assistant winemaker Matt Ryan to visitors who make the journey. “This tour is not for the faint of heart,” he likes to say. That’s because you’ll spend up to 60 minutes trekking through the vineyard, with steep ascents through rows of estate-grown Syrah, Grenache and Roussanne. Elevations on the vineyard range from 1,250 feet at the winery to 1,400 feet at the top ridge. Ryan always recommends sturdy footwear.

Ryan and owner and winemaker Bradley Brown take turns leading tours. Big Basin has a tasting room in downtown Saratoga, but for learning about Brown’s meticulous farming and what goes into producing a bottle of his intense wine, you have to see where it is grown.

“We love to connect people to the land and the wines,” Brown says.

Big Basin Vineyards is one of the few Santa Cruz Mountains wineries offering onsite winery and vineyard tours, getting visitors out of the tasting room. It’s also one of the few wineries in the appellation with a certified organic estate vineyard. Brown bought the property in 1998 in a remote area where he mountain bikes.

The tour begins behind the winery building, where Brown talks about the history of the 150-acre ranch. “This was a turn-of-the-century homestead property,” he says, pointing out remnants. Originally owned by a mercantile company, the property was clear-cut for logging. “It shows up in the tax record in the 1890s.” Through his research, Brown discovered that “the chain of title on this property shows French immigrants buying it in 1906.” He suspects that’s when vineyards were planted, as evidenced by old redwood posts planted in a grid pattern.

When Brown first saw the property it had been fallow for decades and was overgrown with brush. But he spotted potential.

“I found those grape stakes and here and there I found a grapevine growing,” he says. “I was like ‘OK, perfect, it’s a gem in the rough.’” He planted the first vineyard block, Rattlesnake Rock, in 2000. There are now 10 acres planted with vines.

In the first block, Brown says, “This is the only Roussanne planting in the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Roussanne is one of the so-called Rhone varietals originating in France’s Rhone Valley. At the time Brown planted his vineyard not many other vintners had tried Syrah or Grenache, two other Rhone varietals, in the region. He loved them and thought they’d do well here.

Brown kneels down to scoop up some dirt.

“This is one of the soil types. It’s a light buff color and there’s a lot of iron in it; you can see the orange striations in it.” He explains how the soil is deficient in certain minerals and that makes the vines struggle, producing a more concentrated flavor in the grapes.

“You can see the giant boulders,” Brown says, pointing down the vineyard rows to huge outcroppings of golden rock.

“There’s no way I could get them out so I said we just have to make it a hand-farmed block.”

“We make wines with purpose and try to acknowledge the history, the animals, the people and where the wines come from,” says Ryan. Brown makes a Rattlesnake Rock Syrah from the vineyard block with the huge sand and bluestone boulders that are a prominent landmark. On the label of Homestead, a drawing by local artist Matt Jones depicts a redwood cabin with a wine barrel on the front porch. Grizzly, made with estate Grenache, is a nod to the Grizzly bears that once roamed these mountains.

After an easier downhill stroll to the winery, you finally get to try some wine, a reward for the effort you’ve exerted to get here and explore the vineyard. “We taste in the winery. We sort of celebrate our rustic nature,” Brown says. “This is not Napa Valley, not a fancy wine tasting room.”

Having hiked the ranch you can taste that rocky soil, the intensity of the fruit from tiny berries, the care that goes into hand-farming to create what Brown calls “soulful wines.”

Tours at Big Basin are available by appointment only. The winery is also open on select Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association Passport weekends. Tastings are also available by appointment at the tasting room in Saratoga.


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