by Eric Anderson
(excerpted from Vol.11 No.5, Journal du Vin, November 2003. a visit on 11/10/03 to Beckmen Vineyards for a tour and tasting.)
When Tom Beckmen moved his family to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1993, he wanted to get back to his roots. He'd already had a pioneering career in electronic music. But, he'd always wanted to return to the farming he recalled as a youth. He sold his business, the Roland Corp, and moved the family west. Buying the former Houtz winery and property in 1994, Tom inherited a less-than-perfect 16 acre Estate vineyard planted with Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and some Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines made here under the Houtz label had a distinctive vegetal quality, something on the order of asparagus meets green bean. But, Tom and his son Steve changed all that.
I first stopped by two years after Beckmen was founded, and tasted through the lineup of wines. That day, Steve Beckmen was doing the pouring in one of the barns that served as both winery and tasting room on the property. We tried all of the current wines at the time, and it our reaction was eye-opening. Wow, what a change. Gone was that vegetal quality - the Cab actually tasted like Cab - and tasted very good, to boot. I thanked Steve, and probably said something like keep up the good work (little did I know that self-motivation was his defining quality). After leaving the tasting room, I ran into Tom Beckmen relaxing out front. Complimenting him on his winery's efforts thus far, I congratulated him especially on eliminating the "green" quality that had plagued the previous wines from this property. Tom said that he felt that Houtz had probably always just picked the fruit a little too soon, and said that he found that a little longer hang-time, combined with some canopy maintenance vastly improved the crop. No question about it.
The Beckmens replanted most of the Cab, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc on the Estate blocks surrounding this winery. But, they also struck off in a new direction - Rhône varietals. In 1996, the Beckmens acquired an area in the Purisima Hills to the West, adjacent to the nearby Stolpman Vineyard. While the Estate property produces some very nice distinctive wines, the Purisima property is leagues ahead. They cultivated 125 acres of the 365-acre property above Ballard Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley, and with consultant Jeff Newton's input, started planting vines. Here, the rolling hills and dramatic elevations (up to 1200') on the property allow hillside plantings on slopes ranging up to 25%. The rows are mostly north/south-facing, with tightly spaced vines and vertical trellising to keep the yields low. Planted to several different clones, the Purisima Mtn Vnyd is dedicated primarily to Rhône varieties, and winemaker Steve Beckmen has already produced some very noteworthy wines from this source.
As we pulled up to the winery, assistant winemaker Mikael Sigouin was busy with some bins out on the crush pad. He welcomed us, mentioning that Steve was waiting inside the tasting room. Local resident and Internet denizen, John Tomasso, was meeting us here, and had pulled up just before us. After some intros, we all went into the tasting room to see what trouble we could get into. Steve Beckmen was finishing up with his wine-club manager on some orders, and after re-introductions all around, Steve poured us through 11 of his current offerings. Unfortunately, John couldn't stay around for barrel tasting or our planned tour of Purisima Mountain Vineyard - he needed to get back to his day job.
Steve led us outside, and over to the winery/barrel room where he tasted us through five barrels of the '02 wines and two of the '03 wines. The '02s were fabulous, and we discussed the relative merits of the past three vintages. Steve said that '03 was a great year for his Syrah; yet more difficult for his Grenache. All the Purisima wines we tasted were great. Want to see the vineyard, Steve asked. You bet we did. We emerged from the winery to find Tom Beckmen hosing out some barrels. At this winery, everybody works - even the proprietor!
We followed Steve over to Purisima Mountain Vineyard, on Ballard Canyon Road. Heading south on Ballard Canyon, we drove past the Sarloos, Larner, and Stolpman vineyards, before swinging right and heading up a dirt road. Park your car there, said Steve, and hop in. We piled into Steve's Durango and started climbing the hill. The view is long and beautiful from here. No small wonder that Steve has his house right in the middle of the vineyard.
The Purisima Mountain property is 365 acres, 125 of it planted to Rhône and Bordeaux varietals in 36 blocks of generally 2+ acres each. There are 6 clones of Syrah on a variety of rootstalks which occupy many of the higher elevations (300'-500+'). The Grenache Noir is all Tablas clone, as is the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. Steve pointed out that the soils here were a combination of clay loam and linne soil on a sub soil of limestone - or, quite similar to Paso Robles. Rootstalk selections are determined by soil conditions, and he's using predominately 110R, along with a few others. When they planted, the Beckmens decided to preserve the natural contours of the hills. And although Steve has dabbled a bit in biodynamic farming, it's his interest in sustainable practices that really keep this vineyard in its mostly 'natural' condition.
We traipsed around Purisima Mountain, discussing the different varieties he's planted. The Grenache from here has always been very sumptuous, and I recalled that Grenache in general, and especially the Tablas clone, was considered to be very prolific. I asked Steve how much fruit he had to drop. He said that as it has gotten older, his Grenache is naturally pulling only about 1-1/2 ton/acre. That made sense, as I thought to myself how 'old vine' wines are usually made from reduced crops.
Steve's wine-growing and wine-making skills are largely self-taught - of course it probably didn't hurt that he was able to spend time with local vineyard guru Jeff Newton, and rub elbows with other forces in the Valley. Nevertheless, Steve's been able to create something very special here, due primarily to his own efforts. And, I expect as he continues to learn what works and what doesn't work in the vineyard - as well as in the winery, that we will see even better things from Beckmen in the future.