Q&A with Steve Beckmen – Beckmen Vineyards

Beckmen Vineyards, founded in 1994 by the father and son team of Tom and Steve Beckmen. With the planting of their Purisima Mountain Vineyard, located in Santa Ynez, they were one of the first to create a fully sustainable vineyard site, which many wineries purchase fruit from. In addition to growing grapes, Beckmen is known for a focus on Rhone varieties, and a holistic approach to winemaking. Steve individually ferments as many as 100 small lots of fruit, often employing techniques such as native yeast fermentation or whole cluster pressing to highlight the personality of a given clone or block. 

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You and your father (originally from the Chicago area) set up your winery in Santa Barbara. Of all the places you could have chosen to immerse yourself in the wine business, why here?

Though my father is originally from Chicago, I grew up in Southern California. When we were thinking about founding a winery, there were several reasons we were drawn to Santa Barbara County. The first reason was very personal—we have always really loved this area and have been drawn to it. From a winemaking standpoint, I think we both liked the fact that the story of Santa Barbara wine had yet to be written in the early-to-mid 1990s. There was, and I think still is, a pioneering spirit, as people were trying new things and exploring new varietals to see what works best here. This greatly appealed to us.

What prompted you to pursue wine as a career? If not wine, where do you think you’d be right now?

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

I’m honestly not sure what I would be doing right now if I wasn’t growing and making wine. Fortunately, this was the opportunity that I was given, and it is the career I’ve fallen in love with. There are so many aspects of what I do that appeal to me. I love all of it, though after 17 years I do have a preference for being in the vineyard.

Describe your vineyard/wine growing philosophy?

We try to think about balance in everything we do. When I say this, I’m speaking both practically and philosophically. Balance is a concept that informs the small details, but it’s also a key to the big picture. It has to do with selecting the right site and being thoughtful and diligent in choosing the correct varieties to plant. Balance shapes the way we farm—we strive for balanced vines, balanced canopies and balance in our shoot and fruit growth. It is also about how you treat and view a vineyard. A big part of biodynamics, which we practice, is looking at a vineyard, and treating it as a complete and self-replenishing system—a system that thrives in balance. When you approach a vineyard this way and treat it naturally, you can achieve very clear and specific expressions of terroir in your wines.

What wine varieties would you like to see the public embrace more fully?

Syrah would be the main one. While its appeal is definitely growing and developing, it still has a way to go. One of the challenges with Syrah is that, depending on where it is grown, it can be a chameleon and offer very different styles. As a result, people don’t always know what to expect. But this is changing as winegrowers dial in on where Syrah really excels, and consumers gain more understanding of these regions, and what to expect from them.

Much has been written and debated concerning the 100 point rating scale. Some say it has empowered consumers, others claim it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has actually changed the quality of wines being produced. What do you see as being the long term impact of the 100 point rating system?

I love the 100-point rating system when I get a good score (laughing). Most winemakers do. In seriousness though, as a tool for consumers, I think it has done good and bad for the industry. People can focus too much on the number. I think it’s important to look at what is actually being written about the wine. One of the amazing things about the industry today is how much information is out there, and how easily people can learn about vineyards, wines, wineries, regions—you name it! When you start to connect with wine on a deeper level, you become more comfortable and confident about what you really like, and scores become less important. They may still have value, but they are only a piece of a bigger picture.

Rising wine alcohol levels in U.S. and foreign wines are a hot topic these days in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?

For me, it all comes back to balance. We try to make wines that are authentic expressions of our climate. Our wines are not the highest in alcohol, but they’re not the lowest either. The truth is, I’m not worried about the number, I’m focused on how all the parts come together, and the harmony of the whole wine. When people take notice of the alcohol in a wine, it usually means the alcohol is standing out in some awkward way. In part, I think the whole conversation about high alcohol is also fueled by the global nature of the marketplace. Consumers have a lot more exposure to wines from around the world from warmer climates than ever before. As those wines get compared to the more classic Old World standard, it fuels conversation and comparison. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It helps people gain a better understanding of wine overall.

What was the impetus to move into biodynamic farming on your Purisima Vineyard Mountain vineyard?

Because biodynamics is chemical-free and environmentally sensitive, I think people expect a virtuous answer to that question. While I love the fact that we are farming Purisima Mountain Vineyard without the use of non-organic chemicals, we chose this method because of our continuing search to elevate grape and wine quality. If biodynamics wasn’t making our wines better, I don’t think we would be doing it. To that point, we did years of trials, testing the efficacy of biodynamics on specific blocks before we committed the entire vineyard.

Though Rudolph Steiner pioneered the philosophy of biodynamic farming in his 1924 lectures in Austria, much of what he stated has been implemented for centuries around the world. Is biodynamic really anything new, or is it fundamentally a return to ‘old school’ farming methods?

I think it is a bit of both. The history of agriculture dates back thousands of years, and I think any really great farming method has to draw from that ancient experience and wisdom, as Steiner does. At the same time, I don’t think people were using biodynamic preparations before Steiner, which is a fundamental part of his holistic approach.

Does the public ultimately really care about the biodynamic/organic wine movement?

While I think only a small percentage of consumers are really driven by the biodynamic/organic wine movement, more and more people definitely care about where their food and wine comes from, and how it is grown. People ultimately care about quality. Being organic or biodynamic won’t drive most people’s purchasing decisions, but it is a piece of information that is useful or important to some people in explaining who we are and how we do things.

You oversee all aspects of production, managing the viticultural program and working alongside winemaker Mikael Sigouin. Beckmen has become widely recognized as a viticultural leader in the Santa Barbara winegrowing community and a key figure in California’s Rhone movement. Did you ever expect this path with Beckmen Vineyards?

We founded Beckmen Vineyards in 1994. It has taken years of hard work and learning to get to where we are. It’s an honor to be thought of as a leader, but that was always our goal. If you want to achieve something meaningful, I think you have to be confident. This said, we haven’t come close to reaching all of our goals. We are always striving to improve in all aspects of viticulture and winemaking.