Perhaps the best way to explain the return of FATHOM is to look at a historical (even if abbreviated) overview of the development of Bordeaux varieties in Santa Barbara County. To preface this, I would note that of the six red Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is no doubt the most successful and important grape worldwide. In the Bordeaux family, it is followed by Merlot. Then it's probably a tossup between Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Petit Verdot and Carmenere are hardly on the radar screen. Based on this, I think it is fair to say that if you are in a region that does not do really well with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, unless you can splinter off one of the other varieties into some sort of beautiful, niched-out freak show, then it's going to be very challenging to get the cognoscente to take your Bordeaux varietals, as a group, seriously. For me, it is in this context that FATHOM has always been an attempt to explore and comprehend the potential for such an alternative reality.
The Dark Ages: 1975 to 1990
The quality of local Cabernet Sauvignon is deplorable. From 1982 to 1984, Bryan Babcock is teased by his colleagues in the wine shop where he is employed after they find out that he is from Santa Barbara County and has intentions of making wine there after he finishes with his Fermentation Sciences at UC Davis. Constantly he hears their never-ending taunt, "You better stick to Gewurztraminer!"
The Renaissance: 1991 to 1995
It is discovered in a number of Santa Barbara County vineyards that Cabernet Franc, the primordial, atavistic ancestor of Cabernet Sauvignon, can make really nice wine. A few encouraging Merlots also pop up during this era. Babcock develops a program called FATHOM, studying the viability of making Bordeaux styled blends with Cabernet Franc leading the charge. Some extremely good wines are produced. Babcock is on the verge of telling his former colleagues to eat crow. Due to the new enthusiasm, Cabernet Franc and Merlot plantings begin to pop up all over the interior of the Santa Ynez Valley. Babcock begins to feel like the bases are loaded and he's coming to the plate.
The Age of Vertigo: 1996 to 1999
The planting of these varieties continues well into the beginning of the Age of Vertigo, until it is discovered that anxiety-ridden Cabernet Franc does not handle stress very well. Under the pressures of shallow, rocky soils that don't hold much water, extreme summer heat, and grapevine viruses for which Cabernet Franc has no tolerance, one vineyard after the next starts to croak. Despondent, Babcock makes Merlot the lead grape in his FATHOM program. Little does he know, the movie Sideways will disregard Merlot big time in a few years.
The Enlightenment: 2000 to 2002
In one Santa Ynez Valley vineyard a confused neophyte, Marybeth Vogelzang, plants Cabernet Sauvignon in the face of the stigma that is still lurking from the Dark Ages. Two wineries, dumb enough to do so, begin making the wines from her fruit.* In a total state of shock, one of these wineries, Babcock, releases its first arguably great Cabernet Sauvignon; the 2001 Vogelzang. Babcock theorizes that the Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dark Ages was planted for the most part in Santa Ynez climates that were too cool, and in soils that were too rich. Because the vines were way too vigorous, and because the growers did not know what to do about it, the resulting wines were vegetal and poor. Babcock continues to theorize that in the warmer Happy Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley, if the right clones of Cabernet Sauvignon are planted on the district's rocky hillsides, the sky could be the limit. The Cabernet Cat sneaks out of the bag. Vogelzang's status ascends to that of viticultural rock star.
*That other winery was Foxen.
The Age of Reason: 2003 to 2004
An era also known as The Age of Pining Away For A Place That's Not So Damn Hot. Babcock continues to hold his theories near and dear, but he longs for a Cabernet site slightly to the west of Happy Canyon; someplace closer to the ocean; someplace that's still plenty warm, but not over 100 degrees every time one goes there to take a grape-cluster sample. He also starts to realize that if the best Bordeaux varietal in his quiver is going to be Cabernet Sauvignon, there is no reason to brand it as anything other than Babcock. In other words, Babcock starts to realize that any further pursuits with FATHOM will be utterly bogus.
The New Epoch: 2005 to 2012
Babcock discovers that slightly cooler place. It's called the Estelle Vineyard. The rocks on the ground there are beautiful, like a kaleidoscope of colors. It has multiple clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. To boot, there is a pinch of that too burly for its own good, yet still fascinating, Petit Verdot. Even the new bastard (Merlot) looks good! Babcock surmises that with vineyards like Estelle, he is on the forefront of the production of great Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Barbara County. Babcock goes to the dictionary and looks up the word Epic. The dictionary describes a book by some guy named Homer. Wrong word. Babcock looks up the word Epoch:
A period of time, an era, an age in which striking things happen; the starting point of such a period.
Babcock tastes his 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Estelle Vineyard and estimates that the potential in Santa Barbara County for the world's most important grape is suddenly enormous.
The Age of Bordeaux Varietals In The 9th Inning: 2013 to 2015
After a decade of thinking that well-heeled Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers from Los Angeles were going to abandon the lunacy of an eight-hour drive (or a plane ticket) to the Napa Valley, in favor of a hop, skip, and a jump to Santa Barbara County, Babcock begins to realize that it's not going to happen in his life time. After making a slew of good Cabernets from the Estelle Vineyard, he decides to hang on to one small section, Block 15, which always made the best wine in the New Epoch. Babcock heads home to the Sta. Rita Hills, where well-heeled Pinot Noir drinkers from all over the world actually are starting to show up. Realizing that Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Barbara is going to remain a very quiet, little phenomenon, Babcock faces the music; his spirited study of Bordeaux varieties is probably coming to an end, . . . . if it weren't for the tiny batches of Petit Verdot he made when he was down to his last strike in The 9th Inning . . . . .
The Age (tentatively known as) Extra Innings: 2016 to Present
This era, which is still unfolding, may very well go through a number of official name changes before it's over. On the table at this point is: The Age of, Wow, It's About To Get Really Weird. Babcock begins to visualize logos for this age, one of them being a picture of his face with a towel wrapped around his head, making him look like van Gogh shortly after he cut off his own ear. With the potential for Bordeaux Varieties hanging by a thread, Babcock decides to go all in on a last gasp effort to make something heavenly out of a perplexing, miscreant grape. Understanding that the vast majority of Petit Verdot world-wide is used ever so sparingly in blends because of its rigid, brutish nature, Babcock surmises that it's going to be a Hail Mary. Because of Petit Verdot's extreme levels of tannin and acid, it is often found in Bordeaux as 2-4% of the blends. Wishfully, Babcock wonders if the same conditions (extreme heat and stressful soils) that brought Cabernet Franc to its grave in The Age of Vertigo, might just be perfect for taming the wild beast that is Petit Verdot. In the Spring of 2018 Babcock tastes his 2016 vintage Petit Verdot out of barrel and contemplates; FATHOM might just have a new mojo.
Excited, but still a bit queasy, Babcock is struck by a new realization; the last time he felt like he had the bases loaded, it was in The Renaissance.