Earlier this month, the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum gathered some of the largest wine legends of Santa Barbara County for an exploration of the five AVA’s (or American Viticultural Areas) of the Santa Ynez Valley. The winemaker discussion panel entitled UnCorked: AVA’s of the Santa Ynez Valley Then and Now was moderated by Santa Barbara Independent wine writer and newly appointed Wine Enthusiast Central Coast reviewer Matt Kettman, who was joined by Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe representing the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Louis Lucas, Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards representing the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company representing the recent Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA, Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards representing the newest AVA in Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon AVA and Fred Brander of Brander Vineyard representing the provisional Los Olivos District AVA.
The panel involved a spirited discussion over the history and distinguishing features of each AVA alongside a tasting of each producers respective wines.
Santa Ynez Valley AVA
Representing the Santa Ynez Valley AVA was Louis Lucas, a pioneer of viticulture in Santa Barbara and the founder of Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards. Lucas recounted to long history of the entire Santa Ynez Valley alongside the initial struggle to determine which varieties would thrive in various regions.
While officially a sub-AVA of Santa Barbara County AVA, the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is made up of many smaller wine growing regions including the Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Ballard Canyon AVAs and thus is an extremely diverse region with varying climates, soil types, and varieties produced. The Santa Ynez Valley AVA also functions as a fall back appellation for those vineyards not yet classified.
Main grapes: Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Significant producers include Lincourt Winery, Lucas & Lewellen, Daniel Gehrs, Buttonwood, Brander and Rideau.
Sta. Rita Hills AVA
One of the heavy hitters within the Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA was initiated by Wes Hagen and a group of prominent vintners from the region in 1997. A five year process, in which the name was abbreviated due to a challenge by Chilean mega-producer Santa Rita Winery, in 2001 the Sta. Rita Hills AVA was finally established.
Bordered by the Purisima Hills to the north and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south, the Sta. Rita Hills contains a unique soil type (diatomaceous earth) alongside cooling maritime influences, enhanced by the east-west facing valley, which make the region perfect for producing highly stylized and structured Burgundian varieties.
As Wes Hagen describes, Pinot Noir coming from the Sta. Rita Hills can be compared to a female ballerina: graceful and elegant, yet still exhibiting structure and strength. Sta. Rita Hills wines are known for their crisp acidity and the Pinot Noirs tend to offer notes of dark fruit and spice while the Chardonnays often display a briny salinity.
Main grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah
Significant producers include Clos Pepe, Sanford, Melville, Babcock, D’Alfonso Curran, Hilliard Bruce, Sandhi, Liquid Farm and Zotovich.
Legend has it that Happy Canyon got its name during Prohibition after travelers would “take a trip up Happy Canyon” to acquire the alcohol still being produced here. The name stuck and in 2009 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara became an official Santa Barbara AVA.
Located in the eastern edge of the Valley, Happy Canyon is Santa Barbara’s premiere Bordeaux-style wine producing region. The much warmer climate than the rest of the Valley helps to achieve ripeness and avoid the green, under-ripe flavors of some of the late ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines from this region are known for being extremely rich and concentrated.
Main grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Significant producers include Happy Canyon Vineyards, Grassini, Star Lane Vogelzang and Westerly.
Ballard Canyon AVA
The new kid on the block, the conception of the Ballard Canyon AVA began three years ago with a sommelier group tasting held with a number of Ballard Canyon producers at the Larner vineyard. When confronted by industry leaders asking why the region was not yet an AVA yet, the winemakers realized there was not just a regional typicity for Ballard Canyon but also a demand. Michael Larner, of Larner Vineyards, organized the Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance to begin exploring the region’s boundaries and eventually hired Hagen, who was now a veteran at AVA proposals, to help with the drafting process.
The proposal was finally approved during harvest of last year and consumers will start seeing not just Ballard Canyon AVA listed on the label, but an entirely new bottle design reserved just for producers within the AVA.
Despite the relative newness of the region, Ballard Canyon has already established itself as a premier Syrah producing region. As Larner explained, the region has what he likes to refer to as the “Goldilocks Effect.” It’s not too hot, as it is in Happy Canyon, and it’s not too cold like the Sta. Rita Hills. While in the former, Syrahs tend to be fruit dominant and in the latter, exhibit a more peppery spice quality, Ballard Canyon wines display a harmonious blend of the two, with just enough fruit to be round on the palate yet still retain their acidic structure and a great complexity. Many have described a crushed rock and balanced pepper note as a unifying feature of Syrah from Ballard Canyon.
Main grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese
Significant producers include Larner Vineyards, Kaena, Tercero, Stolpman, Jonata and Rusack.
The provisional Los Olivos District AVA was briefly mentioned by Fred Brander of Brander Vineyards. The proposed AVA has been submitted and is awaiting final approval by the board. While Brander did not elaborate on what type of soils, climates, or wine typicity he saw the region as exhibiting, the boundaries will be the area between the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon AVA’s.
Some likely producers of the Los Olivos District AVA include Brander Vineyards, Roblar, Buttonwood, Bridlewood, Gainey and Rideau to name a few.
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