Get On the Good Foot: Happy Canyon’s Primal Funk

January 21, 2014

happy canyon wines

I vividly remember the first time I tasted a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc.  It was 2008, on a breezy Sta. Rita Hills afternoon, in the Dierberg tasting room.  In my narrow-minded view at the time, I was more interested in checking out their Pinots; my affection for Sauvignon Blanc was reserved almost entirely for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  The tasting began with a Sauvignon Blanc from their Star Lane Estate, which I was expecting to be, like so many California Sauvignon Blancs, pleasant but no more. Sticking my nose in the glass, however, was a whiplash-inducing double take experience.  Exotic tropical fruits (guava, papaya); a distinctive herbal character (Shiso leaf perhaps?); flowers galore; acid for days; yet underneath all of this exuberant varietal  and climate-induced character was a mineral presence I had never experienced in New World Sauvignon Blanc.

Their tasting notes referred to it as “wet gravel.”  Yeah, sure, that was there, but it went deeper.  This was wild, animal, and primal.  As with all great wines, it was clear this came from a special place.  Soon after, I took a drive out on Happy Canyon Road, spying the great, dramatic vineyards of this place from afar: Vogelzang, Happy Canyon Vineyard, Westerly (now McGinley), and of course, Star Lane.  Further research showed the source of this unique character: ancient, magnesium-rich serpentine soils laced with chert.

Since that first encounter I’ve tasted numerous Sauvignon Blancs from Happy Canyon, and have found this mineral presence, in greater or lesser amounts, in just about every wine.  There have been some truly stellar examples from the area that showcase this site character, and I am amazed at the quality coming out of such a young region (20 years is “old vines” here).  Yet the most exciting thing about Happy Canyon is that no one has really nailed it yet.  And to be present in the midst of so much experimentation, so much adventurousness, devoted to this tiny region, is truly thrilling.

One school of thought seems to favor treating the area like the Loire Valley, picking early, emphasizing the high acid (for the geeks: even at very high brix, pH can still be 3.1 or 3.2 here), showcasing that minerality, putting the tropical fruit character in the background, and using neutral or no oak.  Producers such as Lieu Dit, Ojai, and Habit are crafting wines of incredible purity, laced with that HC funk and structured for mid-term aging.

Another approach is to take cues from Bordeaux Blanc, utilizing barrel fermentation and aging, often with a fair amount of new wood, later/riper picking, and even incorporating a bit of Semillon into the mix.  These wines are lush and lavish, typically needing bottle age to shed the more overt wood and get to the mineral core.  Dragonette’s bottlings, particularly their Vogelzang Vineyard, are beautiful iterations of the style.  Doug Margerum’s small production “D” and Fiddlehead’s various cuvees are other powerful examples.  Aged bottles from these producers show style married to site in distinctive fashion.

Perhaps the most exciting for me are those taking a uniquely Californian approach: influences from the Loire, Bordeaux, and Marlborough, along with a Friulian/Slovenian inspiration in the form of skin contact and/or fermentation, joined to other subtle techniques borrowed or dreamt.  This is a style that has a high degree of difficulty, but the risks are rewarded in the form of incredibly complex wines.  Star Lane is one of my personal favorites in this genre: they vary their skin contact dependent on the vintage; wines are sometimes fermented in oak, sometimes not; stainless steel is utilized in the form of both barrels and large tanks; lees are occassionally stirred; basically a melting pot to capture every possible facet of this site in a cohesive package.  In each vintage since I initially tried their estate Sauvignon Blanc, they have tinkered with their approach, with each year further amplifying the intense serpentine funk of this very special place.

The other practitioner of this style that I am greatly anticipating is Roark.  Ryan Roark received Happy Canyon Sauv Blanc for the first time in 2013, and had the opportunity to do a couple of different picks.  I recently tasted these with Ryan out of barrel, and was blown away.  One selection, picked early for acid and intensity, and aging as we speak in neutral oak, showcases the wet stone minerality and herbal/floral character capable here.  The other selection gave me goosebumps: fully skin fermented, it didn’t show the sameness that can often occur with skin fermented whites; rather, this magnified that primal funk with amazing power and weight, like someone crafted a cocktail from rocks and guava.  If he can get the marriage of these two picks into the bottle with that same intensity, it may very well be a benchmark for the area.

If you have not experienced a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc, run to your nearest wine shop and start exploring, as these are some of the most visceral, exhilarating wines coming out of California right now.  For me, this is the essence of everything great about New World wine culture: a new region, still being discovered, capable of delivering an experience found nowhere else in the world.


Here’s a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc  we love:

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