Chalk Art: The Mineral-Rich Wines of Larner Vineyard

March 24, 2014

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If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist.  Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back.  From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle.  I took a trip to Larner Vineyard with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.

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Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines.  The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate.  In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil.  Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk.  I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone.  “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.”  In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself.  They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.

A view of the chalk that so defines Larner
A view of the chalk that defines Larner

Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah.  The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo.  “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner.  “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.”  This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone.  “To me, the thread has always been that minerality.  I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner.  “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”

Michael Larner showing off chunks of chert
Michael Larner showing off chunks of chert

The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers.  “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit.  We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner.  “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.”  While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications.  We actually end up with what they don’t want.”  The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!

The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley.  “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection.  Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered.  In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”

Looking down into Syrah, with Grenache on the right
Looking down into Syrah, with Grenache in the upper right

The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure.  In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit.  It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels.  “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero.  “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.”  As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics.  “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines.  “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”

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In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA.  “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer.  “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.”  Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate.  “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots.  He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”

Michael Larner explaining the geology of Ballard Canyon
Michael Larner explaining the geology of Ballard Canyon

Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few).  The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent.  “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’  Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs.  “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family.  He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.”  Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.”  This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special.  And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.

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