Rock Solid Happy Canyon AVA

March 12, 2020

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Emerges

The 2004 Academy Award-winning movie, Sideways, tours its way through the Santa Ynez Valley but doesn’t mention Happy Canyon. Perhaps that’s a blessing, considering the damage done to Merlot from the meltdown Miles had in our alley in one of the pivotal scenes. The movie’s torrid love affair with “thin-skinned and temperamental” Pinot didn’t leave much room for Miles to praise Happy Canyon’s hearty reds with notes of polished leather saddles and Santa Maria steak seasoning. Even if Miles had planned a day at the newly emerging wineries, the way he’d drive the hills and twists of Happy Canyon Road would’ve sent his red Saab convertible careening into an oak tree much earlier in the film!

Thankfully, discerning drinkers have ensured that Happy Canyon Merlot is still part of the Wine Merchant’s top-selling and most age-worthy wines, but this was far from assured when the movie debuted in 2004. The “Sideways effect” was a blindside blow for the growers, since Happy Canyon’s vineyards were only in their fourth vintage. Formal recognition of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA wouldn’t follow until 2009. Longtime fans may know the region got its name from hiding a secret distillery during Prohibition. However, an even more amusing aspect of the story is that the “of Santa Barbara” suffix had to be added because Prohibition moonshiners left ravines named Happy Canyon spangled all over the American West. The patriotic heart swells with pride.

The AVA spans 23,941 acres, but fewer than 1,000 are under vine.

Even today, Happy Canyon’s story is very much still being written. The AVA spans 23,941 acres, but fewer than 1,000 are under vine. Sauvignon Blanc has long threatened to steal the show, but Happy Canyon remains a red-dominated appellation led by powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon alongside a vibrant showing from the Bordeaux supporting cast of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Aerial
Photo Courtesy of Crown Point Winery

Nature dictates that thin-skinned and temperamental Pinot has no place there. Granted, Happy Canyon does enjoy sheltering mountains and generous sunshine which can boost the temperature up to thirty degrees warmer than the Sta. Rita Hills, but that’s where the easy road stops. Grapevines contend with massive nightly temperature swings, along with constant crosswinds whipping down the canyon and shearing between the carefully oriented vineyard rows. Vine growth is further harried by lean soils packed with cobblestones of serpentine and chert, whose added magnesium and calcium conspire to further reduce grape yields and pressure vines to put down deep roots.

Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, is exalted by this crucible. The ripening grapes forge a thick skin and tannin-rich seeds with a snap pea’s crunch. Some winemakers walk through the vineyard chewing Cabernet’s tough hide like jerky for minutes at a time, hoping to coax out clues about the complexities of their finished wine. This expertise, supported by elite local vineyard management and occasionally by world-famous French vineyard sustainability consultants, means that the third decade of Happy Canyon vintages looks very promising indeed.

Try a never-jammy Happy Canyon red with grass-fed or aged steaks, dry rubs, hard-seared char crusts, and meats from the smoker. These pairings bring our staff and guests no end of joy, especially now that Chef Chris has his new wood-fired smoker up and running!

At the Los Olivos Wine Merchant, we provide an in-depth selection of California Central Coast wines. We will always provide the most sought after wines of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and the other stellar AVA’s in our wine region. Make yourself happy and pour Happy Canyon wines at your table. Here are some suggestions that are sure to bring a smile!

If you enjoyed reading this blog

If you enjoyed reading this blog about the Happy Canyon AVA, you’ll enjoy gaining more insight about Santa Barbara Wine Country after these fun reads:

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Lane Tanner, Pioneering Femininity

March 2, 2020

Lane Tanner, One of the First Female Winemakers of Santa Barbara Wine Country

Lane Tanner of Lumen remembers the old days. She remembers the early days of Central Coast winemaking when the process was a lot more laborious physically and femininity wasn’t a desirable trait in a wine—or a winemaker.

Frequently, Central Coast Syrahs are made big, bold, and in a style that Tanner calls “manly.” So she decided to make wines that were the antithesis of that: softer, gentle, elegant, or what she calls, “feminine” wines.

But don’t be fooled, Tanner is a heavy hitter, a pioneer in the wine industry.

She was one of the first female winemakers with her own label in Santa Barbara County. For 16 years, she was also the only winemaker who produced only Pinot Noir. Tanner said there’s a sensuality to Pinot Noir. For her Lumen label, she likes to produce Pinots with low tannin and velvety mouthfeel, and a long, lingering finish. She believes the Santa Maria Valley produces the ideal fruit for Pinots that reveal bright, strawberry, and cherry notes with herb over notes.

If there’s a sensuality to Pinot Noir, there’s just as much sensuality in the way that Tanner handles her production. For instance, for her Grenache, she does everything by taste. She does test Brix, but otherwise, taste rules. She likes to harvest when the grapes are just ripe, slightly past green. Then, it’s very little oak, and she doesn’t adulterate her Grenache with Syrah. It’s pure, vibrant, and youthful.

Though Tanner got her start almost by accident, it turns out she had a natural talent for winemaking. As proof of that, she’s worked with some of the most infamous names in winemaking. In the early ’80s, she worked at Firestone prior to being asked by Ken Brown to work at Zaca Mesa. From there, she began working with Frank Ostini who wanted something exclusive to his restaurant, The Hitching Post. She worked with him until 1989 when Ostini realized he wanted to make his own wine. They split barrels with Tanner starting her Lane Tanner label.

Still, Tanner hopes to see one more change in the near future…

Since those early days, Tanner has seen a lot change. Winemaking may still involve a lot of manual labor, but things have gotten easier, and females are now embraced by the winemaking community. Still, Tanner hopes to see one more change in the near future—she waits for the day when female winemakers are seen simply as “winemakers.”

Hear her full thoughts on women in winemaking and how the industry has evolved on the Central Coast in this month’s featured winemaker interview.

This Month Only!

Stop by the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe and taste LUMEN wines by the glass or as a tasting flight. Take home your favorites for 20% off!

ORDER ONLINE and we will ship LUMEN to your door. Receive 20% off LUMEN wines online THIS MONTH ONLY.

Lumen Featured Wines at Los Olivos Wine Merchant

If you enjoyed reading this blog

If you enjoyed reading this blog, you’ll enjoy gaining more insight about Santa Barbara Wine Country winemakers after these fun reads:

Sign up for our Newsletter and you’ll receive 2-3 emails a month including our End-of-the-Month Blowout wine and our informational and entertaining interviews with local Featured Winemakers!

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