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.
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:
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 occasionally 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.
A love of wine attracts a number of future winemakers to the industry, but for Tara Gomez, the winemaker for Kitá Wines, it was a love of science and a Fisher-Price microscope.
A love of science leads to a career in wine
Gomez said the microscope that she had when she was 4 years old fostered her love of science and nature exploration. As a child, she would tag along when her parents went wine tasting. The sight of the giant stainless-steel vats and aromatics of the winery cellars sparked her curiosity but walking by the lab set her career trajectory. The young Gomez saw people in white lab coats using chemistry to test the acidity in the wine and that created an instant connection with her.
With the financial help of her Chumash Tribe, she sought out a career in enology in high school and then went on to Fresno State to get her degree. She got her feet wet at Fess Parker and J. Lohr wineries, and then went on to work two harvests in Spain. When she came back to the states, the Chumash Tribe was in negotiation to purchase the Camp 4 property that produces the majority of the label’s grapes, and so she returned home. It was a fitting return, according to Gomez, because the Chumash had financially supported her educational efforts and now she gets to pay it forward.
Dedication to each varietal
A producer of small-batch, ultra-premium wines, Kitá Wines produces 19 varietals on the 256-acre vineyard that sits on Camp 4 at the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. One of the hottest microclimates, it’s the farthest east Santa Barbara County AVA before transitioning into the Happy Canyon AVA. Kitá does produce Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because of the cooler influences from that area and because the tasting room is located in Lompoc, in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
As a winemaker, Gomez considers herself a purist. She believes in minimal manipulation to maximize varietal characteristics. While Kitá does produce three blends that allow Gomez to tap into her artistic side, the rest are 100 percent varietals. As proof of her dedication to a varietal, Gomez travels to Europe each year, picks a varietal she wants to work with, and learns everything she can about it. Armed with that knowledge, she returns to incorporate a blend of Old World and New World winemaking techniques in Kitá wines. Taste the result by the glass or flight throughout the month of August, or take one of this month’s featured bottles home!
Check out our exclusive interview with Tara!
At the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe we focus on providing a true wine country experience. Much of our produce for the Café is organically grown at our Café farm in Los Olivos. And our award-winning wine selection of over 500 mostly local wines compliments our fresh wine country cuisine. As a hub for the local California Central Coast wine scene, we love getting to know our local winemakers and sharing their stories with you! Meet more of our featured wine makers here!
A good wine can enhance a meal and contribute to that warm feeling among family and friends, but a phenomenal wine—well, that can change the course of your life. At least, that was the case for Michael Speakman, owner of Westerly Wines.
Love at first sip
It was a Côte Blonde that stole Speakman’s heart. Three days after he had his first sip, he was in escrow to buy the winery. He fell in love with all the wines, but he thought the Côte Blonde was simply amazing.
A blend of Syrah with just 5 percent Viognier for balance, the Côte Blonde is a fan favorite. It’s a wine that can stand up to a steak, but with the floral essence provided by the Viognier, the wine multi-tasks as a wine for all seasons.
From play time to wine down
The effect of the Côte Blonde on Speakman is even more remarkable considering that he wasn’t even looking to get into the wine industry. A serial entrepreneur, Speakman started selling baseball cards when he was just 9 years old. Eventually, that first endeavor became a trading card company. He followed that with more businesses inspired by youthful trends–like the milk cap game POGs and then Beanie Babies. After those successful businesses, he turned to real estate before taking some time away from business.
These days he enjoys making his own wine deliveries and “hasn’t worked a day” since he purchased Westerly. He considers himself fortunate that he has good wine that he gets to share with friends and his family, which includes his wife and 17- and 19-year-old sons, who he hopes will follow him into the wine industry.
A tradition of Bordeaux
Westerly Wines has been producing wines in Happy Canyon for more than 20 years. It’s one of very few
wineries located there, but that’s just another reason it’s so special Speakman said. He calls it the best wine-producing region on the Central Coast, citing a recent increase in national recognition.
Because it’s well-established, Speakman has no plans to make major changes to Westerly Wines. The wine will still come primarily from Happy Canyon, while the pinot will come from the much cooler and coastal Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
This month you can fall in love with the Côte Blonde, too. It’ll be available by the glass or as a tasting flight along with the 2017 Happy Canyon Rosé and 2013 Westerly Red, a fruit-forward blend of Cabernet, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.
At the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe we focus on providing a true wine country experience. Much of our produce for the Café is organically grown at our Café farm in Los Olivos. And our award-winning wine selection of over 500 mostly local wines compliments our fresh wine country cuisine. As a hub for the local California Central Coast wine scene, we love getting to know our local winemakers and sharing their stories with you!
We welcome you to check out more of our interviews by subscribing to our YOUTUBE CHANNEL or checking out our BLOGS– you too can get to meet our talented local winemakers!
Doug Margerum has a very specific, direct goal for his Margerum label wines: making “Food friendly, at-the-table wines”. This approach is very evident in the design of Margerum’s Buellton tasting room & winery (open on the weekends behind Figueroa Mountain Brewing). The small tasting room opens into a large kitchen, where a fresh meal is often prepared for the winery staff’s lunch. A long communal table represents the bulk of the tasting room, demonstrating the clear intent to serve Margerum wines with a delicious paired plate of food.
An early introduction to Wine
Doug’s real wine roots start at the Wine Cask, a small Santa Barbara wine shop his family acquired 37 years ago, evolving into a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant. As one of Santa Barbara’s highly-decorated and venerable restaurants, Doug found the focus for his wines to-be: “I unabashedly make table wines!” Under his successful Margerum Wine Co. label, a steady production of food-friendly wines makes their way throughout Santa Barbara County and beyond. Margerum Sauvignon Blanc was even featured at President Obama’s final State Dinner in 2016.
Doug’s first foray into wine was on a European vacation in his youth, in dark French wine caves where so many have opened their eyes to wine culture. Chateauneuf du Pape helped Doug become the Wine Expert among his friends and family, an amateur sommelier to suggest wines. As Doug’s wine and food education grew, he became a true sommelier, a local winemaker under many labels (and in France!), and a successful restauranteur. Doug was asked to join the Smithsonian National Museum’s American History Kitchen Cabinet, a board of luminaries in the food & beverage industries. Doug also befriended Julia Child during her long time as a Santa Barbara resident.
Doug’s word for what he puts into his wine is “Personality” – Doug tries to bring wine to the table per his standards – wines he wants to drink and he hopes others love. His history in the restaurant business and as a consulting winemaker can attest to the success of these wines.
What brings each and every Margerum Wine together is that signature dash of Doug’s personality and approach to wine: High acidity, low alcohol wines that add punch and flavor to each and every meal. He freely compares his industry to “glorified drug dealers… because we get you on something.. and once you go that next step up in quality, you can’t go back down!”
The former Honea vineyard in Los Olivos, now a Margerum Rhône varietal vineyard, produces the heart of the “M5” Red blend – a crafty blend of Grenache, Syrah, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Cinsault. This Flagship wine of the brand is modeled directly after Châteauneuf du Pape style Rhônes.
The M5 White, a rich, fruity blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and Vermentino, comes full circle from Doug’s travels through France, and his inspiration to make a white Rhône wine. As a second “M5”, it’s the spiritual companion to the flagship M5 Red. This organically farmed wine is also a product of the Los Olivos district.
A lasting influence on Santa Barbara County Wine
Doug continues to consult for La Encantada and Happy Canyon Vineyards, along with others. His influence and personality-driven wines are guaranteed to remain synonymous with Santa Barbara Country wine for decades to come. While the Margerum winery is open to the public on weekends in Buellton, you can visit their El Paseo tasting room every day in Santa Barbara, with a new tasting room coming soon in the Hotel Californian!
Doug’s incredible story as a successful Santa Barbara winemaker is part of Santa Barbara Wine Country history. Read more of our winemaker interviews in our blog here!
Jeff Fischer started small and dreamt big to make Habit Wines
What drives wine-lovers to Santa Barbara Wine Country? For most Californians, they visit because of the proximity and the refreshing rural escape from LA or the Bay Area– and of course for the quality of our wines. For Habit Wines owner Jeff Fischer, it’s all about the attitude our region exudes– a welcoming attitude with a willingness to share knowledge and support its fellow winemakers.
You might know Jeff from his eponymous character on the Fox show American Dad!.Balancing his two callings of acting and winemaking, Jeff started small, making several cases of wine out of a garage in Los Angeles, with a few hundred pounds of grapes he bungee-corded onto his truck and brought down from Santa Barbara.
Three defining moments helped Jeff get started: The first winery to agree to sell him grapes. The winemaking classes that guided him through the creation of his garagiste cases of wine he made in LA. And, Doug Margerum who opened his winery doors giving Jeff the opportunity to become a full-fledged winemaker. (Watch our interview to hear Jeff’s journey to winemaking in his own words.)
For a wine to grow as a passion into a business it takes a certain kind of creative energy which Jeff imbues in every one of his wines.
Mavericks in the industry like Jeff help define Santa Barbara wine country – and the winemakers who make it all happen. Like others before him, it’s this culture of expression and encouragement that helped him get started, or as he puts it, “it’s a great, great vibe!”
So, why the big hand on the Habit Wines label?
“It’s really all about art and addiction,” says Jeff – the art of acting and his addiction to winemaking. For him, the hand belongs to William S. Burroughs, Jeff’s favorite poet from his hometown of St. Louis, who “may be reaching for his own fix” on the label. The Habit label certainly does pop out on a shelf of wines – it’s easy to spot from a distance on our own wine wall – and the design even landed his wines in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Like most ‘misunderstood’ modern art, it wasn’t always as accepted. During one of his first vintages, Jeff brought his wines to the famed French Laundry restaurant in Napa. The staff loved the wine but refused to buy any for the restaurant giving the reason that the label was too modern, too out of the ordinary for the bourgeois Napa eatery.
Habit Wines are made from grapes from several vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County. Jeff prefers Happy Canyon grapes to grow his Bordeaux blends, keeping it hyper-local to the area. Most of his other varietals are grown in the Los Olivos District.
Say the words “California wine” and more often than not, bruiser Napa Cabernets or buttery Sonoma Chardonnays come to mind. There’s a certain irony to the fact that most consumers consider wine country of Santa Barbara County as a relative newcomer when in fact the area has had acreage under vine for over one hundred years. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Santa Barbara County really took off, thanks in part to the UC Davis’s assessment of it having the optimal climate for growing grapes.
What makes the climate of Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast so unique? Three factors come into play: The Humboldt Current, the Coriolis Effect, and the Transverse Range.
The Humboldt Current, despite its name, has nothing to do with cheese or green pharmaceuticals. It’s actually a deep ocean current that comes up from Peru, bringing cool waters with it. That combines with the Coriolis Effect, which is a phenomenon that occurs when northern winds push surface-warm ocean water off the top of the Pacific and moves it further west. The Coriolis Effect truly is phenomenal because it’s not possible without the Earth’s rotation! When that warmer water shifts away, those deep, cool waters shift towards the top, ensuring a continuous cooling effect mid-California Coast. That cool air is then funneled inland due to the Transverse Range: that’s where the North-South running mountains turn East-West due to an early plate tectonic shift. That geological and meteorological combination add up to the unique microclimates we find around Santa Barbara County – which add up to a great variety of wine!
The two biggest AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, in Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. Both are river valleys created by that plate tectonic shift, which means they oddly run west-to-east, funneling cool maritime air in with them. Both AVAs benefit from large diurnal swings because the cool Pacific influence brings in chilly fog overnight, lowering the nightly temperatures, before burning off midday at higher, hotter afternoon temperatures. That large temperature swing optimizes sugar levels in grapes while maintaining acidity. You’ll notice wines from both AVAs may be higher in alcohol but never taste out of balance: there will always be a refreshing prickle of acidity on the finish. Let’s take a moment to thank diurnal swings for that!
Within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the best known AVA is Sta. Rita Hills. (And yes, it is legally ‘Sta. Rita Hills’ and not ‘Santa Rita Hills.’ It seems the famous Santa Rita winery in Chile was a bit peeved when the Santa Rita Hills AVA was initially granted and sued to prevent consumer confusion.) Sta. Rita Hills is most famous for its Pinot Noir. The AVA benefits from that ocean air as well as very specific ‘chet’ soil that create the unmistakably bright and floral Sta. Rita Pinot flavor. It’s no mistake that some of the best-known California Pinot vineyards, including Sea Smoke, are located here.
Moving away from the ocean, we find the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon AVAs. As their names imply, they are both lower altitude AVAs and, since they’re surrounded by mountains, heat and sunlight reflect off to create much warmer microclimates than those found in Sta. Rita Hills. Bordeaux and Rhone varietals do well here. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon loves Happy Canyon and Syrah rules Ballard Canyon.
And, fun fact!: Happy Canyon earned its moniker by having the only working still during Prohibition, leading many a local to visit and to leave quite happy! We’re pleased to see this happy-making legacy continued with fantastic wine.
And finally, the newest AVA in the region is perhaps the closest to our heart: the Los Olivos District. Located in the area surrounding the Los Olivos Café, the Bernat vineyard is proud to be part of the Los Olivos District. Comparatively flat and warm, Syrah absolutely thrives here – which you can taste in the many different Bernat Syrah bottlings.
With the continued interest in Santa Barbara County, we feel that its potential is just now being brought to fruition. The various microclimates and unique topography allow for infinite possibilities, from rich, round reds to bright, acidic whites. Santa Barbara Country truly has a wine for every wine lover!
We love sharing Santa Barbara Wine Country! Shop our Wine Merchant here and we’ll ship our wine country to you! Consider choosing from our custom wine club selection that offers only the best of California Central Coast wines.
For Ernst Storm, wine should tell a story: the story of the site, the story of the grape, and the story of the vintage. For us, his own story is an intriguing adventure that influences his unique approach to winemaking!
Ernst grew up along the Western Cape region of South Africa, an area made famous for winemaking. Although he did not grow up in a family of vignerons, his surroundings heavily influenced both himself and his brother. Ernst knew that he wanted to pursue a line of work that both involved creativity and nature, both of which logically lead him back to his roots.
Not content with just staying home, however, Ernst traveled extensively through Europe and eventually made his way to California, working in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills. There, he was able to balance out his knowledge of cool-climate winemaking that he learned in South Africa with that of the much-warmer Sierra Foothills AVA. He learned how to work with much higher levels of alcohol and pHs, and how to stabilize wines that are far out of balance, all of which have since come in handy with the varying microclimates around Santa Barbara County.
Ultimately it was a desire to explore a wider range of temperatures that drew him to Santa Barbara County. He became the winemaker for Notary Public Wines, drawing from the warmer Happy Canyon AVA to craft some delicious Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordeaux varietals. The microclimate range, though, is impossible to ignore, opening up unlimited possibilities for winemakers. After establishing his own eponymous label, Storm, Ernst set out to craft wines that tell the story of his background as well as their own.
A prime example is his Sauvignon Blanc: Ernst ages the wine in stainless steel, which is a decidedly New World approach, with lees (or spent yeast cells) included, which is decidedly Old World. The result is what he calls an “American Riviera wine”: one that is bright, refreshing, and infinitely quaffable. In fact, it’s the best selling white wine at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café month after month!
Owner of the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, Sam Marmorstein, got a chance to sit down with Ernst and learn more about his winemaking methods and path to finding himself as a winemaker in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Never one to rest on his proverbial laurels, Ernst is constantly exchanging ideas with his brother in South Africa. Since both are winemakers, they continue to inspire and advise each other. Ernst claims that most smaller wineries – and indeed, wine regions – have to figure out what works as they go along. This is a vastly different approach than that of bigger areas like Napa and Bordeaux where big money is spent on formulating wines that meet the specs for both public appeal and critical acclaim. Although that kind of money is helpful, making it up as you go allows the freedom to experiment, and that’s just what Ernst continues to do.
“In order to get into the wine business, you have to be adventurous.”
Ryan Carr of Carr Vineyard and Winery is indeed adventurous! His first job was making snowboards, then went to the University of Arizona for graphic design and worked for a landscape company. It was in college that he took a class on plant science, a seed was planted, and since 1999 he has been farming vineyards and making wine– what an adventure! When Ryan made his way to the Santa Ynez Valley he thought he would start a graphic design business. Little did he know he know the adventurous path that laid ahead…
Starting on the farming side of the industry in 1998, Ryan began working for viticulturist, Craig McMillan. Getting outside to escape the computer was a no brainer for Ryan, he fell in love with being in the field, and before he knew it he was helping lay out and plant vineyards.
Developing relationships from his vineyard work Ryan was able to get his hands on some extra Cabernet Sauvignon fruit in 1999. With that and the help of some food grade trash cans, he made his first batch of ‘home’ wine, producing about 10 cases. That wine was given to friends and family, who actually LOVED it!
In 2000 Ryan was approached by Andy Kahn who had just started his own winemaking facility. Starting up his new business and tight on money, Andy suggested Ryan work for him (for free) in exchange for winemaking help and the use of the facility. Not willing to pass up the opportunity Ryan jumped in. He made his first 325 cases with 1.5 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5 tons of Cabernet Franc, and .5 tons of Pinot Noir. That was the beginning of the Carr label. Each year they continued to make more wine, and after several years Ryan really had a good thing going.
“As a farmer I am trying to represent the exact location more than anything. So it’s a hands off approach to wine making. Very minimal additions, and manipulation.”
One of the main factors that sets Carr apart from other wineries in our area is that they lease vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County; including Sta. Rita Hills, Los Olivos District, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon. Growing in all of these locations allows Ryan to get to know and see the differences in each growing region and make many different varietals.
California in general is a young wine region, so Santa Barbara is very new in the grand scheme of things. Being a young region we often look at older wine producing regions, such as France and Italy, for inspiration and advice. With that said, this is not Italy, or France, its California. We are finding our own techniches and styles over the years. You can see it happening in Santa Barbara, with all these sub appellations coming up. The basic understanding as to what our environment can do is increasing.
“Santa Barbara is such a special place, and without the influence of Burgundy we wouldn’t know that Sta. Rita Hills is perfect for the Burgundian varietals. Without the influence of the Rhone we wouldn’t know that Ballard Canyon is the place we should be growing the Rhone varietals, and same for Happy Canyon and the Bordeaux’s. It’s incredible what we can do within such a small area of California.”
Want to meet more local winemakers? Catch our current Featured Winemaker on our blog, or come meet them on the last friday of every month!
You are at a dinner party, and suddenly you hear it, the sound of a popping cork. After that first cork is pulled the sound of the house changes, the conversations begin to flow freely, the laughter comes more quickly. You aren’t discussing the taste, it is time to relax and let the wine take us some place emotionally, and flavor wise, without having to feel the need to define it.
“Great wine should lead to a conversation about everything except itself. Wine is not egotistical, it is not narcissistic, it doesn’t care if you talk about it.” -Wes Hagen
Asked to describe himself in one word Wes said, “Performative”. There are a lot of winemakers with the same knowledge he has but the ability to be able to engage anyone with a glass of wine is what sets him apart. We certainly won’t argue with that!
Wes started his winemaking adventures in 1996 here in Santa Barbara County. Ranked among the top 100 most influential winemakers in the United States by Decanter magazine, Wes is an incredible resource for wine knowledge. He researched, wrote, and had approved three AVA’s in Santa Barbara County; Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and Ballard Canyon. He has written for various publications and taught at many prestigious institutions.
After 21 years as winemaker at Clos Pepe estates, he became the brand ambassador and winemaker for J.Wilkes winery. Founded by Jeff Wilkes in 2001 focusing on Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. The untimely passing of Jeff left the label at a standstill until it was purchased by the Miller family in his honor. Wes is continuing to represent Jeff’s legacy and his ideas about how to make great wine. Letting the vineyards speak, not getting too stylistic with the wines. Trying to keep the way they represent the place and the time they were grown, intact.
“…to put a bottle of wine on the table every night, and to use wine to keep the people you love at the table for an extra hour”-Wes Hagen
If you would like to meet Wes and try his incredible wines, he will be mingling with guests during our dinner service at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe on September 30th. Can’t make it in? All of J. Wilkes wines are 20% off the whole month of September in the retail store and online! Take advantage of this discount that will only last until the end of September, and try the sampler 4-Pack to get a taste of a wonderful selection of J. Wilkes wines. For reservations call 805-688-7265 or schedule online via open table
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.