In 1997 Christine and Stevan Larner finally saw their dream of being in the wine business as a reality. Purchasing a 130 acre south facing parcel, perfectly situated in what is now Ballard Canyon, they began the Larner family legacy. Their son Michael was working as a Geologist in Colorado prior to the new family endeavor, but he always knew he wanted to come back to the earth, and being able to pass something down for multiple generations was fascinating to him. “The legacy aspect was my biggest selling point.” And so began the long and meaningful process of planting a vineyard and becoming a winemaker. Michael earned his Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and has been making wine since 1999.
Michael’s experience as a geologist before being a winemaker, allows him to see the winemaking and viticulture aspects much more from the land itself. He wants “to be firmly grounded to the earth” which has multiple meanings in Michael’s life. Leaving his career to join his family in their vineyard and winery endeavor gave him a sense of creating something that was always there, a legacy. His winemaking style is all about the site expression, allowing the wines to be the speaking word from the vineyard.
“Something there was present, this is the true essence of terroir, it’s coming from the land. As a geologist I am very comfortable with that, because I have studied the earth.”
As a winemaker Michael enjoys experimenting with different fermentation techniques, yeasts, and barrel choices. The process of giving and take allow the terroir to speak as loudly as it can through his wines. The Larner Vineyard and Winery team consist of more than just Michael, his wife Christina, mother Christine, and sister Monica each offer their own distinct look into the legacy. Figuring out where each wine will fit within the Larner program is a family affair. As a wine critic living in Rome, Monica looks at the wines from the eyes of the critic– how it’s going to do in the market. Christina is much more in tune with where the wines fit in from a generation standpoint, and Christine with her background in business is “the price guru.”
“The land was speaking louder than the winemakers.”
Michael is not only a fantastic viticulturist and winemaker but also co-founded the Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon is a north-south running valley totaling 7,000 acres, one of the smallest in California. Described as the ‘Goldie Locks’ AVA, because it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for a variety like Syrah. A slightly warm ripening interval, but also a cooling effect– so you get that pepper spice coupled with fruit which is essentially what Syrah— makes Ballard Canyon ideal growing conditions for the Syrah grape. There is 17 vineyards total in the Ballard Canyon AVA but just 6 produce wine, the rest is sold to other wineries. Currently, only 600 of 7,000 acres are planted, over 300 of those acres are planted to Syrah. Proving that “everyone sort of knew; ‘this is our champion’, this is what we want to bring forward.”
In Part One of our interview with Michael, he shares the backstory of how Ballard Canyon AVA evolved from an idea to reality.
In Part Two of our interview, Michael lights up about what makes Larner wines “Grounded”.
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 Vineyard 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 with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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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