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:

Oh! Sweet Nuthin’: The Quest for Vinous Immortality

January 13, 2014

lane tanner pinot noir

“Thought of you as my mountaintop
Thought of you as my peak
Thought of you as everything
I’ve had but couldn’t keep”
– The Velvet Underground, “Pale Blue Eyes”

The recent passing of Lou Reed hit me hard.  As a teenager growing up in sleepy Santa Maria, the world created by The Velvet Underground transported me to a place far removed from the sprawling broccoli and strawberry fields of the valley.  Characters from Andy Warhol’s Factory and New York’s seedy late ‘60s underground were vividly captured by Reed, evoking a time and place that, 45 years later, still feels timeless.

This loss of a hero got me to thinking about wine (all roads seem to lead me there nowadays).  As an adult, I have often found this same transformative experience through great wine bottles.  Unlike The Velvet Underground & Nico, however, which will sound exactly the same 100 years from now, wine, no matter how great the vintage or producer, is finite by its very nature, prone to inevitable decay. The memory of a great bottle is persistent and haunting because we know we will never have quite that same experience again.

So for those whose art is wine, how does one find the same sense of immortality allowed through the mediums of film, painting, or music?  In the Old World, it is the site, the terroir, which is prized above all else.  Each successive generation is passed the torch of great land, from Romanee-Conti to Clos de la Coulee de Serrant.  Yet it is the human element that must channel Mother Nature and define the voice of a given place in a lifetime; as the vineyard passes from one generation to the next, so too an inevitable stylistic shift happens.

In the New World, on the other hand, we often place the human element above all else.  Technical innovations and stylistic touches often trump the expression of site, for better or worse.  The greatest practitioners of this style focus less on sense of place and more on sense of self, driving so intently toward a personal vision that they capture something utterly unique.

The greatest wines and winemakers of the world, however, be they from France or Germany, Oregon or California, manage to marry these two philosophies; they showcase a special place while putting their own personal, inimitable stamp on it.  One such winemaker that I had the chance to share a table (and more than a few bottles) with numerous times this past harvest is Lane Tanner.

Lane retired her namesake label with the 2009 harvest; she still consults here and there, but she is, essentially, done with full time winemaking.  Unlike the typical scenario in Europe, there is no scion to carry on her namesake; all we have left is the string of superb vintages she crafted from 1984-2009.  These wines, whether from consumption or from decay, will eventually disappear, leaving only the memories they created and the imprint of their influence.

Rather than dwell on this unfortunate fact of wine, however, I’ve begun to embrace the unique beauty in its life and death cycle.  The fact that I am alive to enjoy these wines in their prime (her ’90 Sierra Madre was a transcendent experience), to learn the farming and winemaking lessons that Lane has been gracious enough to pass on, to have a hero from my hometown; these are things to celebrate.

Perhaps it’s fitting that, here in the Wild West, our vinous heroes ride off into the sunset.  And maybe one of wine’s greatest qualities is its fleeting nature: it forces us to be present in the moment, to embrace those sharing a table with us, and to stop and appreciate something beautiful.  So as you pop a bottle of Lane Tanner’s ’94 Sierra Madre Plateau, and cue up “Sunday Morning” on the stereo, take a moment to appreciate the unique, and ephemeral, beauty of the experience; ‘cause when it’s gone, it’s gone.

We have a VERY limited quantity of library 4 packs from Lane.  Limit 1 per person.  Featuring:
– 1992 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir
– 1994 Sierra Madre Plateau Pinot Noir
– 1995 Sierra Madre Plateau Pinot Noir
– 1996 Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir

Click here to purchase wine

An Unquantifiable Stirring: Thoughts on Wine and Life from J. Brix

January 5, 2014

wine makers

Working with wine on a daily basis, it’s easy to become cynical: Tales of wineries heavily adulterating their wine after claiming it to be “unmanipulated and hands-off”; cookie-cutter wines crafted with sleight-of-hand rather than sweat and intuition; the feeling that it’s all been tasted, that it’s all been done before.  But there is hope.  Inspired by the ghosts of California’s reputation-making icons from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Europe’s embrace of balance and terroir, and their own desire to craft something utterly unique to this time and place, there is a new group of rebellious, restlessly inventive Californian winemakers working at the edge of sanity to create something distinctive and enduring, something to call their own.  Among the most exciting of this new crop on the Central Coast is J. Brix.

I had the pleasure of meeting the husband and wife team behind J. Brix, Emily and Jody, back in 2008, when they were first delving into their own garage-based winemaking endeavors.  They have grown exponentially since then, and are now crafting some of the most expressive, pure wines of place in Santa Barbara County (and a little bit from their home base of San Diego too!).  I spoke with Emily via email about their philosophy on wine, their plans for the future, and more.

Cameron: Having two winemakers involved in a project is difficult enough, but you have the added element of being husband and wife.  How does this affect your project and the decision-making process?
JBrix: The closest thing I can compare this partnership to is a seasoned band. Each member brings his or her own innate, different skills and ideas, and you riff off one another until you end up with something better than where either of you started. Or, you realize after you’ve hashed it all out that one person’s initial suggestion is simply a better plan. It doesn’t feel difficult to work together. We start at a place of mutual respect for one another’s abilities. We are fortunate to have very similar palates and philosophies, but that doesn’t mean we never disagree. We do always make sure we come to an agreement before important decisions are made. I think we each appreciate having another person readily available and willing to listen to our occasionally harebrained schemes – which sometimes, actually work out better than we could have imagined. (After all, that was how we ended up making wine in the first place.)

C: How do you feel about being classified as “natural” winemakers?  What does natural wine mean to you?
JBrix: We approach winemaking as we do life, seeking and finding pleasure in simplicity. We taste a clarity in wine made from healthy fruit, grown in the right place, and guided in the cellar without unnecessary manipulation. We hope to hear the voice of the vineyard in the finished wine. For us, the best way to facilitate that is to work with well-tended fruit; pick it at the right time; listen to what it has to say throughout the fermentation and aging process; and respond accordingly.

C: What do you look for in a vineyard?  Do you start with a desired soil/climate and then see what’s planted, or do you seek out specific grape varieties?
JBrix: The first thing we look for in a vineyard, whether we’ve sought it out because we’re looking for a specific variety, or because we’ve tasted a wine from there that we loved, is an unquantifiable stirring. It feels like when you first meet someone and instantly connect; you can tell you’re going to be dear friends with that person, even though you haven’t gotten to know one another yet at all. When that happens for us at a particular vineyard site, we just need to make wine from there. For example, we never thought we’d be making Pinot Gris – but when we went to Kick On in search of Riesling, we fell in love at first sight, and we wanted everything they grew. We now make vineyard-designate Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from the vineyard, in addition to our Riesling (which is coming in crown-capped Petillant Naturel and traditional versions in 2013!).

C: What are your thoughts on Riesling in California? Where do you see the future of this grape going in the state in general, and SB County specifically?
JBrix: We could not be happier to be making Riesling from what we suspect is the perfect place in California for it to grow – Kick On Ranch in Los Alamos. We can thank Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard for making the Kick On Ranch Riesling that inspired our then six-year-old son to declare it “better than ice cream,” which set us on a quest to discover the place from which it came. Will there be a huge resurgence of Riesling in California?  Probably not. It’s definitely not a workhorse grape. It’s a bit of a finicky variety to grow, and very climate-specific, if it’s going to be grown well. But, if the soil and the climate in the vineyard are right, we’d be happy to see more.

C: How has your winemaking changed over the years as you’ve had the opportunity to work with some of these sites, such as Santa Barbara Highlands or Kick On, for a few vintages?
JBrix: It’s so amazing to get to know these places better every year, and to see how they respond to all the facets of the different growing seasons. One of the most fun things about making wine is that it’s really a year’s worth of events that contribute to the decisions you make once the fruit is picked, and if we stay attuned to what’s going on in the vineyards all year, there usually isn’t much hand-wringing at harvest. We handle things differently from year to year based on what nature brings us, and each season offers more insight into the ways of each vineyard.

C: Where do you think the potential lies in San Diego as far as sites/growing regions/grape varieties?
JBrix: San Diego’s wine identity is still up for grabs, and our cellarmates Chris Broomell and Alysha Stehly of Vesper Vineyards are pioneering the new winegrowing movement. Chris is a sought-after vineyard consultant these days, and he’s made a conscious decision to bring the whole Rhône catalog to new area vineyards – everything from Picpoul to Terret Noir. Most of these plantings aren’t old enough to harvest yet, but we are looking forward to seeing it happen, and tasting the results, in the years to come.

C: What are the wines that inspire you?  Have there been any particular producers or bottlings you’ve modeled your various wines after?
JBrix: We love wines that instantly allow us to understand something about the place they were made. We always enjoy drinking wines made by people we know and respect, and those they recommend. We are fortunate to be represented on the West and East Coasts by two distributors (Amy Atwood and Zev Rovine) who bring in some very exciting small-production wines from Europe, Italy and Australia, so several of those are on our radar right now. The only wine we’ve made that’s strictly modeled on a particular style is the Pinot Gris we fermented and aged in a beeswax-lined clay pot, after the kvevri wines of the Republic of Georgia. Our first vintage, the 2012, is yet to be released, and we did it again in 2013.

C: What mark do you hope to leave on the landscape of wine?  What would you like for the J. Brix legacy to be?
JBrix: “Legacy” is an amusing word to ponder at the moment, as we’re still trying to teach our children to turn out the lights after they’ve left the bathroom. This project, though, is more than the two of us and our ideas. It has its own soul. It arose from an undeniable impulse; one that we didn’t see coming until it chose us. It came from something true and real, and that is all we want for our wines: that they are true, and that they are real. In the end, our legacy, our lifetime, is the sum of our stories. We are compelled to tell the stories of these seasons, transmitted through these vineyards. To do so honestly is our highest goal.

Interested in checking out our wines?

The French Connection

November 25, 2013

“This is a wonderful Pinot Noir, it’s very Burgundian”… “I think you’ll really enjoy this Syrah, it’s a dead ringer for something from the Northern Rhone”… “Their Chardonnay is beautiful, it drinks just like a great Chablis”.  We’ve all heard these comments (and I’m certainly guilty of uttering them) in regards to Californian wines.  It’s almost as if the greatest compliment we can pay a balanced wine from the New World is that it tastes like something from the Old World.  After almost 30 years of high-alcohol, ultra-ripe wines, it’s understandable that those of us championing this return to wines of balance and place would want to connect the dots to Europe’s more classically structured, subdued wines.  But if we expect to stand head to head with, rather than on the shoulders of, these old world giants, we have to start proudly owning our unique sense of place.

Santa Barbara County, despite its youth, has already carved out numerous small micro-regions with their own distinct site character.  Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Bench, Los Alamos Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon, and the Los Olivos District all have distinctive soils, macroclimates, and topography found only in this special part of the world, and the producers advocating for these areas, now more than ever, are capturing their idiosyncratic essence.

Take Justin Willett.  The winemaker behind Tyler, Lieu Dit, and Vallin (does he ever sleep?!?) is crafting wines at refreshingly low alcohols, with a vivid savor of place.  While his inspiration comes from Burgundy (Tyler), the Loire (Lieu Dit), and the Northern Rhone (Vallin), the wines could clearly have come from nowhere else but California.  The beet root and black pepper of his Bien Nacido Pinot Noir from Santa Maria; the guava, papaya, and musk notes of the Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon; the lush blueberry and cracked pepper of Vallin’s Santa Ynez Syrah; these are wines that stand on their own as benchmark examples of what our area is capable of.

Or sample the Grenache of Angela Osborne.  It comes from Santa Barbara Highlands, a vineyard so remote and wild that it feels like stepping onto the moon; 3200 ft. elevation, soils so sandy that they look like a dune, scrub dotting the landscape, snow in the winter.  This is a place with real character, from a winemaker who has tapped so deeply into her own wavelength that she’s essentially a genre of one.  Tasting this wine, one senses the feral high desert in its origins, the California sunshine, the passion of a woman walking the vinous tightrope with no harness; the essence of what this new movement is all about.

And let us not forget our pioneers, the wild ones who started on this path of balance and never strayed from it even when fashion swung away from them.  Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat; Lane Tanner; Adam Tolmach at Ojai; Stephan Bedford; Fred Brander; they have helped shepherd and inspire this new generation, and are still making beautiful wines, further defining what makes our region so special.

It is a thrilling time to be a wine lover in Santa Barbara County.  We have one of the most unique growing regions on the planet, with incredible soils, a huge range of climates, and topography to make any European envious.  And now, in a big way, we have a wine culture that is starting to take proud ownership of this utterly singular sense of place.  Perhaps one day, years from now, we will hear jealous murmurs in Burgundy: “Have you tried this?  It tastes just like a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills…”

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