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:
“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!
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, Erik Mallea of Mallea Wines has a remarkable talent for understanding the terroir of the vines he tends from which he creates his exquisite wines. As our featured winemaker for the month of January, Erik shared his foreseeable path to becoming a winemaker and the story behind his label.
Part One of our interview with Erik:
His love of farming took him to Oregon and New Zealand where he worked in viticulture and winemaking, but his fascination with fermentation began in his teen years back in his rural hometown in Minnesota with Chokecherries, apples, and oats. After receiving his Masters degree in Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State he came to Santa Barbara County in 2007 to pursue his career as a winemaker and vineyard manager. Currently managing vines for Sanford Winery and producing a stellar line up of wines for his and his wife, Amber’s, Mallea label.
“Observant” was the word Erik gave when asked to describe the part of his personality that gets infused into his winemaking. Instead of approaching winemaking with a specific style, Erik treats each vineyard with a unique approach that requires him to be observant of the land and the process. Mallea wines are sourced from five vineyards that Erik maintains from the ground up.
The thoughtful quality that can be tasted in every bottle can be experienced before the bottle is even opened. The coat of arms on the Mallea labels are a tribute to his father’s family coat of arms passed down from the Basque Country; the story behind this coat of arms takes you back into another time. If a wine label can influence the flavors and depths of character in a wine, either through it’s mere presence or the subtle feeling it evokes before sipping, then we suggest you listen to Part Two of our interview with Erik. The background story that makes up this coat of arms is inspiring and lives on not only in the Mallea family but also in the Basque region.
PART TWO of our interview with Erik:
Learn more about local Santa Barbara County winemakers at our blog here!
Nestled in the heart of Santa Ynez’s Happy Canyon AVA you’ll find Grassini Vineyards, a family owned vineyard and winery dedicated to making overall balanced wines with beautiful aromatics, and elegant mouth-feel. Happy Canyon is an area blessed with warm days and cool marine influenced nights with few variations. The combination of warm days and cool nights makes Happy Canyon ideal for growing Bordeaux grape varietals.
The Grassini family are firm supporters of sustainable and renewable business practices. The vineyard and winery are not only solar powered but irrigated with a well-fed lake on the property, in addition all the water used in the wine production is reclaimed and used to irrigate the landscaping surrounding the winery. The wine cellar is embedded in a hillside to ensure humidity and temperature control using limited energy sources.
The vineyard management team has been with the family since planting the vines in 2001. They have 35 acres planted to vine, varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Each lot from the various vineyard blocks are fermented individually to ensure proper fermentation temperatures. After generous amounts of time in barrels the wines mature to express the unique character of this special estate and those who work there. Their 2014 Sauvignon Blanc is a uniquely floral addition to our by the glass options.
When you combine the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe for a winemaker and pairing dinner, you get an exceptional culinary evening that is not only “UnTraditional” in it’s bold wine and food pairings, but an experience that leaves you surprisingly convinced that, as Wes claims, beer and wine truly are the foundations of all modern civilization.
The “UnTraditional” Winemaker and pairing dinner on June 7th started off with Wes introducing himself and promising to give, over the course of the evening, an explanation of each dish before it was served and, at some point, the history of why wine is the most important fermented beverage in the world…in 5-min. As an example, Wes emphasized the importance of gathering friends and family together around tables, such as those that evening, to share a good bottle of wine and linger to talk and connect in a way that is not possible through electronic gadgets. That face to face connection, enhanced by a glass or two or three of wine, often brings out the true natures of companions, and is a space where novel ideas can flow and alliances can be formed.
With the first course, Wes explained that he collaborated with Chef Chris Joslyn on a menu that would go beyond the usual, traditional pairings, and reach for courses that were a little outside the box; a little untraditional, but equally as complementary and delicious. Chef Joslyn’s team set the bar with the first plate, which featured a beautifully crafted Ahi, cucumber, and avocado mixture neatly tucked into a crispy sesame cornet. Light and slightly sweet, the amuse bouche paired beautifully with the Clos Pepe Estate 2013, “Axis Mundi Rose of Mourvedre.”
As the evening progressed that culinary bar got higher and higher. The appetizer was followed by a small plate which featured a Fanny Bay oyster beside a Short Rib croquette, paired with a steel barreled Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay, “Homage to Chablis.” The third course brought the same pressed grapes back to the table, but this time having been fermented in an oak barrel so that guests could easily taste the difference between the two processes. Paired with grilled Longline Sword Fish, leeks, sweet corn, fingerling potato, and a lemon buerre fondue, the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay “Barrel Fermented” was the perfect compliment.
Moving on to the red wines, the fourth course introduced Clos Pepe Estate 2011 Pinot Noir to the table. Paired with a roasted chicken roulade, Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, braised chard, and chicken jus – the course melted in your mouth. A Cassoulet of pork sausage, pork confit, slab bacon, and duck confit was the feature of the fifth course. Neatly baked into small ramekins, this was the grand crescendo of the evening, and was excellently paired with the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.
Before the final course of assorted cheeses paired with an Olin 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wes delivered on his promise to explain why wine was the most important booze in the world and was the reason we have advanced in our civilization. Perhaps it might have been a little more than 5-min, but no guest complained. They would have sat there for an hour more listening to Wes deliver his information in such an accessible, humorous style, and with such an infectious enthusiasm for life.
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.