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:
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!
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.
“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!
The Los Olivos Wine Merchant offers visitors over 400 labels to choose from – many of them sourced from local, family-owned boutique wineries dedicated to producing excellent, small production wines. With such an extensive selection, it could be a bit challenging to pick just the right bottle, but savvy owners Sam and Shawnda Marmostein have knowledgeable staff on hand to help make sure you chose a wine that will please your palate.
Andrew Scherer, Wine Director, has been with the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café since early 2015. Starting out as a busser in the hospitality industry at the Pebble Beach Resort in Monterey, CA, Andrew worked hard to make his way up from a busser to becoming a server and sommelier. His professional progression included passing the first two levels of the Court of Masters Sommeliers, an independent examining body established in 1977 that offers certificates and diplomas for Sommeliers, and a move to Beverly Hills, where he became part of the team opening Wally’s Vinoteca – with 1,000 labels in their retail space. Although he learned a lot about the wine industry’s retail side, Andrew missed the Central Coast. So, when the opportunity came to work at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant, he jumped at the chance. Andrew has loved working with Sam and Shawnda. He feels they provide a working environment that is comfortable and caring. And, he has appreciated their mentorship. One of the “perks” of his job is the opportunity to get out into the community and develop relationships. Los Olivos is a close-knit township with 48 tasting rooms, which have a long-standing tradition of mutual respect and support, something Andrew says is unique and that you won’t find everywhere. The Santa Barbara County is home to 6 AVA’s (the latest addition, the Los Olivos AVA, was officially added February 22, 2016). Andrew enjoys the opportunity of meeting and supporting winemakers from operations of all sizes. He is proud that the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe’s labels include many from small family wineries and is excited to introduce their product to the public. Since moving to the Santa Ynez Valley, Andrew has begun learning how to horseback ride.
Sarah Farley, Wine Merchant, spent some time studying wine in Europe through a vineyard apprenticeship in Tuscany and wine classes in Bordeaux, before moving to Temecula, CA, where she managed a wine tasting room. Gradually she developed an interest in learning more about the Central Coast’s Pinot and Chardonnay varietals. While searching for more information, she found a job posting for the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café, and immediately called to set up an interview. Recognizing a great opportunity, Sarah accepted the position and has been happily working with visitors to find just the right wine for the past 6 months. Sarah feels her job is to be a liaison between the producers and the buyers. As one of the largest local wine providers in the area, there is so much to offer – many of them unique mom and pop labels that she is excited to represent. She is fascinated by the people who walk through the door, many from Los Angeles, and feels that she learns so much about wine from their conversations and exchange of ideas. Sarah is delighted to work in a place where she feels empowered to learn and do better. She feels that Sam and Shawnda lift people up with positive reinforcements rather than micro management. Because of that, everyone does well – because everyone wants it to do well, this makes for a happy, warm environment that is felt by everyone who walks through the door. With the encouragement of Sam, Shawnda, Andrew and the rest of the staff, Sarah is currently studying for her level 1 Sommelier exam in April. When she isn’t studying, Sarah likes to play a mean game of pool.
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Cassy Misiewicz is the latest Wine Merchant to join the staff. After graduating in 2014, she moved back to the Central Coast. At the time she didn’t know much about wine, but a close friend of hers offered her a job in a tasting room. Although she was nervous, the experience opened her eyes, and she found herself wanting to learn more about wine. Eventually, she decided to make the move to the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe when a position opened up. She enjoys working with the people who come in and feels that part of her job is to interpret – trying to figure out what the buyer likes and match it to a wine they will enjoy. Cassy also enjoys the mutually beneficial relationship with the other winetasting businesses in Los Olivos. She likes to share new wines, and gets a lot of enjoyment from seeing the changes. Cassy feels that Sam and Shawnda take the heart of food and wine and bring it all together. When she first arrived, she felt there was a true communal effort to help her learn, with a respectful exchange of information and knowledge. She enjoys knowing she can be herself, which makes coming to work and meeting with buyers fun. Eventually Cassy would like to take WSET courses to learn more about the technical aspects of the wine business. Perhaps she will also expand her knowledge of the little French and Russian languages she speaks too.
With all of the choices before them, the wine all three were most excited about at this time was ‘A Tribute to Grace’ 2015 Rose of Grenache, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, California Wine. Winemaker Angela Osborn, born in New Zealand, does not have a tasting room, so Andrew works with her directly to get her wines into the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café. “Exceptional” was the word used to describe this offering. Sarah also remarked that she was getting very excited about the Pinot from the Santa Maria Valley – learning about the specific traits they had in common. And Cassy has been enjoying a lot of Syrah, especially ‘Zotovich’ 2013 Syrah, Blair Fox.
No matter where your tastes lead you, one thing is clear. When you visit the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, you will be met by wine merchants who are knowledgeable, friendly, and who will take the time to talk with you about your preferences – making sure that you leave with a bottle (or two) you will truly enjoy.
“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis. “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.” Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc. While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy. The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates. This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.
Great wine often requires context. While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting. I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group. These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them. The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly. In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.
The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon. While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region. “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis. “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us. And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.” Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion. And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon. “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”
Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement. “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis. “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage. We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.” They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality. “Sauv is all about minerality. There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”
The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples. The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes. “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis. “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.” This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well. “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine. I think part of that has to do with our lower yields. Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”
The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality. Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages. “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette. “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.” Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.
The two sites they are currently working with, Grassiniand Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils. The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality. Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site. “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe. This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.” Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.
In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet. Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it. Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression. “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work. We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’ And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”
Fred Brander begins his discussion of the Los Olivos District not by reeling off statistics or carting out maps, but by walking out of his cellar with 4 bottles. 2 are unlabeled, 2 are in brown bags. Brander comments as he pours a first taste from one of the bags, “This is a producer I really admire… I think it’s a good example of someone making more balanced Cab here in California.” Its notes of cedar, ripe blackcurrant, and cassis, along with a prominent signature of American oak, place it squarely in Califonia; it turns out to be Ridge’s iconic estate bottling from Monte Bello Vineyard. Next he pours the two shiners: one is a barrel sample of his young vine Cab, meticulously planted 5 years ago with an incredible array of rootstocks and clones (12 combinations in total); the other is a barrel sample of his old vine Cab, own-rooted, planted in the mid ‘70s. Though young, there is already an intense, gravel minerality to both, along with all that exuberant young fruit. He proudly informs me that the alcohols are in the mid to low 13s. We finish with the other brown bag, which has harder tannins, just-ripe plum, and a finish filled with notes of sharpened pencil. We are clearly in Bordeaux here (it turns out to be a Pessac-Leognan from Chateau Haut-Bergey), though the leap from the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Los Olivos District to the Old World is, refreshingly, not a huge one. His point is clear: this area is capable of site driven, balanced wines that can stand toe to toe with the benchmarks of the world.
A Master of Wine candidate and one of Santa Ynez Valley’s pioneers, Brander tastes blind like this just about every day, comparing his wines with other producers from around the world, seeking out new ideas, constantly thinking about how to improve his wines, his vineyard, and our growing region. His latest passion is the birth of the Los Olivos District AVA. The idea that this part of the valley may be worthy of its own AVA first arose over 10 years ago, when the Sta. Rita Hills became official. “Sta. Rita Hills was the first to differentiate itself, and they did it based mainly on climate, which made me want to look further into the Santa Ynez AVA and see what made us different here besides the fact that we’re warmer. As it turned out, the area that we are now defining as the Los Olivos District has very distinct and uniform soil and climate.”
The soil in the Los Olivos District is part of the Positas–Ballard–Santa Ynez association, which consists of alluvial soils and lots of gravel, in many ways reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank. It is distinct from the limestone of Ballard Canyon or the serpentine and chert of Happy Canyon, the two AVAs that bookend the region, and its mineral presence is readily apparent in the area’s wines. For Brander, this soil, and its uniformity throughout the District, is the most compelling reason for the creation of the AVA. “The weakness in California AVAs is that they’re frequently not as specific with soils. Even in Napa, where you have so many sub-AVAs, there is uniform climate within them, but there are often varied soils. That is one of our big strengths here, that we have such uniformity.” Starting at the 1000-ft. elevation mark (above this the soil shifts into a different, sandier soil series) in the San Rafael Mountains and sloping gently down to the Santa Ynez River, one also finds great consistency of temperature and topography. “The climate is consistent, the topography is consistent, the soils are consistent, and I think these factors make a very strong case for this deserving its own AVA.”
Brander has become famous throughout the world for his various expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, which for me capture a minerality and purity rarely found outside of Sancerre. Many producers within the District also channel this more restrained style, which is a wildly different expression from the rich, musky, tropical style found in Happy Canyon, one that I also love for very different reasons. “Climate is a big factor. Here in Los Olivos we have cooler temperatures, less of a diurnal shift, and the wines tend to have lower pH and more malic acid than Happy Canyon. This area, in my opinion, is more conducive to making a fresher style of Sauvignon Banc, unoaked.”
While Sauvignon Blanc in a more precise style may be a defining expression for the AVA, for the most part the area’s varietal identity is still being sussed out. “Rhone and Bordeaux varieties are certainly the two main groups that are planted, along with some Spanish and Italian varieties, and I think all of those have been successful,” says Brander. “I’ve even tasted some Rieslings and Pinot Grigios that have been very good. Chardonnay can also be viable in a style reminiscent of classic Napa, picked early with blocked malo.” For my palate, which leans unabashedly Eurocentric, I find particular interest in the Bordeaux and Italian varieties coming from the District. There is a freshness and balance in these wines, be it Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, which is distinctive and highly mineral, with a different character than that found in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.
The Los Olivos District AVA is currently in the process of establishing its growers’ alliance, an important step for solidifying the community that will advocate for this region on a large scale. “The AVA has the greatest number of wineries, i.e. winemaking facilities, within an AVA within Santa Barbara County. We also have the history: the earliest vineyards were planted within the boundaries of the AVA, and we also have Ballard as the first township in the Valley, along with Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang. It’s more reminiscent of Europe’s appellation model where you have little towns inside them.” Brander goes on to share that the next step in the AVA process is for the petition to come up for public comment, which will likely occur this summer. If all goes according to plan, it should be finalized and approved by the end of 2014.
Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion of AVAs in the last 10 years, though unlike many areas established through the AVA system, which seem to have marketing as their raison d’etre, the division of our growing region has been firmly rooted in science and site character, with the goal of giving consumers an idea of the style and sense of place in the bottle. “If we can subdivide the Santa Ynez Valley into the AVAs needed to fill out the puzzle, I think it’s better off for the consumer,” says Brander. “Besides this AVA, we need AVAs to demarcate the areas north of us, like Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos. But I think we’re certainly advancing the ball more than we were 15 or 20 years ago.” The Los Olivos District certainly has my vote, and I look forward to seeing the further discovery and refinement of this AVA in the coming decades.
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.
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