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!
Rancho Sisquoc- Steeped in history and still keeping things fresh.
Over the last four decades, Rancho Sisquoc has become a household name in local winemaking and wine tourism. Located at the end of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail in Santa Maria, the property of Rancho Sisquoc is a destination every wine lover must experience to fully appreciate.
As a major stop on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the winery is a 300-acre slice of a roughly 38,000-acre working ranch, mine, and farm. As one of the oldest wineries in Santa Barbara County, Rancho Sisquoc’s name is an important piece of California history. The San Ramon Chapel (the label art of Rancho Sisquoc’s wines) has been a staple on the Ranch for over 140 years and became the county’s first State Historic Landmark in 1977.
Vines were first planted on the Ranch in the late 1960s, with the first vintages produced in 1972 by a Ranch Manager, rather than the traditional Head Winemaker of today. The unique Sylvaner wines come from the former Ranch Manager, who fell in love with the grape while serving under General Patton in Europe. We’re pleased to offer the 2016 Sylvaner vintage of these same vines as one of our featured wines this month!
Sarah Holt Mullins, our Featured Winemaker, was born and raised on Rancho Sisquoc. Her parents moved to the Ranch in 1976 as farmers, working their way up at the Ranch. Sarah’s father is responsible for many of the vine plantings on the vineyard. Growing up, Sarah worked many odd jobs on the Ranch, working her way into the winery on her own journey. Over time on the Ranch, she began to appreciate the effort put into every wine, from grape to bottle. The experimentation with wine, responsibility over the grapes, and experience of tasting wine that you created was an experience that sold Sarah on the wine business completely.
In her own words, “it’s all-consuming; your whole life has to be in [the wine business].” Sarah credits everyone from her Oenologist, assistants, grape-growers, salespeople, and her customers (some of which have been wine club members for 20+ years!) in the process of creating famous Rancho Sisquoc wine. Everyone’s love and effort in the process is vital to creating the wines, and each is a vital part of her process. If she could sum up her winemaking style, she’d use “Love”. Sarah loves the wine, loves the process, the business and most of all, Rancho Sisquoc. Sarah’s family and others who work the Ranch live on the property, putting their time, effort and love into the soil they call home.
Rancho Sisquoc works with over 14 different varietals, which they believe is for everyone from the wine novices to the budding sommeliers. Part and parcel with this theory is how they market their wines, as wines that everyone can afford, bringing fine wine to everyone who is curious about the taste, process, and subtleties between great wines.
Sarah’s favorite grape is Merlot; another featured wine from Rancho Sisquoc in October. The tasting room Mantra at Rancho Sisquoc; everyone is allowed 6 free tastings, but if they didn’t try the Merlot, that becomes the 7thfree tasting. The wine is a classic albeit currently underappreciated staple to the winery’s oeuvre.
Sarah plans to keep “taking chances in the vineyard”, a trait she attributes to her father’s influence on her winemaking. As grape growers who have been in the industry for 40+ years, taking chances keeps their work fresh to consumers and their business. For example, in the “Tre Vini” Red Blend release, Sarah’s team might change the blend based on the year’s harvest, to perfectly balance each release. You can find this wine with the other aforementioned two as another Featured Wine at the Wine Merchant & Café!
Sarah’s long relationship with winemaking reflects the story of many local winemakers. Check out more of our monthly interviews with featured local winemakers here!
To step onto the Sunstone property is to step back into the Old World.
The gorgeous stone chateau is centered in a beautiful landscape, complete with tranquil space to sip your wine. It’s unlike any other winery in Santa Barbara County and is the result of an Old World sensibility passed down through the Rice family. In our interview, owner and winemaker, Bion Rice, shares the past, present, and future of Sunstone Winery.
According to Bion Rice, who now oversees the winery, his family relocated to Santa Ynez from Santa Barbara seeking better educational opportunities for his two sisters. His mother immediately saw the possibilities for what is now Sunstone. The landscape alone would inspire anyone, but Linda’s focus on “food, family, and friends” allowed her to pursue creating the best possible atmosphere for all. Linda and husband Fred planted Bordeaux varietals assuming they would sell the grapes off to winemakers but quickly became enamoured with making their own. And much like what would happen in a small Provençal village, their local friends were happy to help, pitching in to mentor their efforts and support them every step of the way.
Without any formal training in winemaking to start, Fred and Linda soaked up as much as they could – again, a very Old World approach! They began bottling their wine and by their second vintage, the family found themselves with a few thousand extra cases. Bion did what any loyal farmer’s son would do: he loaded the cases into his truck and began hawking his wares all over Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. His favorites stops were invariably at restaurants, where he’d end up chatting with chefs and tasting through fantastic dishes that opened up the possibilities of pairings for his wines even more. Sunstone’s production and demand increased exponentially and the Rice family soon sold their wines across the country.
Ironically, Bion sees the 2008 recession as a blessing in disguise because it forced the family to scale back and focus on what really mattered to them. This re-assessment renewed their passion for Linda’s initial pursuit of “food, family, and friends,” and the quality of their wine improved drastically. However, the Rices have never veered away from organic farming and are proud to operate the longest running organic winery in all of Santa Barbara. While this may have seemed ahead of its time, commitment to organic farming really just ties back to the Old World version of farming and was part of Linda’s overarching vision.
Today, Bion and his wife oversee operations, including winemaking. Bion plans to keep it in the family and is fostering his sons; in fact, his teenage son Miles helps in the blending process and has final say in which blend ends up in the “Milestone” bottle!
Before summer ends, give yourself a minivacation by visiting Sunstone winery. Step back in time and enjoy the chateau made from reclaimed materials and native stone. Grab a glass of their best-selling rosé and savour the warmth of family and friends that the Rice family has helped build.
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.