Journey just past the Santa Ynez River, into the hills off of Refugio Road, up a steep gravel driveway, and you will be greeted by the spectacular vistas of Refugio Ranch. Rising dramatically into the Santa Ynez Mountains, this 415 acre ranch is a sprawling piece of property, comprised mostly of open spaces; just 27 acres are currently planted. I met with Ryan Deovlet, Refugio Ranch’s contemplative winemaker, on an overcast Monday to explore the intricacies of this special site.
We climbed into the ranch’s Polaris, and went zooming up a precipitous hill. Rounding a bend, I was greeted by a tiny block of Syrah. “This is the Escondido (hidden) block, Clone 383, which is a little bit compromised by daylight hours.” Tucked way back into a canyon on the ranch, one can understand both the name and the challenges of ripening in this spot. “Because of the shadowing in this block we lose a couple hours of sunlight compared to the rest of the ranch. It tends to be a little more red fruit, with a lot of the carpaccio, pepper, meaty character. It actually inspired me to create a second red wine blend because it is so distinct from our other blocks.”
In talking with Deovlet, I quickly saw his desire to grow with the Ranch, willing to abandon previously held ideas or techniques if it meant better expressing a sense of place. “I have total autonomy, but it’s a collaboration between all of us, Niki and Kevin Gleason (the Ranch’s owners), Ruben Solorzano, (of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates), and myself. We’ll pull corks together and talk about the direction of the property and evaluate what we’re doing. With these small lots, you take a risk sometimes and it doesn’t always work. But for the most part, things are working out and they’re putting their trust in me and giving me autonomy.”
The farming here is essentially organic, though there aren’t currently plans to pursue certification. Like many properties I’ve visited in the valley recently, I was impressed by the diverse ecosystem they’ve preserved and nurtured here and how they’ve adapted to the unique needs of the site. “Kevin and Niki were cognizant of what they had here. It’s a nice, cool sanctuary,” says Deovlet. “They were very conscientious of where to plant and how to preserve the natural terrain. It still has a raw, wild feel.”
The diversity of the Ranch also applies to their choice of plantings: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, and Malvasia Bianca for the whites; Syrah, Grenache, a recent addition of Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah for the reds. Deovlet also plans for some new additions, perhaps Picpoul or Bourboulenc to bring more acid and minerality to the whites, as well as some Grenache planted in their sandier river blocks. One of the most intriguing varieties on the property is Malvasia Bianca. Deovlet crafts a beautiful Spring white from this fruit, with a touch of residual sugar, a hint of spritz, and great acid, balancing the minerality of the Ranch with an easy-going exuberance.
Speaking of minerality, the soils here are some of the most exciting I have seen in Santa Barbara County. Black and lunar-like, with lots of rocky topsoil, it’s a clay loam with mudstone in its origins, quite different from the soils of the Los Olivos District AVA that stops just north of here. “It’s organic, heavy earth, alluvial mountain runoff all captured within this little bowl we have here,” states Deovlet. “We have great water retention. The goal is to eventually dry farm everything, which we’ve been working with Ruben on.” While these are mostly sedimentary soils, there is a bit of igneous material in their Petite Sirah in the form of granite, perhaps helping to explain why this grape expresses itself in such a singular way here.
“The Petite, for me, sort of serves as our Mourvedre, bringing a little more structure and putting a California twist on a Southern Rhone-inspired blend,” states Deovlet. He and Ruben are also exploring a new farming technique, using a crossbar to spread the canopy in the fruiting zone on the Petite, with the goal of giving the fruit longer hang time while preventing issues with rot or mildew. “We have to be very focused on canopy balance and low yields, with the intention that we can get all the fruit off before we hit the late October rains. In ’09 and ’10 we had those storms come through before we got everything in and we learned some hard lessons. That being said, if low yields over and over and over again mean the project never gets into the black, that project isn’t sustainable. There has to be a balance in the farming.”
Deovlet and Solorzano have had to make some big strides very quickly in approaching the farming at the Ranch as the growing conditions are so particular. “We haven’t had the most consistent of vintages, so we’ve had to learn on the fly. I’m blessed to be working with Ruben; everyone calls him the grape whisperer, and it’s true, he’s very intuitive in his approach.” While Deovlet initially had some concerns with the slightly higher pHs/lower acids the site was giving him, he’s learned to accept them, particularly after speaking to old world winemakers like Chave who see similar numbers. In place of acid, the structure of Refugio Ranch comes from tannin. “When I’m pulling fruit, it might be 25 or 26 Brix. At those numbers, we see that ideal tannin development, and at this site the vine isn’t starting to shut down.”
When the subject of Chave, one of the great iconoclcasts of the Northern Rhone, arose, I asked if Deovlet still saw the Old World as his benchmark. He thoughtfully replied, “I’m certainly inspired by the Old World, and you do find some of those aromatic markers here. That being said, I like to have a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New. I certainly take some ideas and inspiration, but we have this California sunshine, and these unique growing conditions, and I want to create something that speaks to the character of the Ranch.” To that end, the project is expanding their lineup of wines based around what the vineyard has shown them thus far, from 3 different bottlings to 8. While this may initially present challenges from a sales standpoint, their motivations are solely quality-driven. “It’s not diluted in moving from 3 wines to 8; it’s the opposite, it’s listening to the vineyard and fine tuning our style,” emphasizes Deovlet. “We’re making great strides in learning to understand the property, and how distinct it is.”
For such a young property, Refugio Ranch has made incredible leaps in quality very quickly, due in no small part to the passionate team in place. “The Ranch, generally speaking, has been a beautifully organic evolution to learn, block by block, how to approach viticulture from a very individualistic approach, and the same in the cellar,” says Deovlet. “I think that process has kept us in tune and taught us to listen to the wine. The ultimate question is, stylistically, are we doing justice to this property? They’re coming out of the gate delivering pleasure, and I think and hope they’re going to age as well.” Their current lineup indicates that they are indeed listening intently to the voice of this place, and I expect it to become ever more clear and distinct in the coming years.
“All of these wines are grown for the table.” With this one sentence Karen Steinwachs sums up the philosophical core of Buttonwood. A working farm as well as vineyard and winery, Buttonwood is centered on the idea that wine’s ultimate purpose is to shine at table, where it can spark conversation and communion with friends and family. I spoke with Karen this week about her farming and winemaking approach, as well as the unique environment that is Buttonwood Farm.
After years in the high-tech world, Steinwachs decided to leave the rat race and pursue a long-held dream of working in the wine industry. An ardent fan of Santa Barbara County wines, she managed to secure a gig at Lincourt in the fall of 2001, working her way up from the bottom as a cellar rat. “I kept talking to the winemaker about ways that the winery could be more efficient, because once you’ve been in management as long as I have been, it’s hard to drop that attitude.” A great student, she quickly worked her way up the ranks of such notable wineries as Foley and Fiddlehead. When the opportunity to take over as winemaker at Buttonwood arose in 2007, she jumped at the chance.
“I was very familiar with Buttonwood from attending their many events. I loved the concept of it being a farm as well as a vineyard.” Aware of the fact that she was stepping into a winery with a style people were familiar with, she approached her first vintage with the goal of learning about the character of the fruit, vinifying every lot separately to gain knowledge about the site character. Through this meticulous approach, she was able to see the strengths and needs of the vineyard, and has gradually brought her own style to the wines to accentuate the site’s best characteristics. “There have been changes since I took over. The wines are now a little more approachable while still being age-worthy. We work a lot on tannin management, because I want to be able to enjoy the wines while I’m still alive. We’ve also worked on bringing more freshness to the whites.”
There is no recipe here; rather, the vagaries of the vintage are allowed to shine and adapted to. “We approach every single wine differently and adjust from year to year as we fine tune the needs of each wine. I grow 10 different grape varieties here, and we’ve sought to make the wines more distinct from each other and really give them their own voice.” This experimentation and exploration extends to the vineyard, where new grape varieties have been planted in the name of making more complete wines. “We’ve grafted some of our Merlot to Malbec and plan to plant some more. And on the white side, we’ve grafted quite a bit of Grenache Blanc, which grows beautifully here. I see it becoming a signature grape of the Los Olivos District AVA.”
The soils at Buttonwood are mostly Santa Ynez series, part of the uniform Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series that defines the Los Olivos District, though there is some diatomaceous earth, serpentine and sand in pockets. They also sit on the aquifer that is common throughout the AVA. “We have a very big aquifer here, and a lot of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley are in this part of the valley. There are also a lot of own-rooted vines, and the roots here go incredibly deep.” Much like Fred Brander, the architect of the Los Olivos District, Steinwachs feels the area is still defining itself, but has all the makings of a great AVA. “It’s going to be a tough area to define because it truly is different than the other AVAs here. Our defining factor is that our soils are totally uniform, unlike Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon. I always get a minerality, which is a word that can be hard to define, but there is a rocky quality in our site that I find throughout the AVA. The wines also tend to have great acidity, in part due to the big temperature shifts from day to night we have here.”
Like many vineyards in the area, Buttonwood excels with several different Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. However, Steinwachs sees two standouts in her work there thus far. “I have to credit Chris Burroughs for the tagline ‘Blanc and Franc.’ Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have been here since the beginning and grow beautifully.” Even in cool years like 2010 or 2011, the Cabernet Franc here (as with all of their Bordeaux varieties) isn’t green or vegetal; rather, there is earth, cigar box, and raspberry fruit, with only a hint of pyrazine, an unmistakably Californian expression of the grape that has the balance and presence of great Bourgueil. “Cabernet Franc is a fussy little diva, it’s like Pinot Noir. You have to grow it perfectly or it throws a tantrum, you have to baby it in the cellar, but it makes great wines. We do focus on leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard to avoid that green character, but generally we don’t find that bell pepper character from this site.”
The farming at Buttonwood is some of the most thoughtful in the Valley. While it incorporates elements of organics and biodynamics, it is most reminiscent to me of Japanese iconoclast Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy, adapting to the natural needs and environment of the site. “We say that we’re farming ‘biologically.’ We don’t use any synthetic herbicides or insecticides,” says Steinwachs. “Our theory is that if we keep the plants healthy and maintain a diverse environment, they’ll protect themselves. Philosophically, we’ve really got our own way of farming, which is organically minded, self-contained, and focusing intensely on what nutrients the soil may need. We’re constantly testing the soil to see how we can address the needs of our plants.” As her friend and fellow winemaker Nick De Luca (a proponent of Fukuoka-inspired farming) says, “terroir is an unplanted field,” and in this sense, the farming at Buttonwood seems geared towards capturing the essence of the land as accurately and naturally as possible.
Buttonwood Vineyard and Farm looks and feels very much like old school California. Yet it also points the way to what the vineyard of California’s future will likely look like: wider spacing to address our growing water issues; cover crops growing wild; polyculture, with fruits and vegetables growing alongside grapes; in essence, a self-contained ecosystem where the farming adapts to the needs of the place rather than dogmatically following a prescribed set of rules. “It’s not about me as a winemaker,” says Steinwachs. “We farm for deliciousness, whether that’s tomatoes or wine. We love the fact that people are coming back to the table. It’s not just the eating and drinking, it’s the communal aspect of people getting together. And that’s what Buttonwood is about.”
A good wine captures its vineyard. A great wine captures its vineyard AND the personality of its winemaker. When I think of the wines that have inspired me- Didier Dagueneau’s various expressions of Pouilly-Fumé, Soldera’s Brunello, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bob Travers at Mayacamas- I think of them not only as the essence of the place they grow, but as an encapsulation of their creators. To that list I would add Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace. She puts her heart and soul into every bottle, and one can sense her presence in the glass, a feminine, ethereal, joyful rendering of site and self. I spoke with her this week about her new spring release and the character that makes these wines so distinctive.
Cynicism is impossible around Angela Osborne. She radiates such positive energy that even when she discusses the more esoteric aspects of her winemaking philosophy or her views on farming, there is such genuine belief and lack of artifice that one can’t help but be compelled. Take the hummingbirds that grace the corks of her current vintage. “The Chumash believe the hummingbird represents the grandmother energy, and both of my grandmothers became angels last year, so now they watch over all the bottles of Grace,” says Osborne. “There were 13,776 hummingbirds that came into the world this vintage, which was really powerful for me.” It is these little details- imbuing something as mundane as a cork with so much love- that make her wines stand out.
This detail-oriented approach extends to the winemaking. Her varied experiments in the cellar are some of the most thought-out and intriguing I have seen. Techniques that may have worked in past vintages will be altered or abandoned completely if the current vintage or a burst of inspiration calls for it. Her new release is a great example of this, in particular her Grenache rosé. Angela’s 2013 is a wildly different take than her 2012. The ’12 came from Coghlan Vineyard on the western fringe of Happy Canyon, was aged in large neutral oak puncheons, and went through full malolactic fermentation, making for a rosé with heft and richness. The ’13? “The 2013 spent 24 hours on the skins, and then fermented cold in stainless, aged entirely in stainless, no ML. It’s also from the Highlands this year. Bottled on my birthday, March 3rd.” Despite the critical acclaim she received for her previous rosé, she felt the need to do a total 180 and explore a new winemaking approach. “I really liked the ’12, it was really soft and approachable, but I wanted to experiment this year with something a little higher acid, especially working with the Highlands. It feels like it’s got lighter feet, a bit more playful, which suits me at the moment.”
The Highlands that she speaks of is the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. It is a site so perfectly suited to Osborne’s style, and her chosen medium of Grenache, that it’s difficult to imagine her without the Highlands and vice versa. Located on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County, in Ventucopa, this lunar-looking site is one of the most unique in California. “It doesn’t really feel of this world. It’s very moon like. Kind of silences you a bit,” says Osborne. At 3200 feet elevation, and subject to an extreme continental climate, it is separated into two sections: the valley floor and the Mesa. Angela’s single vineyard Grenache has typically been a mix of both, but with 2012, she has shifted to utilizing entirely Mesa fruit, with the valley floor being used for rosé and her Santa Barbara County blend. While the valley floor is very sandy, the soils of the mesa are loamier, and, more importantly, laced with igneous rocks- basalt, quartz, gneiss, and granite- making for soil conditions that are singular within Santa Barbara County.
“The ’12 has an entirely different tannic structure. This is the first year I’ve bottled the Mesa by itself, and there’s much more strength there. It’s 50% whole cluster, whereas my valley floor blocks are all destemmed,” says Osborne. Her Grenache from the Highlands has always been noted for its delicate nature and elegant texture, though she doesn’t worry about losing this with the addition of whole cluster; rather, she is seeking more structure, with the hope of giving the wines the ability to age like the great Chateauneufs, particularly Chateau Rayas, which she admires. “I’ve yet to come to a point where the whole cluster becomes too much. I hope it will give longevity, in a different way energetically than acid, but hopefully with the same ability to age. I don’t want it to be overt, but I love the spice of Grenache, and I feel a lot of that comes from whole cluster.” She also chooses to make the stylistic separation in the cellar between her varying lots of whole cluster or destemmed fruit in typically creative fashion. “I always separate the fermentations into whole cluster, layered, destemmed, and whole cluster and destemmed,” says Osborne. “I label my barrels as sun and moon, because I feel the moon energy is represented by the whole cluster, and the sun is the fruit. So each barrel lists percentages of sun and moon.”
The future for A Tribute to Grace is wide open. The Osborne clan is hoping to eventually split their time between Santa Barbara County and Angela’s home country, New Zealand, working two harvests a year, having a small patch of land to call their own, and raising a family. It’s a goal that, like the wines of A Tribute to Grace, is beautiful and true.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner Vineyard are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
Starting a winery in the New World, especially California, can be a daunting financial prospect. Unless one is already wealthy from another career, making even 100 cases of wines can be an economic challenge. And if you’re a young cellar rat on a tight budget, it takes real perseverance, scrounging every available penny to pursue your dream. Rick Hill is a winemaker who did just that. A New Zealand native, Hill took a circuitous route to achieve his goals. “In the early ‘80s in New Zealand, there really wasn’t an opportunity to find a career path in wine. It was all small mom and pop operations that couldn’t afford employees, and I figured I needed a way to make money to create a path for my interests in winemaking,” says Hill. “So, I actually ended up in the milk and fruit juice industries, which I had a background in, and traveled the world doing that and building up capital.”
Through his travels Hill came upon an internship opportunity with Simi Winery in Napa in 1997. Hearing of his love for Pinot, the crew there suggested he head down to Santa Barbara County instead, where he landed a gig at the renowned Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) as a cellar rat. “My job would be anything from picking up pizzas at 4 in the morning to doing 4 punchdowns a day at a winemaker’s whim, and by ingratiating myself to them they gave me a lot of trust. Many young winemakers feel the need to jump around every year, work a vintage in Tuscany, then Argentina, etc., but when the harvest ended, I felt I’d really found my own little niche here and wanted to stay.” Though still splitting his time between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, he committed to returning each year to CCWS to work harvest.
Rick’s fourth vintage in the area (2000) saw a fortuitous event that would forever alter his winemaking path. One of CCWS’s main clients, Lane Tanner, injured her knee and needed a full time assistant. “She said, ‘look, I don’t have a lot of money to offer you, but if you work exclusively for me, I will give you two tons of any grapes that I have sources from,’ and I thought, ‘perfect.’” Those two tons, which would come from the venerable Bien Nacido Vineyard, were the birth of the Labyrinth label. This was also the beginning of a relationship that would blossom from a close friendship into a romance. In 2004, after dating for a few years, Rick and Lane decided to marry, turning Hill into a full time Central Coast resident. “My plan was a 2 year transition; hers was immediately, so I moved within 6 months to the U.S. full time.”
Hill’s approach in the cellar and resultant wines speak to a love of Burgundy. Elegant, with an emphasis on spice and structure over fruit, they are the essence of great California Pinot Noir. “Essentially, for anyone growing up in New Zealand, we didn’t have much in the way of local wine or other New World wine available, so European wines were the benchmark, and for me in particular it was about Burgundy,” says Hill. “Those early years of drinking Old World wines that shunned high alcohol and lots of new oak really laid the foundation for my winemaking philosophy.” Hill utilizes a variable approach in his assessment of when to pick, relying on numbers, flavors, and instinct honed over years. “You’re looking for that point in time when there’s no herbaceous flavor in Pinot, particularly if you’re doing whole-cluster.” He finds the ideal flavor profile in the fruit when picking to be along the line of cranberry or pomegranate with a hint of black cherry. “I want to avoid those darker flavors, the blackberry and prune. That’s just Shiraz in drag.”
Hill’s sister label, Haka (a Maori war cry, honoring his Maori heritage and connoting power or boldness), was born out of the economic turmoil caused by the recession. As with his winemaking approach, he is very forthcoming about the economic realities and challenges of being a small producer. “When the economy tanked, from 2007 to 2011, people stopped buying most of those high end Pinots. I didn’t want to destroy the Labyrinth brand by discounting, because people have long memories when it comes to pricing, so I founded Haka as a way to bring value-driven wines, as well as a different varietal focus, into the marketplace.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and through his Haka label he has found a new niche through his exploration of Tempranillo. “I’ve been passionate about Tempranillo since the New Zealand days when the early imports first came into the country. You can pick it early and get those nice sinewy tannins and dried cherry, you can pick it late and get more of the black licorice and coffee grounds; for Haka, it’s really my benchmark wine.” He has explored, and is still exploring, numerous interpretations of the grape, picking at different ripeness levels, utilizing both French and American oak, and working with sites in warm-climate Paso Robles and cooler sites in Los Alamos. His ‘12s and ‘13s out of barrel are some of the most exciting expressions of the grape I’ve yet tried from our state, matching the power and minerality of Toro with a uniquely Californian presence of fruit.
After a brief hiatus, the Labyrinth label bounced back in a big way with the 2012 and 2013 harvests. Working with new vineyard sources in Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, there’s renewed vigor in Hill’s Pinot program. While the Haka label has allowed him to work with more powerful grape varieties and a slightly riper style of winemaking, his Labyrinth Pinots are still classically balanced, site-driven, and filled with notes of earth and spice. He also chooses to work with only one cooper, Alain Fouquet, for his Pinots, a decision he believes helps communicate the differences between sites more clearly. “If I start utilizing different coopers, it’s like ‘where is that change coming from? Is it the site, is it the picking, is it the oak?’ I really want those vineyard differences to be apparent, and for my style to stay consistent, which is why I stick with one cooper.” Lovers of California Pinot with a Burgundian sensibility should keep an eye out for the release of his 2012s later in the year.
There is an intuitive nature to Hill’s winemaking that can be tasted and felt throughout his entire program. It is an approach he describes as “habitual practices but no fixed rules.” While there is a desire for consistency of quality and a certain sense of style, the vagaries of vintage are adapted to and allowed to speak, making for wines that beautifully marry time and place with a sense of self. In these wines one tastes the ebullience of a young cellar rat from New Zealand, whose desire to express himself through wine has only grown with time.
Great wine starts with a great story. A vineyard tells us a story through its soil and its climate; the farmer frames this story with agricultural tradition and the stewardship of the land; and the winemaker captures both of these stories, along with their own imprint of self and style. This past Thursday we held a special event at the Café called Under the Influencethat sought to give four local winemakers the opportunity to tell their stories and the stories of the wines that have inspired them. It was a night that exceeded my greatest expectations.
South African native Ernst Storm began the evening by pouring his 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc alongside Ashbourne’s 2008 “Sandstone,” a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon grown in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The latter wine was crafted by Storm’s brother Hannes, whose wines under the Ashbourne and Hamilton Russell labels are some of the most acclaimed in South Africa. While one could see a certain similarity between the two, the overall contrast was striking. Storm’s youthful Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the extremely sandy soils and cool climate of Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile site, was bright and fresh, with its pyrazine notes of grass and jalapeño accented by guava, gooseberry, and a really unique hint of oak. As it turns out, that noticeable oak accent comes from the use of acacia barrels, which also provide a distinctive textural presence to the wine. The Ashbourne, on the other hand, 4 years older, was already developing some tertiary nuances, with notes of lanolin, beeswax, and bruised apple starting to appear. Nevertheless, the varietal character was unmistakable, possessing a similar herbaceous character as the Storm, joined to wet-stone minerality (sandstone soils here) and a more voluptuous texture. The most fascinating thing for me about tasting these side by side was to see the shared family passion from these two brothers, and the level of commitment they both bring to their different projects. While the winemaking details may be different, they are united in their desire to express site as clearly as possible.
Our next course saw the team from Liquid Farm sharing their 2012 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay next to Francois Carillon’s 2011 Puligny-Montrachet. Liquid Farm’s goal from the outset has been to create a domestic interpretation of the wines they had fallen in love with from Burgundy, so their choice came as no surprise. The differences between the two wines were, as with the first course, quite vast. The Francois Carillon, despite a splash decant, was still a bit reduced, showing a fairly high amount of SO2 on the nose. I have found this character in quite a few 2011 white Burgundies, which may be in response to all of the premox issues that have plagued the region over the past decade. Overall, though, Carillon’s Puligny was incredibly precise and soil-driven, with an intense mineral presence. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the “Golden Slope” bottling still came across with admirable restraint and balance against one of Burgundy’s benchmark producers. The fruit and textural power of the wine were unmistakably California, traits I believe should be celebrated, and the minerality of the Sta. Rita Hills in all of its saline glory was an intriguing contrast to the limestone origins of the Carillon. Paired with Barramundi and Manila clams, both wines were delights to ponder and savor.
Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe chose to honor our local pioneers for the third course. The Pinot Noir from his estate has become a modern benchmark in American wine, with examples from his own label as well as those purchasing his fruit achieving great recognition. He poured a 2006 Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir next to the 2010 Clos Pepe Estate, and spoke of Rick Longoria’s influence on his own path as a farmer and winemaker. He also honored two other local innovators, Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. It is sometimes easy to overlook the originators in favor of the hot new thing, but these three men are still crafting some of the most site-driven, balanced wines in Santa Barbara County, so it was beautiful to see Wes, who himself is a bridge between the first generation and our current new crop of young winemakers, honor this trio. The wines shown wonderfully, with the power and richness of the heat-spike-affected 2010 Clos Pepe contrasting nicely to the more developed, earthy Fe Ciega bottling.
While all of the wines on the night were complex and worked beautifully at table, the final course was perhaps the highlight for me: The 2010 Luminesce Syrah from Thompson Vineyard next to Domaine du Coulet’s 2010 Cornas ‘Brise Cailloux.’ Thompson Vineyard is one of the great sites of Santa Barbara County. Tucked back into Los Alamos Valley’s Alisos Canyon, the Syrahs from here are legendary, with a structure and precision rarely found outside of the Northern Rhone. Luminesce’s rendition leans toward the Old World in its balance and approach: just 13.4% alcohol, it was fermented with around 30% whole clusters and aged in puncheons. The wine showed amazingly well, with white pepper, gravel, smoked meat, and blueberry on the nose, along with a poised, beautifully structured palate. The overall balance in this wine could easily stand head to head with the greats from Hermitage or Cornas, and on this night it did just that. Coulet’s Cornas is a personal favorite, and for me captures the essence of this tiny appellation. The 2010 did not disappoint, with aromatics of iron, kalamata olive, blood, and bacon leaping out of the glass. There was also a touch of Brettanomyces, which sparked an interesting discussion among the winemakers. Luminesce’s Kevin Law somewhat jokingly said that he liked a little “imported Brett,” i.e. bretty wines from the Old World, while others found the Coulet close to their threshold for tolerance. Personally, I thought it added to the wine, particularly texturally, and was a great example of how a flaw can actually enhance a wine’s beauty. With smoked New York steak and mushroom & spinach strudel, it was an incredible end to the night.
The evening was deeply moving both emotionally and intellectually. Giving these winemakers an opportunity to discuss their inspirations allowed us to see their joy and passion as tasters, and hear the stories behind their influences. It can be easy as professionals in the wine business to get bogged down in the minutiae of winemaking or French Appellation law. This evening was such a treat because it allowed all of us a return to the pure elation as imbibers that made us fall in love with wine in the first place.
Special thanks to Matthew Negrete for the wonderful photos
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.” Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills. Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock. However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him. These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else. This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.
The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific. As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall. In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California. “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen. “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.” Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions. The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.
The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam. Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay. The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils. This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power. Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in thesouthernhalf, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.” Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel. I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”
One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar. From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle. Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label. “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer. “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally. Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.” Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s. Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.
For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock. His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area. “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson. “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.” They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent. The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes. The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.
In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed. This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region. Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place. In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.
It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd. “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property. As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”. Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.
In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly. What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils. The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines. As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years. It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.
I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park. “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer. Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.
Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center). The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil. The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam. “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.” Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.
For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side. I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.” This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character. There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis. Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.
Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country. As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring. “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension. I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.” Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”
Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with. Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres. Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin. To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging. Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development. His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.
Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres. His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics. While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.
“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.” This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label. Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid. DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’. His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property. The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard. And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property. Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes. “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages. I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.” Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.
Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline. Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases. However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make. Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.
What spurs our obscure obsessions as wine lovers? How does a grape like Melon de Bourgogne or Carignan capture our attention through the sea of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon? What drives a vineyard owner to plant Blaufrankisch in the middle of Los Olivos, or a winemaker to devote fanatical attention to a grape like Picpoul? Much like falling in love with another human being, falling in love with a grape often has an intangible, probably chemical, element that can be difficult to articulate. To delve further into one of my own obsessions, Semillon, I spoke to my favorite producer of the grape in Santa Barbara County.
Kevin Law is a soft-spoken winemaker who bucks the trend of modern winemaking promotion. He spends no time on Facebook or Twitter, and rather than talk up his achievements, he is constantly pushing himself to do better, never satisfied, knowing he can create something with even greater intensity and site expression, that he can dial in the next vintage just slightly more. To provide full disclosure, Kevin has been a good friend of mine since we worked a harvest together 6 years ago, and I’m always stunned that someone who is crafting such beautiful wines isn’t content or resting on his laurels. I sat down and spoke with Kevin this past week about his Semillon program under the Luceant and Luminesce labels (the name changed to Luceant with the 2012 harvest due to a trademark dispute with another winery), and how his obsessive love for this grape, and the best way to express it, drove him to craft one of the great white wines of Santa Barbara County.
Kevin’s love for Semillon originally began with a bottle that, thanks to Kevin, has also become one of my benchmarks for great California wine, Kalin. “Their Semillon was really the wine that made me fall in love with the grape. Bottle aged for usually around 10 years before release, it comes from vines planted in the 1800s in gravel, with cuttings from Yquem. It’s highly mineral yet rich, and still youthful at 15 or 20 years of age.” It is this ability to age that is part of what makes Semillon so special. To taste an aged bottle of Yquem’s Ygrec, or some of the top bottlings from Hunter Valley like Tyrrell’s Vat 1, is an unparalleled drinking experience. “Due to its chemistry and phenolic structure, Semillon makes for very long lived wines, more along the lines of Marsanne or Roussanne in their aging trajectory.”
For his own Semillon, Kevin’s search took him to Buttonwood Vineyard in the heart of Santa Ynez. “Buttonwood attracted me because of the vine age, which is rare for this area period, but to have 35-year-old Semillon in particular is pretty special,” says Law. “It sits on a gravelly mesa and the climate is just about perfect.” To channel the purity of this site, Kevin relies on winemaking that is both minimal and very thoughtful in its approach. “Since the initial vintage I’ve started utilizing more stainless steel to preserve its bright minerality and freshness. I’m still not hitting the wine with any sulfur until April or May. The wine undergoes whole berry fermentation on the skins for three or four days to emphasize texture and dryness, highlighting the minerality rather than the fruit. It is then basket pressed, and finishes primary in tank and neutral barrel.”
In an all too common tale for Semillon, Buttonwood grafted these blocks over to other grape varieties recently, and what little they have left will remain for their estate. This is the tragedy and difficulty of working with obscure varieties like these as a small producer; unless a farmer is madly in love with the grape, it’s just too tempting to plant something more commercially viable in its place. Kevin is now on the quest for a new Semillon site, and has some pretty specific criteria. “Old vines are a huge factor for me. Vineyards that are reminiscent of Bordeaux tend to be ideal- gravel with a little bit of alluvium, and moderately warm. Santa Ynez, particularly the middle to eastern part of the valley, is one of the perfect areas in California for Semillon. My goal is to continue to capture the true expression of 100% Semillon, and show how great this variety can be. And if no one likes it I’ll drink it all myself.” Now THAT is what I call obsession.
Today we are offering Kevin’s 2011 Semillon. It is one of the most profound wines I’ve had from our area, and if you are a fan of mineral, balanced, age-worthy white wines, I highly suggest you grab a couple- one for today, and one for the cellar. I have no doubt that this will be a 10 year, if not 20 year, wine. If nothing else, I hope people taste the beauty in this bottle and start requesting more wines like it; maybe we’ll finally see a few new Semillon plantings!
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.
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