Ballard is Born: Feds Recognize Canyon as Unique Winegrowing Area

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey,
(Story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 5, 2013)

Two years ago, a small group of Santa Barbara County vintners petitioned the U.S. government to give Ballard Canyon special recognition.   The unique soil and weather conditions within this 7800-acre Santa Ynez Valley zone, they argued, breeds wine grapes unlike any other region.  And last month, the feds agreed, establishing Ballard Canyon as the county’s fifth American Viticultural Area, or AVA.

“This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us,” says vintner Michael Larner, president of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers’ Alliance, which drove this effort.  “The creation of Ballard as a new designated area not only brings notoriety but also interest to our region for the grapes we grow.”

Michael Larner
“Having a new AVA allows us to better tell the Santa Barbara County story,” adds Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association.  “It’s more proof that there’s a lot of diversity throughout our region.”

The Ballard Canyon AVA joins four other grape growing areas already recognized by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for their special grape growing potential: Santa Maria Valley (established in 1981), the Santa Ynez Valley (1983), Sta. Rita Hills (2001) and Happy Canyon (2009).

The designation, which went into effect October 30th, allows wine producers to identify Ballard Canyon specifically, right on their labels, as opposed to using broader growing region designations like Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County or Central Coast.  The more focused description, say winemakers, denotes pedigree of wine grapes and allows consumers to make more informed wine buying choices.

“This is a huge jolt of energy right when we needed it,” says vintner Wes Hagen, who was hired to gather data and draft the language for the Ballard Canyon petition; the Clos Pepe Vineyards winemaker had already successfully petitioned the U.S. government to give the Happy Canyon AVA (known for warm-weather Bordeaux grapes like cabernet sauvignon) and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA (acclaimed for cool-weather Burgundian grapes like pinot noir) the green light.  Wine consumers can now see... Ballard Canyon as a place where Rhone varietals, especially syrah, shine like no other mesoclimate in California.” 

The new Ballard Canyon AVA is home to 16 well-known vineyards, including Rusack, Larner, Jonata, Stolpman and Tierra Alta.  Syrah, at 274 acres, is its most significant planting.  But nearly two dozen other wine grapes, including reds like grenache and sangiovese and whites like viognier and rousanne, thrive here, too.

The area’s unique knack for producing quality wine stems from its topography, its soils and its climate.

Steve Gerbac, left, of Rusack Vineyards
“The Santa Ynez Valley runs east-west, predominantly, while our small canyon runs mostly north-south, which moderates temperature while still allowing a lot of air flow,” says Steve Gerbac, winemaker at Rusack Vineyards, who helped draw the original boundaries of what would become the Ballard Canyon AVA.  “We’re not as hot as Happy Canyon and not as cold as Sta. Rita Hills, so we have the best of both worlds.”

Rusack, which is owned by Geoff and Alison Rusack, overhauled most of its estate plantings in 2001 to include mostly syrah.  Mr. Gerbac credits this strategic move to Larry Finkle and Ruben Solorzano at Coastal Vineyard Care with “the foresight to plant syrah in this canyon.”  Rusack now plans to include the Ballard Canyon nomenclature on the labels of its smaller-production wines.

Mr. Larner also tips his hats to his original vineyard manager, Jeff Newton, who did “a ton of research to realize that other grapes did not do exceptionally well here, as opposed to syrah.”  The Larners planted a quarter of their 134-acre ranch in 1999 to include 11 two-acre blocks of syrah, based on clone and rootstock.  “We wanted to maximize the expression of syrah within a single vineyard,” says Mr. Larner, “so you get multiple flavors and aromatics from one location.”

Larner Vineyard
He attributes those taste and smell nuances to Ballard Canyon’s sandy, loamy soils.  “And then there’s the underlayment, the limestone and chalk that exists about three to four feet below the surface,” he adds.  “That controls how water is shed and helps yield balance.”

If a growing area imparts typicity to a wine, then Ballard Canyon gives the syrahs it produces “beautiful, stone-like minerality,” says Mr. Larner.  “And we get the gamut of spices.  We can go from bacon fat and pepperiness if we harvest early to more menthol and more spiced yam characteristics if we do a later pick.  But the bottom line is that the fruit supersedes our need to overwork it, and that speaks volumes about the land.”

Today, Mr. Larner sells 85% of his grapes to 22 area clients, though he keeps enough to make his own 1000 cases annually of seven estate wines, including two syrahs, under the Larner Vineyard and Winery label.

The new Ballard Canyon AVA designation coincides with Santa Barbara County’s 2013 wine grape harvest, a crush so good, Mr. Hagen predicts it “will be remembered and celebrated for decades.”  For the men and women of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers’ Alliance, Mr. Larner says, the landmark recognition “makes this a vintage we will never forget.”

Smoking Wheels: Georgia’s Smokehouse Turns Engine on Second Truck

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 12, 2013)

Alissa and Brian Parks are betting that eight wheels are better than four.

The couple driving what may be Santa Barbara’s most successful food truck – Georgia’s Smokehouse – has just expanded their fleet.  As of last Thursday, two trucks, not just one, now canvas the streets of the South Coast and the Santa Ynez Valley.  But they’re delivering the same thing: really good barbecue.

“The trucks are fraternal twins,” jests Mrs. Parks, 33, who’s taken the driver’s seat on the original truck.

Her husband, who gained local acclaim when he helmed the gourmet kitchen at the upscale Canary Hotel before the couple turned the engines on Georgia’s Smokehouse in March, is behind the wheel of their brand new vehicle.  “He can parallel that thing like a Civic,” brags his wife.  And he agrees with her playful family reference.  “They’re similar but, like children, they’re different on the inside,” he says.  “The newer truck has more storage space, so I can bring along bread for, say, 500 people.”

But the basic equipment inside the trucks – both were built by hand by an artisan mechanic in Montebello – is the same.  Three griddles, two basket fryers, an oven, a fridge.    The basics.  But enough to crank out BBQ-inspired food that’s garnered them a loyal following day in and day out.

“We can easily make 16 different stops each week,” says Mrs. Parks.  Regular rendezvous stops include Island Brewing Company in Carpinteria, Yardi Systems in Santa Barbara and Funk Zone hot spots like Carr Winery and Telegraph Brewing.  They also pull up to local high school football games (and post-game parties), weddings, corporate events, and grand opening and anniversary parties.  Family-style drop-offs have become popular, too.  “For kids’ birthday parties, for example, where they don’t require our service or cleanup, we just show up with pre-order meals, plates, napkins, silverware, and take off,” says Mrs. Parks.  Several local businesses have standing drop-off orders for their staff on a monthly basis.

The couple didn’t start off thinking they’d need two trucks to meet demand, but it didn’t take long.  “As new business owners, you take in as much business as you can get when you open your doors,” says Chef Parks, 40.  “But what happened within the first few weeks was that we had to turn away so many larger or public events than we wanted to do because we already had events on the books.”

The high-speed success of Georgia’s Smokehouse has much to do with brand personality.  The truck – with its black and red fa├žade and, most notably, the bubbly, pony-tailed, jean-clad gal that seems to beckon every time you drive by – is tough to ignore.   “It’s nice to get honked at for a good reason,” laughs the chef. 

But what keeps customers coming back is, no doubt, the consistently good comfort food – a concise, varied, affordably priced menu featuring items that are well-seasoned and slow-cooked over oak, hickory and applewood.  The third-pound Burger, for example, comes with whiskey-caramelized onions and herb-roasted tomatoes, with add-on options   that range from fried-egg to bacon.  The Brisket Sandwich, smoked for 12 hours and set to rest overnight, is rubbed with homespun spices and topped with the chef’s private BBQ sauce.  And the Pulled Pork Sammy is topped with a proprietary slaw of green cabbage, Granny Smith apples and an apple cider vinegar-oregano dressing.  There are vegetarian options, too.

“Alissa and I run the trucks like it’s a brick-and-mortar on wheels, because that’s all we know,” says Mr. Parks.  “And our staff knows everything, from every ingredient to the names of the regulars who come to our stops.”  Georgia’s Smokehouse employs a staff of 10, and growing.

“And it’s a lot about the feedback,” adds his wife of 18 months.  “We’ve learned so much from reading reviews and taking people’s feedback.”

All that feedback has become increasingly easier to gauge as Georgia’s Smokehouse presence on the streets has become bolstered by its active interactions on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.  “Our business is sort of disconnected, but also really close,” says Mrs. Parks.  “If there was ever a business that needs social media, it’s a food tuck.”

Or two.

Georgia’s Smokehouse is now gearing up for holiday parties; for inquiries, and for an updated schedule of upcoming stops, click here.  

By Marines, For Marines: Local Wine Project Benefits American Heroes

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 7, 2013)

Adam Firestone admits that “jarhead” is a double-edged term.  “It’s a complicated name, because it’s pejorative on the one hand,” the well-known Central Coast vintner and brewer says.  But because it’s also used as a friendly nickname among U.S. Marines, “it’s also a term of endearment.”

So, he had no qualms about using “Jarhead” to title a wine project that’s personal in more ways than one.

Adam Firestone’s claim to fame today is clearly in the role his plays in the family businesses.  Firestone Winery, which the Firestones founded but sold to mogul Bill Foley a few years ago, and Curtis Winery, which the family continues to run, have always been popular brands.  And Firestone-Walker Brewing Company, which Adam Firestone founded with brother-in-law David Walker, has a steadfast following around the globe.  But Firestone, 51, preceded his entrepreneurial efforts with a spell as an American Marine, joining in 1984 and becoming promoted to Captain in 1988, ahead of his deployment to the Persian Gulf.

His service ended in 1991, but the Marines would come calling again about a decade later, when his former recruiter asked for a donation of wine for a Marine Corps fundraiser.  Firestone agreed, and he bottled wine that was already aging in barrel at the winery while his wife, Kate, helped design a label that they’d affectionately call “Jarhead.”  The 20 cases of donated wine were a huge hit.  So much so, that “the Marines walked away from the event with the empty bottles,” Firestone says. 

That speedy success would lead to a line of wines that is now going on its 12th vintage.  The drive to keep the Jarhead project going stemmed from the very group it supports: the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides education assistance to children of Marines, with special emphasis on families of fallen Marines.  “In the charity world, there are a lot of transitory causes,” says Firestone.  “But I wanted to back something that, at its core, was really pure and where the whole thing was completely authentic.  I had really studied these guys – they started in 1962, they’re really lean and all dollars go to the target.  And the fact it’s education-based – that funding is for a specific purpose – it sets a continuum.”

Firestone runs Jarhead with fellow former Marine Ruben Dominguez, a Texas native who served five years and who started his wine industry career at Firestone Vineyard in the mid-90s; today, he’s the lead foreman for grape maintenance experts, Coastal Vineyard Care.  The wines, themselves, are made by Ernst Storm and Chuck Carlson, the winemaking team at Curtis Winery.   And the fruit comes mainly from vineyards owned by the Firestones, including Curtis, Kingsley, Rocky Hollow and the portion of the original Firestone Vineyard that they still own.

The current releases include the zesty 2012 Jarhead Chardonnay ($15), the supple 2010 Jarhead Red ($15), a blend of Rhone and Bordeaux grapes, and the concentrated 2010 Jarhead Reserve ($24), a limited-edition bottling of primarily cabernet franc.

The wines are fruit-forward and approachable by design.  “We didn’t want to go hot or too lightweight,” Firestone says.  “We want them to shoot right through the middle of the target.”

Adam's son, Nick Firestone, 25, right, strapped into a Chinook CH-46
This project is personal for Firestone, no doubt, but at a level that’s deeper still.  “We’re three generations into this now,” he says.  His father-in-law, it turns out, was a Marine, too; Montecito resident Harry Colmery was a pilot during World War II and the Korean War, and  part of the Greatest Generation.  And now Firestone’s oldest son, Nick, is readying for his own second deployment as a Marine next month; the 25-year-old artillery officer, who’s been back six months from a tour in the South Pacific, is headed for Afghanistan for at least a year.  “Their deployment schedule these days is ferocious, so his mom’s not real happy,” Firestone admits.  “For me, it’s half excitement and anticipation, and the other side is parental nerves.  But I understand the tradition.”

Jarhead is not alone in the battlefield that is the marketplace, as a handful of other recent California wine projects also salute America’s armed forces. 

Saarloos & Sons, a family-run operation based in Los Olivos, produces a blend in honor of a late family member, Sergeant John Saarloos, who died in June of 1944 on a European tour during World War II.  The wine, an estate-grown cabernet sauvignon, is dubbed “Courage.”  The 2009 edition, which was bottled last year and recently released, retails for $50, with the 1.5-liter magnum bottle discounted to $75.

And Sonoma County-based Murphy-Goode Winery introduced its Hometown Red earlier this year.  Sales of the red blend of syrah, merlot, petite sirah and zinfandel – a remarkable value at $15 – benefit Operation Homefront, a national non-profit that provides programs like food assistance, eye care and moving help for veterans, their wives and their families.  Murphy-Goode, a part of Jackson Family Wines, aims to raise $300,000 for the charity.

As for Jarhead, net proceeds from wine sales have led to donations that surpass half a million dollars, according to Firestone.  More funds have been raised through annual auctions.  “This is true grassroots,” he adds, “from out of the jungles of Vietnam and the muds of the Santa Ynez Valley.”

Jarhead wines sell through a membership club (which ships out twice a year, around Veteran’s Day and around Memorial Day), a special display at Curtis Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley and online here.