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.”

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