Happy Canyon Vineyards Get AVA

Eastern corner of Santa Barbara wine country has no tasting rooms, few vines, but distinct terroir

by Jane Firstenfeld
Star Lane Vineyards Happy Canyon AVA
Star Lane Vineyards is tucked into the foothills of the San Rafael Range, with steep blocks on slopes of 6% to 24%.

Santa Ynez, Calif. -- Why bother to establish an American Viticultural Area in a remote, little-known corner of an established, respected appellation, where less than 500 of 23,941 acres are planted to grapes, where there are no tasting rooms, and the neighbors don’t want any? Because, say the people who grow grapes and make wines in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County, their new AVA has a distinct terroir, where microclimate and soils allow them to produce high-quality wines from Bordeaux varieties that don’t thrive in the western reaches of the county’s Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.

On Oct. 8, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced that it has established the new AVA; the rule is effective Nov. 9. Happy Canyon is a sub-appellation within the Santa Ynez Valley viticultural area and the vast, multi-county Central Coast AVA.

In contrast to other sub-appellations the TTB has considered in recent years (notably Calistoga, still bitterly contested in Napa Valley and the withdrawn proposal for multiple sub-appellations in Paso Robles), Happy Canyon’s application enjoyed a smooth approval process, with nary an objection on the TTB website.

Happy Canyon’s U.S. representative, Elton Gallegly of California’s 24th district, endorsed the proposal, writing that approval would benefit consumers and vineyard owners.

According to the application submitted by Wes Hagen, vineyard manager and winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards in Lompoc (and not in Happy Canyon), just 492 acres in six vineyards are devoted to commercial viticulture. The AVA contains deep canyons and ridgelines of 1,200 to 1,800 feet interspersed with rolling hills. It averages 3,340 growing degree-days yearly. Elevations range from 500 feet in the southwest corner to 3,430 in the northeast corner in the foothills of the San Rafael Range.

Growers are especially fond of their soils, which include green serpentine parent material, rich in magnesium. Roger Higgins, co-owner of Cimarone Wines and Three Creek Vineyard, farms his 26- acre Happy Canyon spread organically and produces about 3,500 cases of wine annually, most of it Bordeaux-style blends and varietals.

He said the impetus behind the petition was “to sell more wine,” and said the request was granted “because it’s really a distinct microclimate, with different soils” than the rest of the county. “The big thing having an AVA does is add a whole lot of credibility to the fact that we can make really good Bordeaux-style wines here,” while Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills are justly famed for their Burgundian grapes.

Vogelzang Vineyards has a Santa Barbara address, but its growers farm 80 acres primarily of Bordelais varieties in the new AVA. Co-owner Mary Beth Vogelzang told Wines & Vines, “I’m not sure what (the new designation) is going to do for us,” but she concedes her operation is ratcheting up its current tiny production of less than 1,000 cases per year -- some of which are poured at restaurants including The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Bouchon in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Vogelzang is in the enviable position of having achieved a 94-point Wine Spectator rating for its 2008 Sauvignon Blanc: A mere 450 cases were produced, and though this year’s harvest is only about half complete, Vogelzang hoped to increase her 2009 Sauvignon Blanc vintage to some 700 cases. Although Happy Canyon is inland and warmer, its most-favored grapes are later ripening than those of the coastal zones, and the canyon is normally cooled at 4 p.m. by gentle westerly breezes.

She’d like to see more of her wines go directly into consumer hands, but said an on-site tasting room is not likely. The area, where Thoroughbred horse ranches formerly predominated, “does not want to see the public start rolling through.” Vogelzang hopes to install a tasting room in what she termed “the funk zone” of central Santa Barbara, where there are already a half-dozen wineries pouring within close walking distance on Anacapa Street.

Star Lane Vineyard has the largest producing acreage in Happy Canyon, with 235 acres planted to Bordeaux varieties. (Its sister company, Dierberg, has a similar acreage, mostly Burgundian varieties in Santa Rita and Santa Maria). Marketing manager Kurt Amman said, “Getting the AVA was very important for us. Most people don’t realize how diverse the climate and soils are in Santa Barbara County. This is another tool for us to educate consumers.”

In Happy Canyon, he pointed out, “The fog pulls out earlier, we get sun and heat earlier in the day, and it doesn’t cool down as quickly on the ridge-tops.” Star Lane’s vineyards are the warmest and highest elevation in the new AVA, backing up onto the San Rafael Mountains, and the vineyard slopes vary from 6% to 24%.

Star Lane is also the largest producer in the new sub-appellation, and it sells its 10,000 case production in 46 states and “seven or eight international markets,” Amman said.

He said a “pretty informal group” of growers and vintners will be meeting together soon, and there is a fledgling website at happycanyonava.com.

Currently no comments posted for this article.