Santa Barbara’s Happy Place for Bordeaux Varieties
Santa Barbara area grape growers nearly gave up on Bordeaux varieties planted here in the 1970s after they failed to ripen sufficiently to eliminate green flavors more vintages than not. There are exceptions, of course, and Jonata in Ballard Canyon proved there are warmer areas where Bordeaux varieties can do very well.
Santa Barbara’s hottest growing region, on the far eastern edge of Santa Ynez Valley, has also shown that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, can produce superlative results.
Some Cabernets and Bordeaux blends I’ve rated highly in the past year–93 points and higher–hail from this region. This includes Goodland Wines’ 2011 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red, and Star Lane’s 2007 Astral and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the works is the new Crown Point flagship wine, based on the 2013 vintage, being made by former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel. It is rumored to have a planned sales price in the $200 range. Our next stop then on our in-depth tour of Santa Barbara’s sub-AVAs is Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
This appellation sped along a fast track, going from vineyards first being planted in 1996 to approval by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), effective November 9, 2009. How did a fairly tiny area—with only about 500 total planted acres—accomplish this in barely 13 years?
It helps there are some very deep pockets amongst winery owners here. The group also enlisted the aid of Sta. Rita Hills’s successful TTB petition scribe—Wes Hagen. Foremost in its favor is the fact the area does have a real variety focus, and climate and soils that are readily distinguishable from those of their neighbors outside the appellation.
Bordeaux varieties planted here include Sauvignon Blanc, which has shown very good results. My favorites to date have been the 2012 Grassini Family (92+ points) and the 2012 Star Lane (91+ points). In addition, there are some acres of Rhone varieties here, primarily Syrah, but also Viognier, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
According to Wes Hagen, who extensively researched the area in compiling the petition for appellation status, the area’s name originated during the Prohibition era when it harbored the only still in Santa Barbara’s north county. According to an area realtor whose father told him what he’d heard from his own father, if you lived north of Santa Barbara and wanted some alcohol in those days, you had to “take a ride up Happy Canyon.”
The TTB initially objected to designating the area as Happy Canyon because there are 10 locations in a total of six states that have the same name, including a wine growing region in Oregon. The petitioners agreed to add “of Santa Barbara” to the name, figuring it would help not only identify the location for those outside the area but also link it to a region with growing cachet in the wine world.
The TTB, in its finding, indicated they were impressed with an unusual feature of the soils here, which is their Cation-Exchange Capacity (CEC). A cation is a positively charged ion (e.g., NH4+ or Ca2+). Since soil particles and organic matter have negative charges, minerals with positively charged ions can easily be asorbed by and stick with these soil particles. Soils in Happy Canyon, which have elevated levels of exchangeable magnesium, had CEC levels nearly three times those of Wes’s own vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.
Temperatures in Happy Canyon, due to north-south mountain ridges lying 12 miles east that block the Pacific coastal breezes, can run into the 90s during the summer, but are tempered by wind that typically arises at 4 pm, and low evening temperatures. Doug Margerum, who makes wine for Happy Canyon Vineyards and his own Margerum label, claims that what’s great and unusual about the combination of the varieties grown here and the climate is that “the grapes become physiologically mature and ripe before they get a tremendous amount of sugar.”
It should be noted that many of the landowners in this area have traditionally been in the thoroughbred horse raising business. These wealthy landowners and horse fanciers don’t appreciate tourists, so none of the wineries here—and there are only three brick and mortar wineries so far located in the appellation—are permitted to have tasting rooms.
The first vineyards planted here outside of a very small planting dating to the mid-1970s were the McGinley Vineyard, originally called Westerly, and Happy Canyon Vineyards, both started in 1996.
McGinley was planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Roussane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This vineyard is now owned by Roger Bower, a Texan who made millions producing fire-fighting foam. Bower also recently purchased the former Cimarone Vineyard here, renaming it Crown Point. The Westerly label is being used by Bower for wines both from Happy Canyon and the Sta. Rita Hills. Former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel is winemaker for both the Crown Point and Westerly labels.
Happy Canyon Vineyards is planted to Bordeaux varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc and some Cabernet Sauvignon plantings on their own roots. Doug Margerum serves as winemaker. The two top wines here are Brand and Ten-Goal, together with two other Bordeaux blends, Piocho and Chukker.
The next two major vineyards in the area, both planted beginning in 1998, are Star Lane and Vogelzgang.
Star Lane represents half the planted acreage in Happy Canyon, with about 250 acres of vines. It’s the furthest north and east of the area’s vineyards, and includes several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are planted at the top of the vineyard at an elevation of 1500 feet on a 25 degree slope. There are also multiple clones of Cabernet Franc and Merlot planted, along with about 25 acres of Sauvignon Blanc that start on the lowest part of the vineyard, just as you enter the gate. It is 2.4 miles from this gate to the northern tip of the vineyard, which is fortunate to have access to water from 42 springs on the property. I visited here about a year ago and was very impressed by the quality of the plantings, as well as the Cab Franc and Merlot I sampled from barrel.
Star Lane is owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, bankers who got their start in wine by owning the Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, Missouri, since 1974. They purchased the Star Lane property in 1996, and built a magnificent winemaking complex here, complete with hand excavated caves. This showcase facility is unfortunately not open to the public because of the area’s ban on tasting rooms. The Dierbergs also own a similar amount of acreage in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations, from which they produce wines for their Dierberg label.
The new winemaker for both Dierberg and Star Lane is the talented and articulate Tyler Thomas, who was formerly winemaker at Donelan in Sonoma. Tyler started here last summer. I got to visit with him briefly at Star Lane at the end of last year, tasting some terrific barrel samples with him. I look forward to the new Star Lane and Dierberg wines he will produce over the next few years.
Vogelzgang was founded in 1998 and now has 77 producing acres of vineyards, planted to both Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. Winemaker Robbie Meyer, formerly assistant winemaker at Peter Michael, is working on estate wines for Vogelzgang, which first produced a Sauvignon Blanc from the 2005 vintage. Most of their grapes are currently sold to area wineries, including Foxen, Dragonette, Gainey and Ojai.
Grassini Family is among the newest arrivals, having started planting vineyards in 2002. They completed their winery in 2010. The vineyard includes 15 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, and I think that’s the best thing they make, by far, at this point.
Two other small vineyards in this area, for which I can find little info, are Three Creek Vineyard and Tommy Town. The former grows Bordeaux varieties as well as Syrah and Sangiovese. The latter produces a small amount of estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Kirby Anderson is the winemaker.
With all that’s going on in this area, I predict you will be hearing a lot more about Happy Canyon wines in the coming years.
Since there are no tasting rooms here, you should plan to visit Grassini and Vogelzgang’s tasting rooms in the City of Santa Barbara. Star Lane’s tasting room at 1280 Drum Canyon Road in Lompoc is open daily.
For my tasting notes on 23 wines from this appellation, see below.
- 2011 Anacapa Vintners Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Bright, light lemon yellow color; fresh, ripe grapefruit, tart peach nose; fresh, tart peach, ripe lemon, ripe grapefruit juice palate; medium finish (14.5% alcohol) 86+ points
- 2012 Dragonette Cellars Rosé Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light pink color; appealing, ripe peach, ripe pear nose; tasty, juicy, refreshing, tart pear, ripe pear, mineral, light pink grapefruit palate; medium finish (75% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, 5% Syrah; 2 hour skin contact, neutral barrels; age on lees for 5-6 months) 91 points
- 2012 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; tart peach, lemon grass nose; ripe peach, fleshy palate; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 75% neutral oak, 25% stainless steel) 90 points
- 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Vogelzang Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; pungent, fresh grapefruit, mint nose; tasty, poised, ripe grapefruit, mint palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (11 months on lees; after barrel selection, blended and held another 6 months in 25% new oak) 91+ points
- 2011 Foxen Cabernet Sauvignon 7200 Grassini Family Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark ruby color; lifted, ripe cassis, cherry, VA nose; ripe cassis, ripe cherry, berry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 89 points
- 2011 Foxen Range 30 West Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe red currant, light olive nose: tasty, juicy, light-medium bodied bright, ripe red currant, cassis, cherry palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc) 91+ points
- 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, tart peach, tart yellow apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, focused, tart peach, tart pear, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (reminiscent of a Sancerre, with that level of acidity, but w/o the smoke; no malolactic fermentation; Musque clone and clone 1; all stainless steel and very neutral barrels; 3.3 pH) 91 points
- 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red
Opaque purple red violet color; wonderful, loamy, tart black currant, cedar nose; rich but very poised, elegant, ripe black currant, loam palate with a sense of salinity and good acidity; could use 1-plus year in bottle; medium-plus finish (100% Cabernet Sauvignon clone 4 grown at about 1600 feet; 14.7% alcohol; twice used barrels; like a throwback to traditional California Cabs of the 1960s and ’70s with good acidity) 94 points
- 2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light lemon yellow color; appealing, smoky, lime, tart green fruit nose; tasty, medium bodied, tart green fruit, lime, mineral, lightly smoky palate with rich mouth feel and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; clone 1 planted in 2001) 92+ points
- 2011 Grassini Family Vineyards Articondo Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark maroon color; appealing, black currant, mulberry, tobacco nose; plush, ripe black currant, ripe berry, blackberry, light tobacco palate, lacking structure; medium-plus finish (50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.5% alcohol; 25% new oak) 89 points
- 2010 Grassini Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Almost opaque maroon color; stewed black fruit, baked black fruit, tart berry nose; medium-plus bodied, baked black fruit, baked berry palate with sweet oak and lowish acidity; medium-plus finish (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.4% alcohol; 75% new oak) 87+ points
Happy Canyon Vineyards
- 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (good value at about $20; 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol) 90 points
- 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Barrack Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Dark ruby color; aromatic, black currant, black raspberry, light menthol nose; rich, medium bodied, tight, tart black currant, black raspberry palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (55% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec; 14.1% alcohol; pH 3.65, TA 6.5) 92 points
- 2012 Kunin Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Slightly hazy, very light yellow color; smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass nose; tasty, medium bodied, smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol) 90+ points
- 2012 Liquid Farm Mourvèdre Rosé Vogelzang Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light orange pink color; appealing, Tavel-like, tart cranberry, tart pink grapefruit nose; tasty, poised, tart pink grapefruit, tart currant, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (95% Mourvèdre, 5% Grenache) 92+ points
- 2012 Margerum Sauvignon Blanc Sybarite Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Pale green-tinged yellow color; tart green apple, lime, light smoke nose; tasty, bright, clean, light-medium bodied, tart lime, bright citrus, mineral, tart green fruit palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol; pH 3.4, TA 6.5; 9% neutral oak; clone 1 picked at different stages, early and late; battonage every two weeks) 91 points
- 2010 Margerum Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry, blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol; good value at $14) 90 points
- 2012 Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light straw yellow color; tart gooseberry, smoke, tart green apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe gooseberry, smoke, reduction, lime mid-palate, mineral palate with lime acidity; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 91+ points
- 2009 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Opaque black red violet color; ripe black currant, deep berry, pencil lead, bittersweet chocolate nose; bittersweet chocolate, tart black currant, ripe berry palate with firm, fine, chalky tannins; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot; 15.1% alcohol) 93 points
- 2007 Star Lane Vineyard Astral Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, pencil lead, cassis, tart black currant, mocha, dark chocolate nose; rich, ripe black currant, mocha, violets palate with sweet tannins; good now and should go for years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) 93 points
- 2005 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez
Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, black currant, blackberry, boysenberry nose; rich, delicious, tart black currant, berry syrup, dark chocolate palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol) 94 points
- 2012 Westerly Vineyards Fletcher’s White Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; smoky, lime, lemon grass nose; smoky, lime, lemon grass palate; medium finish 89 points
- 2010 Westerly Vineyards Syrah Côte Blonde Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar nose; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar palate; medium-plus finish (93% Syrah, 7% Viognier) 91+ points