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Ballard Canyon: Santa Barbara’s Newest, Rhone-Variety Focused AVA

2014 February 18

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view of Larner Vineyard at southern end of Ballard Canyon

Next up on our tour of Santa Barbara County appellations is its newest AVA—Ballard Canyon. The aromatic, flavorful, structured Syrahs from this small area southwest of Los Olivos invite comparisons to wines of France’s Northern Rhone. The aromatics, firm tannins and good balancing acidities particularly remind me of the wines of Rhone’s tiny Cornas appellation.

Wines labeled Ballard Canyon AVA are just starting to hit the market. Lovers of cooler climate Syrahs and other Rhone varieties should be on the lookout for great wines from the likes of Beckmen, Jonata, Larner, Rusack, Stolpman and others.

Ballard Canyon AVA was officially approved by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) on October 1, 2013. It is relatively tiny, only 7,800 acres in total. Its boundaries amount to an elongated oval sitting virtually in the center of the 30-mile-long Santa Ynez AVA. Solvang lies about a mile to the south. It becomes the third sub-appellation of the Santa Ynez AVA.

Ballard Canyon starts several miles to the east of the subject of my first Santa Barbara appellation report here, Sta. Rita Hills. The north-south orientation of the hills that frame this canyon protect it from the fierce wind that pours through the Santa Rita Hills. During the growing season, lighter winds from the west push back the morning fog layer, and significant breezes pick up typically around 1:30 in the afternoon. This greatly moderates the effect of the mid-summer heat in this area. It is therefore a milder climate than that found further to the east in the third sub-appellation of Santa Ynez AVA, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Potential hang time here is very long, much like Sta. Rita Hills.

The soils are a mix of sand and clay loam with excellent drainage. In some areas, especially under Jonata’s vineyards, sand predominates. There are also limestone subsoils in the middle of the appellation that are very unusual for California.

Slightly more than half of the AVA’s 561 acres of vineyard are planted to Syrah. It was this grape, and the aromatic, concentrated but balanced nature of it coming from this particular area that was the subject of a 2010 visit here organized by the Sommelier Journal. Planning for this event, which began in 2009, brought the vintners of Ballard Canyon together for the first time.

As they met and worked to coordinate the event, the growers and producers here learned that many of them had been thinking about creating an AVA for the area. The hugely positive reaction to the 2009 Syrahs poured at the 2010 event on the part of the visiting sommeliers galvanized that thinking. Michael Larner spearheaded the effort to keep them talking and to bring in Wes Hagen, the successful draftsman of both the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVAs, to meet with them.

Work then proceeded to map appropriate boundaries. With the support of all the area’s growers, the AVA application was filed with the TTB in 2011.

I was fortunate to receive a tour of the AVA from Michael on my last visit to Santa Barbara in December last year, followed by a day of comparative tastings of Ballard Canyon wines Michael organized for me. I had also been on hand for a celebration of the AVA the preceding month at Rusack Vineyards, where I spoke with Michael, Wes and others involved in the effort to create the appellation.

In all, I was able to taste over three dozen wines based on Ballard Canyon fruit over the past year. My complete tasting notes and ratings for those wines appear below.

There are 18 vintners and winegrowers based in Ballard Canyon. Of those, the largest and most significant producers are Beckmen, Jonata, Rusack and Stolpman. Harrison Clarke, Larner, Saarloos and Tierra Alta are also major vineyards that supply a number of winemakers, and the first three of those also produce a small amount of their own wine.

Rusack

The area’s first vines were planted in 1974 at Gene Hallock’s Ballard Canyon Winery. Geoffrey Rusack, an aviation lawyer, and his wife Alison Wrigley Rusack, a Disney exec and descendant of the Wrigley chewing gum family, purchased this property in 1992. The 17-acre estate vineyard here is planted primarily to Syrah and Sangiovese, with smaller blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Petite Sirah. They also grow one-half acre each of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, with meter by meter spacing, for their Bordeaux blend called Anacapa.

L to R: Mike Larner, Geoffrey Rusack, Wes Hagen & Alison Rusack at Rusack Vineyards

L to R: Mike Larner, Geoffrey Rusack, Wes Hagen & Alison Rusack at November 2013 celebration of AVA approval at Rusack Vineyards

The vineyard was substantially replanted in 2002-2003 with realigned rows, following the contours of the land and running 11 degrees off from a north-south direction, to allow for balanced sun exposure on both sides of the canopy. The Rusacks also own most of the remaining plantable area in Ballard Canyon.

Stolpman

Tom Stolpman, a Long Beach based trial lawyer, bought 220 acres here with his wife Marilyn in 1990. They had been looking for limestone based soils in a cooler climate. They began planting in 1992, putting in a wide variety of grapes. Over several years, they got to see which varieties excelled. Bordeaux varieties did less well than Sangiovese, Syrah and other Rhone varieties.

They originally sold all their fruit to the likes of Sine Qua Non and The Ojai Vineyards. In 2001 Sashi Moorman came on board as winemaker, working with vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano. Tom and Marilyn’s son Peter now manages the operation, which currently uses 90% of the estate fruit for the Stolpman label. The 152 planted acres are largely dry farmed, and predominantly planted (92.4 acres) to Syrah. There is also substantial acreage growing Sangiovese, Roussanne and Grenache.

Beckmen

Beckmen Vineyards purchased 365 acres in 1996 and began planting what is now the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. The elevation here ranges from 750 to 1250 feet. Steve Beckmen and his father Tom have farmed this vineyard biodynamically since 2006, receiving certification in 2008. It consists of 37 sub-blocks, 18 of which are planted to eight different clones of Syrah. Another eight blocks contain five different clones of Grenache. There are also smaller plantings of Mourvèdre, Counoise, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The assistant winemaker here is Mikael Sigouin, who also has his own Grenache-focused label, Kaena, working mainly with Ballard Canyon fruit.

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Tom Beckmen left and Steve Beckmen right, with tasting room manager

Larner

The Larners purchased their 134-acre ranch at the southern end of what is now the Ballard Canyon AVA in 1997. Stevan Larner was a Hollywood cinematographer who got interested in wine early in his career when he worked in France on a government documentary on Algerian vineyards. Stevan’s son Michael explains that there was nothing but sage, chaparral and Texas Longhorn cattle here when they put in irrigation in 1998 and planted, starting in 1999. The 34-acre vineyard contains 23 acres of Syrah including seven different combinations of clones and rootstocks. They also have six acres of Grenache, and much smaller amounts of Viognier, Mourvèdre and Malvasia Blanca. Michael tells me they plan to put in an additional 34 acres.

After selling all their fruit to a number of different producers for several years, the Larners began making a small amount of their own wine starting with the 2009 vintage. Michael, who is the winemaker, was a geologist who received his masters in viticulture from U.C. Davis in 2005. His sister Monica Larner lives in Rome where she is the Italian reviewer for the Wine Advocate.

Jonata

Jonata arrived here in 2001, when Santa Barbara-based money manager Charles Banks and his business partner, Stanley Kroenke, a real estate developer and owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball and Colorado Avalanche hockey teams, purchased 586 acres and began planting the first of what is now 84 vineyard acres on predominantly sandy soils. They planted Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. Banks reportedly left the partnership in 2009. The winemaker is the very talented Matt Dees, who studied geology before learning winemaking at Staglin Family Vineyard in Napa and Craggy Range in New Zealand. Matt and vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano are also partners in the Goodland Wines project I profiled here.

Jonata Estate Manager Armand de Maigret

Jonata Estate Manager Armand de Maigret


Now that the AVA has been approved, Ballard Canyon will start appearing on wine labels. The Stolpmans began bottling wines with the AVA designation in January this year, and four of those, including their 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and 2012 Roussane, are on the market now. Their 2011 Petite Sirah and 2012 Grenache will be released April 1.

The Rusacks expect to release their first AVA labeled bottling, a 2012 Zinfandel, this April. They plan to use the designation on their Syrahs starting with the 2013 vintage, which will likely be released in Spring 2015. Jonata plans to use the AVA designation starting with its 2012 vintage wines. And Beckmen will release seven wines with the AVA on the label this year, including two 2012 Syrahs in the new Ballard Canyon embossed appellation bottle.

Estate producers here have designed a special bottle, what they are calling a “cartouche,” inspired by what’s used in some European appellations, like the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape raised seal with papal emblems and the appellation-designated bottles of Savenierres and Piedmont. The Oregon Yamhill-Carlton appellation similarly introduced an AVA bottling with raised lettering in November last year.

Ballard Canyon’s special bottle may only be used for Syrah made from estate grown AVA fruit. Contrary to some misinformation that appeared in the press last year, there is no pricing requirement on wines sold in this special bottle. The bottles have been ordered and are supposed to be available for bottling in August.

Below are my notes on 38 wines made exclusively from Ballard Canyon fruit. In addition to powerful, balanced and flavorful Syrahs, there are some terrific white wines and Grenaches listed below, as well as Jonata’s rich and complex Bordeaux blends. In the future, all or most of these will carry the Ballard Canyon AVA on their label.

Currently, the only Ballard Canyon tasting room that is open daily to the public is the Rusack Vineyard visitor center at 1819 Ballard Canyon Road. The Larners are working to get the building on their property that used to be a general store restored and licensed as a tasting room. Their current tasting room is on Los Olivos’s tasting room row, along with the Stolpman tasting room and those of Kaena and Tercero whose wines are listed below. Beckmen’s tasting room is at the winery located south of town in Los Olivos.

Tasting Notes

Beckmen
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Steve Beckmen

  • 2012 Beckmen Vineyards Viognier Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Light lemon yellow color with clarity; aromatic, floral, tart pear, honeysuckle nose; tasty, poised, ripe pear, crisp, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; from own rooted, very low yielding vines) 92 points
  • 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Grenache Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium ruby color; tart cherry, light herb, tart berry, light tar nose; delicious, juicy, bright red fruit, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, pomegranate palate; ready now and should go 5 years; medium-plus finish (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah; 14.9% alcohol) 92+ points
  • 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Clone #1 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium ruby color; appealing, tar, roasted black fruit, roasted coffee nose; rich, tasty, medium-plus bodied, roast coffee, roasted black fruit palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could benefit from 2-3 years of age; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; about 50% new French oak) 91+ points
  • 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Estate Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color; lifted, appealing, vivid, black berry, ripe black cherry, baked black cherry, blackberry nose; rich, tight, ripe berry, tart berry, baked berry, blackberry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; no whole cluster; 14-16 months in 33% new French oak) 93 points
  • 2010 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Block Six Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; aromatic, baked berry, ripe cherry, tar, tart berry nose; tasty, tight, juicy, medium bodied, ripe berry, tar, espresso, ripe cherry palate; needs 3-plus years; long finish (14.8% alcohol; block six is at the top of the vineyard, between 1100-1200 feet in elevation, planted to Estrella, 383 and 174 clones) 91+ points
  • 2008 Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Red Wine Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; appealing, aromatic, ripe cherry, baked cherry, black raspberry, violet nose; delicious, rich, crushed raspberry, black cherry, ripe berry palate; long finish (55% Grenache, 45% Syrah) 92+ points

Goodland

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

  • 2011 Goodland Wines Syrah Ballard Canyon
    Pre-release (Fall 2013 release): Opaque purple red violet color; evocative, aromatic, roasted plum, tart black fruit, wild berries, tart blackberry nose; rich, complex, powerful, roasted plum, light pepper, roasted fig palate with light salinity and good acidity; needs 2-plus years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (97% Syrah, Estrella clone; 3% Viognier; 8% whole cluster; 14.7% alcohol) 94 points

Jonata
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  • 2010 Jonata Winery Flor Santa Ynez Valley
    Light yellow color; aromatic, smoky, green almond, olive oil, ripe lime nose; rich, tasty, medium bodied, creamy textured, mineral, ripe lime, almond oil, green almond palate; medium-plus finish (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon, co-fermented; 15.2% alcohol; pH 3.3; TA 6.5; 1/3 new oak, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 stainless steel) 91+ points
  • 2009 Jonata Winery El Desafio de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque black-tinged red violet color; tar, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit, lead pencil nose; rich, tight, tart black fruit, tar, pencil lead, espresso palate with firm tannins; needs 4-5 years; long finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot; racked once off gross lees at 18 months and then for bottling at 24 months) 94+ points
  • 2008 Jonata Winery El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; aromatic, smoky, intense, red currant, tar, black fruit nose; tasty, intense, medium bodied, rich, tar, tart black fruit, tart blackberry palate with sweet firm tannins; medium-plus finish (75% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot) 94 points
  • 2007 Jonata Winery Fenix Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; baked black fruit, black currant, baked berry nose; tasty, tight yet, ripe black currant, tart berry palate with firm, sweet tannins and medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (84% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 % Petit Verdot, all co-fermented; only made three times as the Merlot rarely gets ripe enough; next vintage will be 2012) 93 points
  • 2005 Jonata Winery El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; rich, ripe black fruit, ripe blackberry, nutmeg, baking spice nose; a little tight yet, rich, ripe blackberry, black fruit, mulberry, tar, mulberry syrup palate; long finish (93% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot; 14.9% alcohol) 94 points

Jorian Hill

  • 2010 Jorian Hill Viognier Santa Barbara County
    Light green-tinged yellow color; wax, baked green apple, pear candle nose; ripe pear, baked apple palate; medium finish 88 points
  • 2008 Jorian Hill BEEspoke Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color; light VA, baked berry, ripe black chery nose; fresh, rich, ripe black cherry, black raspberry, bake cherry, baked berry palate; medium-plus finish (60% Syrah, 40% Grenache; 14.5% alcohol) 89 points

Kaena
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Mikael Sigouin

  • 2012 Kaena Sauvignon Blanc Ballard Canyon
    Light yellow color; aromatic, lemon grass, tart gooseberry nose; lemon grass, tart gooseberry, smoke palate; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol) 91+ points
  • 2011 Kaena Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium ruby color; tar, roasted red fruit nose; rich, ripe red fruit, cherry, maraschino cherry, ripe berry, tar, black cherry, spice palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol; clone 362 from south facing vineyard on pure sand) 92 points
  • 2011 Kaena Grenache Tierra Alta Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; reduction, tar, dried berry nose; rich, juicy, ripe cherry, Grenadine syrup, raspberry syrup, baked raspberry palate with near medium acidity; ready now but could use 1-plus year; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol; 1/3 whole cluster) 91+ points
  • 2010 Kaena Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Dark ruby color; baked berry, charcoal, clove nose; tasty, rich, baked berry, clove, charcoal, tart berry, black cherry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 93+ points
  • 2010 Kaena Hapa Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; smoke, dried black fruit, tar, coffee nose; tar, roast coffee, currant, ripe black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (50% Syrah, 38% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre; 15.3% alcohol) 90 points

Larner
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  • 2011 Larner Grenache Rosé Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium pink color with pale meniscus; appealing, tart cherry candy, tart berry, light cinnamon, dried cherry, almond nose; tasty, angular, tart red berry, juniper berry, mineral, dried thyme palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.6% alcohol) 91 points
  • 2011 Larner Malvasia Bianca Larner Santa Ynez Valley
    Light green-tinged yellow color; appealing, aromatic, fresh, ripe grapefruit, lime aid, freesia, orange blossom, chalk nose; angular, very tart lime, mineral, chalk, saline palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol) 88+ points
  • 2011 Larner Vineyard Viognier Estate Ynez Valley
    Light medium lemon yellow color; vanilla, pear, light sweet butter, cream nose; buoyant, light-medium bodied, juicy, ripe pear, ripe lemon, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 1/3 new oak, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 stainless steel) 89 points
  • 2009 Larner Vineyard Grenache Estate Santa Ynez Valley
    Saturated, very dark ruby color; appealing, focused, ripe berry, black cherry, dried berry, tar, black raspberry nose; tasty, near medium bodied, tight, tart berry, smoke, baked berry, black cherry, dried berry palate with sweet tannins and medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
  • 2010 Larner Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Pre-release (April/May ’14 release) – opaque black red violet color; tart berry, roasted berry, tar, licorice, blackberry syrup nose; tasty, rich, juicy, tight, ripe blackberry, tart berry, spice palate with fine, firm, sweet tannins; long finish 93 points
  • 2009 Larner Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; reduction, tart berry, dried berry, espresso, dark chocolate nose; rich, tasty, juicy, medium bodied, tight, tart berry, black cherry, light violets, blackberry palate with near medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; 6 clones; 24 months in 25% new French oak) 92+ points
  • 2009 Larner Syrah Reserve Santa Ynez Valley
    Saturated very dark red violet color; appealing, baked berry, black cherry, baking spice, licorice nose; tight, roasted black fruit, smoke, licorice, black cherry, baked berry palate with sweet tannins; needs 4 -plus years; medium-plus finish (14.9% alcohol; 3 clones; 30% whole cluster; 24 months in 50% new French oak) 91+ points
  • 2010 Larner Vineyard Elemental Santa Barbara County
    Opaque black purple red violet color; focused, red berry, reduction, tart berry nose; juicy, tasty,medium bodied, rich but balanced, ripe berry, blackberry, black cherry palate with sweet, chalky tannins; medium-plus finish (55% Grenache, 35% Syrah & Mourvedre) 92+ points
  • 2009 Larner Vineyard Elemental Santa Barbara County
    Medium dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, reduction, tar, espresso nose; tight, tar, tart berry, light pepper, mineral palate with firm, chalky tannins and medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (65% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre; 14.9% alcohol) 91 points
  • 2010 Larner Vineyard Mourvedre Estate Santa Ynez Valley
    dark ruby color; ripe black cherry, blackberry, blackberry liqueur nose; tasty, tight, ripe black cherry, ripe raspberry, baked black cherry, violets, charcoal palate with firm tannins and medium acidity; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 2 years in oak, 50% neutral and 50% 2nd year) 92 points

Ojai

  • 2000 Ojai Syrah Stolpman Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark red violet color; aromatic, black pepper, tar, charcoal nose; tasty, maturing, medium bodied, tart black cherry, black raspberry, tar palate with a vein of black pepper and medium acidity; long finish 93 points

Rusack
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Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac

  • 2011 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Dark ruby color; aromatic, ripe cherry, black cherry, black raspberry nose; tight, tasty, tart black cherry, black raspberry, cherry palate with balance; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish 91 points
  • 2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; tart plum, roasted black fruit tart berry, light lavender, cherry nose; tasty, concentrated, tart cherry, black cherry, roasted berry palate; medium-plus finish (good value at about $25; with 9% Petite Sirah; 2% American oak) 91 points
  • 2011 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; tart black cherry, ripe black raspberry nose; tight, tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, roasted black fruit palate; needs 4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
  • 2010 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; tart dried berry, charcoal nose; smoky oak, roasted tart black fruit, tart red berry palate with medium acidity; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% new oak) 89 points
  • 2010 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; green peppercorn, roasted plum nose; tasty, rich, dense, complex, tart plum, charcoal palate showing salinity and good acidity; medium-plus finish 92 points

Stolpman

  • 2010 Stolpman Syrah Originals Santa Ynez
    Opaque ruby color; lifted, aromatic, pepper, roasted plum, tar, tart red currant nose; tasty, pepper, tart roasted red fruit, raspberry puree palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.1% alcohol) 93+ points

Tercero
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Tercero owner/winemaker Larry Schaffer

  • 2009 Tercero Cuvée Loco Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Black tinged dark raspberry red color; reduction, light pepper, tart berry nose; tasty, complex, tart berry, violets, tar palate with medium acidity and firm, drying tannins; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (75% Grenache, 25% Syrah; 42 months in neutral oak) 91 points
  • 2009 Tercero Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Black tinged dark raspberry red color; lifted, tart red berry, dried cranberry nose; tight, tasty, ripe red berry, tart berry, dried berry, licorice palate with depth and medium acidity; firm, somewhat gritty tannins; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (75% whole cluster, neutral oak for 30 months) 90+ points
  • 2009 Tercero Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color with bright red meniscus; dried berry, black cherry, baked blackberry, berry compote nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe berry, tart blackberry, violets, dried berry, black cherry palate; with nice acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (5% Viognier co-fermented; no whole cluster; 14.4% alcohol; 42 months in neutral French oak) 91+ points
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2 Responses leave one →
  1. February 19, 2014

    Thanks for the visit. Had an awesome time hanging with you at the party!

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      February 19, 2014

      Always fun and stimulating talking with you Wes. I’m looking forward to the Clos Pepe salon at the July Wine Bloggers Conference.

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