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Happy Canyon

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For many years, I’d heard of this easternmost part of the Santa Ynez Valley. But it wasn’t until my most recent trip to Santa Barbara that I was actually able to visit. The spin always had been that Happy Canyon would be the Happy Hunting Ground of Cabernet Sauvignon. Santa Ynez Valley itself is just too cool; Cabs from there frequently have a vegetal or bell pepper note, and even when they don’t, they just don’t have the concentrated lushness of the best of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Happy Canyon is more inland, hotter and just right for Cabernet — or so the pundits said.

My tour guide was Bill Wathan, who crafts the wines at Foxen.

Happy Canyon is located about 5 miles east of the town of Santa Ynez. It’s a beautiful, austere rolling plateau of semi-desert grasslands and hills studded with oak trees. Formerly horse country, it’s now stuffed with vineyards and mega-mansions that testify to the enormous wealth being invested here in the form of grapevines. The big names currently are Vogelzang, Dierberg and Westerly, which sell their high-end grapes to outside wineries, including Foxen.

It’s not a coastal valley but a series of interlocking canyons, open (more or less) to the Santa Ynez Valley itself in the west, then walled in to the east and north by the San Rafael Mountains, which rise to more than 7,000 feet. The maritime influence that cools off the Santa Ynez Valley peters out by Happy Canyon, whose summer temperatures often can hover in the high ‘90s and low 100s.

The hills are mainly planted to Bordeaux reds, especially Cabernet (with some Syrah), while the flats have Sauvignon Blanc. The level of viticulture is very high, often managed by Coastal Vineyard Care, one of the top vineyard management companies in the county. Mostly the vines are vertically shoot positioned and closely-spaced. An application has been submitted to the TTB for a Happy Canyon AVA.

So far I’ve found the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from Happy Canyon to still taste a bit green and unripe, even though alcohol levels can be quite high. What will the future bring? I think it’s a matter of tweaking, mainly in the vineyards: clones, canopies, cropping levels. Napa didn’t get there overnight and neither will Happy Canyon.

Readers: Do you think Santa Barbara County will ever make Cabs as good as the North Coast, or should they just give up?

  1. Steve, thanks for your usual, thoughtful posting. I hope Santa Barbara County gives up on Bordeaux varietals, except for those from the Happy Canyon Area. I suspect they taste green RELATIVE TO the ripe Cabs from Napa and those areas in Sonoma and even Mendocino suited to Bordeaux-inspired vines.

    But I for one am tired of over-ripe, over-extracted and high alcohol Cabs. So I welcome the efforts of such stellar producers as Barrack out of Happy Canyon, whose Ten-Goal, Brand and Piocho are big sellers in our wine shop. Members of our wine club will recieve the Piocho in next week’s shipment – let’s see how they rate it, and I’ll let you know.

    Peace,
    Dave the Wine Merchant

  2. Hi Dave, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Is there a sweet spot between superripe Cabs from the North Coast and drier, more “Bordeaux”-inspired Cabs from Santa Barbara? I don’t know. That’s what keeps California exciting. Maybe Happy Canyon can do it; maybe they can’t. It will take many years to find out, and that will keep us all gainfully employed!

  3. I’ve recently tasted a few Happy Canyon Cab Franc blends and your comment about greeness at high alcohols sums it up for me nicely. Personally, I find the green fits into the picture nicely, but the high alcohol and jammy flavors are less desirable. Cab F or Cab S is atypical when it’s jammy, not when it shows a little pepper and herb. I’ll be interested to see how things evolve as well, especially if the sugar ripeness comes in line with phenolic maturity with time.

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