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Here comes Happy Canyon


So now it’s official: The TTB this morning finally published a formal notice of rulemaking for a new Happy Canyon AVA in the easternmost reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. I first heard about Happy Canyon (the name conjures up images of the gods at play in some immortal realm) about ten years ago. It had become apparent by then that the Santa Ynez Valley proper was incapable of producing a Cabernet Sauvignon of high quality. It was too cool, which is why the push into Happy Canyon occurred by grapegrowers like Vogelzang, Dierberg and Westerly. The Santa Ynez Valley grows progressively warmer the further inland you go, so that if the temperature is, say, 94 in the town of Santa Ynez, it might be 98 at Dierberg’s Star Lane vineyard, in Happy Canyon. Those few degrees can make all the difference when it comes to ripening Cabernet.

To tell the truth, it was never clear to me why the folks down in Santa Barbara County were all that anxious to make Cabernet Sauvignon. I mean, compete against Napa-Sonoma? Come on. I supposed the market geared them on, or maybe it was just that thorn that goads so many grower/vintners onward: The elusive quest to prove something when others say it can’t be done. As I blogged earlier this year, most of the dozen or so Cabernets and Bordeaux blends I’ve reviewed out of Happy Canyon still possessed that minty edge you almost never find in Napa Valley, but the odd Cabernet here and there shows promise. A Star Lane 2005 Cab, for example, was rich and soft in blackcurrant and mocha flavors, rather like a fine Alexander Valley, and I gave it 92 points despite a certain lack of complexity which, if it were there, would have earned the wine an even higher score.

According to the TTB, the proposed Happy Canyon AVA consists of 23,941 acres, which makes it roughly the size of Edna Valley or Chalk Hill. That is to say, small; Napa Valley has nearly a quarter-million acres. What’s so interesting about TTB’s publishing of the notice is that Happy Canyon overlaps the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, which means, apparently, that TTB has decided to allow consideration of overlapping or nested AVAs — something that most California vintners I know believe was put on hold last November, with the agency’s infamous Rule No. 78.

These notices of proposed rulemaking generally take some months to go through the public comment process. I can’t imagine anyone will object to Happy Canyon; this is not going to be another Calistoga or Tulocay. By this time next year it should be a done deal. It will be interesting for critics like yours truly to watch these Happy Canyon Cabernets over the years.

  1. Steve,

    “that minty edge you almost never find in Napa Valley” sounds like the fabled Rutherford dust. I woneder why it is so fabled now, hmmm?…

    Don’t fear pyrazines my friend. They add that complexity and varietal typicity.

    There are plenty of great Boredaux-styled wines coming from the eastern portions of the Santa Ynez Valley- even from vineyards west of Happy Canyon and the 154, some just east of Solvang.

    They may not be cherry-flavored cough syrup, but they are good, some excellent. They have good structure and good typicity.

  2. Arthur, I think the Rutherford dust descriptor (which I loathe — it’s too easily appropriated by writers) is not about mint, which indicates unripeness. Rutherford Cabs are almost never unripe; Santa Ynez Cabs frequently are, at least compared to Napa-Sonoma. I am a big supporter of these eastern Santa Barbara Cabs, but they’re going to have to prove themselves before I give them the big scores.

  3. Steve,

    I think we are going to differ on the definition of ripeness. I am concerned that you may equate presence of pyrazines with lack of ripeness.

    When you loose pyrazine expression (appropriate expression) you just get fruity stuff that will often lack structure and ageability.

  4. Arthur, I don’t need overwhelming fruit to appreciate a Cabernet. I love good Bordeaux. But we’re dealing with typicité, that quality of expectation that undergirds judgment, and Napa has defined typicité in California. I do detect minty, green notes in too many Santa Ynez Cabs that turn me off. Whether that’s due to pyrazine, as you allege, or something else, I couldn’t say. My palate makes these decisions. When I find that bell pepper, mint or vegetal aroma, the score in my mind automatically plunges.

  5. guys
    Your pictures should be in the dictionary under “wine geek”. Although I lean toward accepting all sorts of flavors and aromas within the historical limits of varietal character or place (terroir, if you will), who really cares what any one of us thinks is the “correct” style? Don’t confuse the endless entertainment we all get from arguing about wine with meaningful intellectual dialogue. Do either of you make or grow wine? That’s not a put-down, just a reality check. Mintyness, brett, pyrazines or other characterisics are part of the reality of producing this stuff. It’s fun to argue about. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it matters. Hey, know why they call it “Happy Canyon”?

  6. Dear Mark: Why do they call it Happy Canyon? [signed] Wine Geek.

  7. Mark:

    Happy Canyon was named during prohibition when there was a still in the College Ranch area, and it was the only place to score hooch in the eastern SY Valley.

    A ‘trip up happy Canyon’ was a euphemism for scoring a bottle of hooch.

    Full circle, eh?

    I wrote the petition to establish this AVA and know a lot about the soils and climate. It’s a tight AVA that will likely redefine what SBC can do for Bordeaux varietals. I will be more at liberty to discuss particulars after Public Comment, but thanks to Steve for the virtual ink.

    Oh and FYI I submitted this petition a few weeks before Rule # 78, so we have been grandfathered in. Timing is everything. 🙂

  8. Wes, Happy Canyon certainly seems to possess “placeness.” In fact, I was struck by the complexity of the interlocking canyons…there may be multiple terroirs in there.

  9. Falls right into my feelings on the ‘t’ word:

    It should be illegal to discuss terroir until a place has been growing wine 100 years or longer.

    Before then, I think we’re trying to pigeonhole something that is still becoming.

    I’ve always said the only person I trust on terroir is an old grizzled Vigneron at Clos Vougeot–the kind of guy that’s given a stem, sticks his nose in it, and says ‘Mazis-Chambertin’, and his friend says ‘d’accord’, because he’s tasted Mazis for 50 years and it could be nothing else.

    That’s terroir, and something that I will never fully understand here in the New World. Of course I’m speaking only for myself.

  10. Wes, of course you’re right. I detest the t-word, but it’s useful in talking about stuff, and everybody more or less understands what it means when you use it, so I do. All this raises the question “Is terroir dead?” given the interventionist approaches today, but that’s a whole ‘nother question!

  11. Wes,

    I have always found your stance on this topic quite perplexing because I have noted a commonality to pinots coming from Clos Pepe. I also see it in Fiddlestix pinots, to name another vineyard (not to the exclusion of a number of your neighbors). This commonality seems to transcend the people carrying out the élevage: producer/négociant – in both cases.

    I appreciate what seems like a humble and cautious approach and I understand that time is needed to establish a track record of those particular traits as consistent and reproducible over the decades. I’m sure you and I will have the opportunity to sit down face to face in 20 or 30 years and revisit this issue.

    Still, I think that terroir can declare itself early in a site’s history (and certainly before any lines are drawn on a map.

    And that leads me to my (somewhat rhetorical) questions:

    Why draw the lines NOW? Why not wait 50+ years to let the terroir declare itself? What is guiding the placement of those lines today?

  12. Arthur, you are indeed a provocateur!

  13. guys
    when you have winemakers who respect the product, and don’t jack their fruit with stuff from out of a bag, you get to taste the place the guy who makes clos de pepe is a killer, serious, committed dude kathy at fiddleneck, likewise well, not technically a dude, but still… although clark smith (with kathy in fiddlestix) IS the enfant terrible of modern winemaking, he totally respects place and fruit so, it’s no surprise to me that you can taste the place, and see similarities in different wines from the same area terroir is not a bad word, it has just been used to sell things, like sex wanna give up sex because of a few million advertisements cashing in on it? i didn’t think so

  14. Mark, the first duty of a wine is that it taste good. The second may be to show off “terroir.” Does any wine that shows “terroir” automatically taste good? I don’t think so.

  15. Promoting regional character, and attempting to coax it out of a wine through craft, is not the same as bandying around the ‘terroir’ word.

    Starting with terms like ‘Chablis’ and ‘Burgundy’, America has a track record of hijacking a French term of great meaning and profundity and dragging it through the mud until it is a meaningless piece of corporate advertising.

    Most Americans don’t have the patience to allow a place or a product to slowly evolve for Centuries into something unique–we want it all and we want it now, and if we have to steal a name to give it meaning we do.

    I have two concerns about style, which dovetail nicely from Steve’s commentary:

    1) The international style (ripe wines that hide their somewhereness and vintage variation) is making regions (and frighteningly varietals) all taste the same.

    2) Americans like to hide their wine ignorance by grabbing some French wine terminology and pretending they understand and can define terroir without putting in the centuries of work and the generations of communication. We are close to establishing a real wine and food culture here in the US–but we have to be careful to break old habits and leave France in France.

    Of course that doesn’t mean that we stop looking for typicity (my preferred ‘t’ word) in wines. Just the opposite. It becomes increasingly important to be humble and diligent in our attempts to understand special sites for growing wine, and how they make us happy.

    In the end wine is just a flavorful delivery system for alcohol. It’s as simple or as complicated as we make it.

    And Art: of course I agree with you that wines from Clos Pepe, made competently will show a regional/vineyard character. We really work hard for that to happen. BUT, I would be lying if I could tell (in the bloom of my youth as a winemaker) what the soil and climate provides and how the hundreds and thousands of decisions I make in cultural practice and winemaking craft influence the final product.

  16. All I can say with respect to Wes’s comment is this: If a man’s (or woman’s) approach to winegrowing is impeccable, the wine will show impeccability. Maybe not right away, but after a while. A winemaker with impeccable taste will not be content to make something “merely drinkable.” He or she will strive with every fiber of his being to find a great site and craft a great wine. Impeccability is rare in winemaking as it is in other forms of human endeavor. Somehow, an impeccable character goes hand in hand with “terroir” or “typicite” or whatever you want to call it. And I don’t mean that an impeccable character is a Saint! I mean flawless in his approach to winemaking. That’s what I love about Santa Rita Hills. Lots of impeccable people down there.

  17. Steve brings up an excellent point, and one i hadn’t considered. The flip side to the ‘New World/American’ coin is that we often reject Old World notions and reinvent industries for our own taste.

    One way American wine has revolutionized the wine world is by our insistence on sanitation and the use of stainless steel. Ozone and SS are now the world standard–the double edge sword–clean wines show their place better than dirty wines, so ironically the US has taught the world 9some are still learning) that Brett and other spoilage bacteria and yeast are NOT terroir. Ironic that the US is helping the world to better understand their own terroirs?

    American craft is the real deal, even though it is surprising at times that anyone is paying attention to a region that only has a few thousand acres planted. We really do appreciate those that pay attention.

    We’re not in Lompoc for the night life.

  18. I’ve heard about those wild late night parties at the Wine Ghetto! Wasn’t stainless steel first used at Latour, or maybe it was Lafite or Haut-Brion? I seem to remember that from eons ago. It’s funny that the notion of “terroir” has historically been so connected with Burgundy and “barnyardy” smells. I wonder who first coined the word “terroir” and wrote about it. Professor Saintsbury does not use it in “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1933) although, referring to Clos Vougeot, he refers to “hold[ing] the blood of its clan,” which seems to preserve the idea in a more poetic way.

  19. Interesting about Bordeaux’s use of ‘inox’. I did not know that! Maybe we have to thank France for yet another wine convention.

    I was riffing around the ‘Davis’ school of squeaky clean that CA wine brought to the world.

    Sanitation is still the key to elevate a lot of Old World wine regions..especially Italy where I found a lot of the wines (not all) just too dirty and ‘rustic’ to enjoy.

    Let me do some research about the history of the word and get back. May be a great topic for an article for WE….

  20. Here’s some interesting tidbits:

    Definitions first: The noun “terroir” never made it to any of my six desk dictionaries nor even to the massive old Random House Unabridged. The noun does appear in the two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Yardley had used it precisely. Rooted in medieval Latin, terroir blossomed in 15th-century France. Terroir is “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate; also, the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by this environment.”

    Mark Twain once observed, “The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that if they continue we shall soon know nothing at all about it.” Terroir is such a subject. It simultaneously describes, mystifies, and annoys. Newbies fear it, wine merchants exploit it, professionals parse it. The chatter is considerable. So, then, what is it about the concept of terroir that generates such cultural noise? Precisely its ambiguity, which is also to say, its flexibility. Many a commentator will point out that no equivalent English definition exists. Yes and no. A quick glance at an early edition of the Oxford English Dictionary shows a sad little 15th century entry for terroir of a half-inch length, easily understood when placed against the multiple pages of definitions of soil, a historical synonym. Soil, in fact, comprehends terroir but only for the most philologically inclined. Giorgione’s The Pastoral ConcertThe French word terroir has perhaps been frozen in a pastoral avocation while the more inclusive English language juggernaut rolled on, allowing soil to accumulate centuries of scientific, cultural and poetic shades of meaning. Terroir remains, finally, semantically underdeveloped. Hence, I suggest, the concept of terroir, in its modern, discordant usages, is a consequence of its having been Balkanized by the academy, wine writers, and commercial interests, English-speakers in the main.

    In the end, this word is in need of some actual and deep etymological study! Where is it first used? How has it been used in France since the 15th/16th century?

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