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.