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Thursday throwaway: Ballard Canyon, 2011 Pinots and Screwtops

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I’m not always thrilled when the TTB grants official appellation status to a new region in California. Most of them seem like vanity projects, or else they cover areas with very little in the way of wine-producing history, and in many cases they don’t even make sense from a terroir point of view.

(No, I won’t name names.)

But every once in a while a new American Viticultural Area is approved that entirely deserves it. Ballard Canyon is the latest.

I’ve been following wineries and vineyards (Rusack, Larner, Stolpman, etc.) in that central portion of Santa Barbara County for years, in addition to newer ones (Jonata) that have come to my attention. The quality is exceptionally high across the board (as it tends to be in the greater Santa Ynez Valley). Aspirations are high, too, and the terroir, as I understand it, seems perfectly suited for what folks are doing down there. So welcome to the AVA family, Ballard Canyon! And congratulations in particular to Michael Larner, who filed for the appellation back in 2011 and waited patiently for his application to wend its way through the government bureaucracy!

* * *

I’ve been tasting a great deal of Pinot Noir lately, mainly from the 2011 vintage, whose overall character is becoming clearer to me with each bottle I review. The year was not the miracle some had predicted it would be. The original spin on the chilliness was, “Isn’t this special! Now we’ll finally get some nice, elegant, low alcohol Pinots.” Good theory, but as usually happens with good theories, it kind of got its face smashed in by reality. The truth is that there were a lot of green Pinots produced in 2011–some moldy ones, too, and that has marred the vintage.

However, the best wineries did succeed in producing elegant, classy Pinots that are ageable. Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Failla, Merry Edwards, Dutton-Goldfield, Lynmar, W.H. Smith, Coup de Foudre and Flowers all made magnificent wines from the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast. Down in Santa Rita Hills, so did Foxen, Bonaccorsi, Tantara and Testarossa. In neighboring Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard produced exceptional fruit for its clients. The new Caleras hit benchmark highs up on Mount Harlan. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, Roar, Tantara, Testarossa and Bernardus (from Pisoni) all had good bottlings. Even Carneros–never my favorite spot for Pinot Noir–over-performed, with some great wines from Mira, Donum and Stemmler.

Why did these wineries succeed in such a challenging year? I suspect it had a lot to to with viticulture, especially sorting. They simply had the commitment to get rid of bad bunches of grapes. No amount of new oak, by the way, can mask the green taste of unripe grapes and stems. Nothing can.

* * *

During my tasting session yesterday, I had a number of wines in screwtops. Good wines, too: high-scoring. And I realized it’s been years since I mentioned “screwtop” in a wine review. I used to do it, in the sense of saying something like, “Don’t worry about the screwtop. It doesn’t mean that the wine is cheap.” I felt I had to reassure readers that it’s legitimate to put a screwtop on an ultrapremium wine–more than legitimate, actually, since it assures that the wine will never be corked!

But I don’t mention screwtops anymore because, to me, it’s a non-issue. In fact, I wonder why more wineries haven’t turned to them, instead of corks and (worst of all), artificial corks. I suppose it’s because the public at large still considers screwtops the sign of a cheap wine. We educators will just have to work harder to let them know otherwise.

  1. doug wilder says:

    Last month nearly 30% of the wines I tasted were under screwcap, made by either Brian Loring or Adam Lee. Years ago they decided to use this closure exclusively to ensure quality and consistency, and through their leadership in this innovation helped make the practice more acceptable. So much so that I don’t give it a second thought when preparing to taste a wine under screwcap. Well actually that isn’t entirely true. I recognize that I don’t need to be concerned about the possibility of TCA.

  2. 2011 was my favorite vintage in six years of winemaking, and it was even colder in Oregon than it was in California. While many wineries failed at masking the cold vintage with new oak and chaptalization, a lot of wineries embraced a vintage with true character, and created wines that were light, lean, and elegant. I can’t speak for California, but in Oregon the grapes were so far behind schedule that they were too acidic to develop any mold. The acidity also created wines that were extremely ageworthy and food-friendly, while the extended hang-time allowed the wines to develop gorgeous tannins.

    I understand and appreciate that a critic would be skeptical of all this talk, when every other vintage is the “vintage of the century”, but I really think you should look at the 2011 pinot noir vintage from a different angle. I think that ’12 an ’13 will get better press, but that is because they were easy vintages. In my humble opinion, 2011 was one of the most unique and outstanding vintages for pinot noir I’ve ever encountered.

  3. Heartbreak Grape, Heartbreak Vintage. Though I applaud the wineries for rigorous sorting in vintages like 2011 let’s also give kudos to the quality minded growers who did sorting of their own before the harvest crews even showed up. As evidenced by the predominance of vineyard designated pinot noir bottlings wineries are relying more and more on small conscientious growers for consistently reliable fruit. My hat is also tipped to them.

  4. Steve,
    Thank you very much for the recognition and the praise for our little new AVA. I am honored you especially call me out for this deed, but in all honesty this was truly a collaborative effort with all the other vineyard, winery, and other agricultural landowners. We – Steve Gerbac with Rusack, Keith Sarloos with Sarloos & Sons, Peter Stolpman with Stolpman, Matt Dees with Jonata, and Steve Beckmen with Beckmen – all put in some time on this joint effort and it would not have been possible without full co-operation. The glue of this project was employing Wes Hagen to draft the actual language and massage it as it went through the TTB’s multiple desks. And lastly props to Jeff Newton and Ruben Solorzano with Coastal Vineyard Care Assoc. who farm most of these vineyards to ensure they they stay top quality. This is our tight knit family and we are all proud of our once in a lifetime accomplishment. Keep an eye on us – we are planning some fun and exciting events, education, and branding in the near future!

  5. Steve,

    A couple of things. Congrats certainly are deserved for Michael Larner and the entire crew that worked on the Ballard Canyon AVA. It truly is a special place that geographically makes sense to put under one specific AVA. I love the fruit that comes out of that AVA, and I also dig the variety of soils and climates that exist in a relatively tiny area . . .

    As far as screwcaps go, I truly don’t think you can go wrong by mentioning what you mentioned – and keep doing it. And Doug, you as well. The fact is that a vast majority of consumers still do not understand why wineries have switched to screwcaps. I’d love to believe that more are open minded enough to realize that winemakers tired of having wines ruined by TCA and other issues related to corks, but I’m not sure that message has been relayed as clearly as we think it has.

    On the ‘front lines’, whether at my tasting room or at various tastings I am part of, I am always asked about screwcaps and why I’ve chosen them. I’m always asked about how long a wine can be layed down with screwcaps, because ‘they’ve heard that wines don’t last that long under screwcaps’. And many many wineries in the this country have publicly stated that they only use screwcaps for wines that they want consumers to enjoy in the near term.

    No, please don’t take it for granted that folks understand the closure issue, and yes, keep hammering it away. And keep mentioned how many wines you encounter that are ‘off’ in some way due to the use of corks . . .

    More education, less assumptions . . .

    Cheers!

  6. Dan Fishman says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your nice words about Donum and Stemmler. I haven’t tasted a huge number of 2011 Pinots yet, but it is not surprising to hear that a lot of wines were disappointing, as the rain and weather (especially the heat after the second rain, that really got the mold going) created a lot of headaches. I found, like Gabe, that 2011 led to some of my favorite wines so far, but it was definitely not easy getting there.

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