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Today’s post is ostensibly about Santa Barbara


I’ll be bringing Gus with me today on the 5 hour drive down to Bien Nacido Vineyard, the first leg of my Santa Barbara trip. This will be Gus’s longest voyage yet, and I can only hope his car sickness issues have been resolved.

If I recall correctly, my first visit to Santa Barbara, for the purposes of writing about its wine industry, was to the Fess Parker Winery. It was a thrill to meet Fess himself. As a little kid, he’d been one of my heroes as Davy Crockett. I made my mom buy me a coonskin cap (as did millions of other little American boys). That fad, which mercifully didn’t last too long, probably sent the native raccoon population dangerously close to extinction. How Fess Parker went from being a T.V. and movie star to a winery proprietor, I never did find out. I think on that first trip I also visited with Richard Sanford–at the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard? Memory fails.

I like Santa Barbara, as a place and as an appellation. Perhaps because they developed their wine industry more slowly than the North Coast, their AVAs make a lot more sense than, say, Sonoma’s. There are only four of them: the Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon and the Santa Rita Hills. The latter used to be part of the Santa Ynez Valley, but wiser heads prevailed in determining that it should be its own appellation on the basis of weather patterns. The Valley is one of only two wine valleys in California (Santa Maria is the other) that lies east-west rather than southeast-northwest (as, for example, are Napa Valley and Alexander Valley). This so-called “transverse” orientation allows chilly maritime air to funnel in from the coast, at Lompoc, spilling over the Santa Rita Hills and cooling them down. By the time you get to the 101 Freeway, the coastal influence has dropped considerably; and at Happy Canyon, it’s virtually non-existent, although there must be a little of it, because otherwise Happy Canyon would be as hot as the Mojave Desert.

For years there’s been talk of adding a fifth AVA, Los Alamos, which sits kind of inbetween Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. If they ever do that, I’m going to have to figure out what makes Los Alamos special, if anything. The American system of appellations always provides wine writers with endless fodder for intellectual speculation. Appellations are elusive things. At first, you think they make sense, and then, the more you look into them, the less sense they make. I wrote about the expanded Russian River Valley the other day, and that elicited several comments, among which was one from Charlie Olken, whose blog is always a good read. He said that the Russian River Valley is a really cumbersome appellation–too big, too varied–a view with which I largely agree. But there are plenty of other equally cumbersome appellations and nobody ever complains about them. The Santa Cruz Mountains doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because they grow their Pinot Noir on cooler west-facing slopes and the Cabernet Sauvignon on warmer east-facing slopes, and where’s the unity in that? Napa Valley is a crazy mixed up appellation, making terroir sense only in the most general way. (The real terroir of Napa Valley is money. Money, more than weather or soil, is what primarily influences all the wines of Napa Valley.) Then we have other nonsensical AVAs: San Francisco Bay, Sonoma Coast, Northern Sonoma.

But Santa Barbara County has got it about right. I imagine there will be opportunities for further subdivisions one of these days. Maybe the Santa Rita Hills can be broken up into northern and southern sections. They may decide to carve something out of the northern Santa Ynez Valley, in the Foxen Canyon area. But in these matters of appellations, my advice always is to go slow. No use rushing into legal things you’ll regret later.

Some of the things I’ll be doing in Santa Barbara, in addition to my big blind tasting on Thursday, will be seeing friends, both new and old. Among them are Nicholas Miller, Andrew Murray, Paul Lato, Chad Melville, John Falcone, Ryan Devolet, Dieter Cronje, Dan Gainey, Greg Brewer and Pierre LaBarge. If I run into Jim Clendenen, that will be the cherry on top of the whipped cream on the chocolate cake.

  1. Steve, currently Ballard Canyon AVA has been submitted to the TTB. Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe prepared the petition (he also prepared the petition for Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon AVA’s). Might be interesting to ask about that. I am not sure of the boundaries, but I think it would include properties like MJ Ranch (Jonata), Stolpman, and Zaca Mesa amongst others.

    I am jealous of your travels. Have fun!

  2. Sounds like some top spots on your trip Steve! On topic with the distinguishing characteristics of each region, I think Andrew Murray has a Syrah from many of the spots you mention. I love that the Ballard Cyn AVA is coming. I’m sure you’ll taste some great examples from John & Helen Falcone.

    What are your thoughts to Ballard Canyon Syrah, and distinctions enough for an AVA? Have a great trip!

  3. Sounds like a great trip, have any time to visit Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard in Ventucopa?

  4. Nope.

  5. I think Fred Brander is also close to filing an AVA ap with the TTB for a Los Olivos AVA.. warmer than Ballard Canyon, not as warm as Happy Canyon..

  6. And, Steve, will you need a photographer on this trip? : )

  7. Steve,
    Just want to make sure you include the Edna Valley as the third transverse valley in California. I know it is not SB County, but you state there are only two when there are actually three in CA.

  8. Dennis Schaefer says:

    As Wayne says, the fifth AVA will be Ballard Canyon; talk to John Falcone or Wes Hagen about that. They know the details. And Wayne, Zaca Mesa, located out on Foxen Canyon Rd., is quite a distance from Ballard Canyon proper.

  9. Thanks Dennis. Eric Mohseni of Zaca Mesa and I discussed it awhile back and must have said they would be outside the boundary and I got confused. Thanks for the clarification.

  10. Steve Beckmen, I didn’t know Edna was transverse. Thanks.

  11. How about Anderson Valley–also a “transverse valley?”

  12. Memory. It’s not quite like Cats. Or Broadway. Don’t tell Gus. If on your first trip to Santa Barbara you visited Fess, at the winery, it couldn’t have been earlier than ’89, when the facility was built. Fess bought the ranch in ’87. Richard Sanford had already left Sanford and Benedict, started Sanford winery in ’81 and was at Rancho Jabali Vineyard in ’83 with Sanford Winery’s offices and tasting room. You may have been here twice. You did note how slow we are. Sometimes the years just roll into one another.

    Speaking of rolling, while some valleys are in effect, transverse, it’s the mountain ranges in which the valleys lie to which we refer. So, while the Edna Valley does run east-west, it is not part of the Transverse Range formed on the south by the Santa Ynez Mountains, with hills such as the Santa Rosa, Santa Rita, Solomon, as well as the base of the San Rafael Mtns. (which is not part of the Transverse Range) helping to define the AVAs. So, Steves – Heimoff, Beckmen, and Dooley (whom I thought the posted the Edna comment) you’re all correct…sorta.

    Steve H., I agree with you about slow. Though, Santa Maria Valley was quick to extend its AVA in 2010, based on drainage and geo-climatic reasoning, rather than the AAA map available in 1981, when it became Santa Barbara County’s first AVA, which made Clark Avenue a more convenient place to draw the line. In this case, faster is better.

    Ballard Canyon essentially has Larner at the south end, and Tierra Alta at the north, with a number of vineyards, including Jorian Hill, Rusack, Stolpman, Beckmen’s “La Purisima”, Saarloos’ “Windmill Vineyard” and Harrison-Clarke Vineyard in between.

    To quote Frank Bartyles – “Thank you for your support.”

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