Ballard Canyon: Santa Barbara's Newest, Rhone-variety Focused AVA

Next up on our tour of Santa Barbara County appellations is its newest AVA -- Ballard Canyon.
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view of Larner Vineyard at southern end of Ballard Canyon

Next up on our tour of Santa Barbara County appellations is its newest AVA -- Ballard Canyon. The aromatic, flavorful, structured Syrahs from this small area southwest of Los Olivos invite comparisons to wines of France's Northern Rhone.

Ballard Canyon AVA was officially approved by federal authorities in October. It is relatively tiny, only 7,800 acres in total. Its boundaries amount to an elongated oval sitting virtually in the center of the 30-mile-long Santa Ynez AVA.

Ballard Canyon starts several miles to the east of the subject of my first Santa Barbara appellation report here, Sta. Rita Hills. The north-south orientation of the hills that frame this canyon protect it from the fierce wind that pours through the Santa Rita Hills. During the growing season, lighter winds from the west push back the morning fog layer, and significant breezes pick up typically around 1:30 in the afternoon. This greatly moderates the effect of the mid-summer heat in this area.

Slightly more than half of the AVA's 561 acres of vineyard are planted to Syrah. It was this grape, and the aromatic, concentrated but balanced nature of it coming from this particular area that was the subject of a 2010 visit here organized by the Sommelier Journal. Planning for this event, which began in 2009, brought the vintners of Ballard Canyon together for the first time.

As they met and worked to coordinate the event, the growers and producers here learned that many of them had been thinking about creating an AVA for the area. The hugely positive reaction to the 2009 Syrahs poured at the 2010 event on the part of the visiting sommeliers galvanized that thinking. Michael Larner spearheaded the effort to keep them talking and to bring in Wes Hagen, the successful draftsman of two other Santa Barbara AVAs, to meet with them.

I was fortunate to receive a tour of the AVA from Michael last December, followed by a day of comparative tastings of Ballard Canyon wines. I had also been on hand for a celebration of the AVA the preceding month at Rusack Vineyards.

There are 18 vintners and winegrowers based in Ballard Canyon. Of those, the largest and most significant producers are Beckmen, Jonata, Rusack and Stolpman. Harrison Clarke, Larner, Sarloos and Tierra Alta are also major vineyards that supply a number of winemakers, and the first three of those also produce a small amount of their own wine.

The area's first vines were planted in 1974 at Gene Hallock's Ballard Canyon Winery. Geoffrey Rusack, an aviation lawyer, and his wife Alison Wrigley Rusack, a Disney exec and descendant of the Wrigley chewing gum family, purchased this property in 1992. The 17-acre estate vineyard here is planted primarily to Syrah and Sangiovese, with smaller blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Petite Sirah. The Rusacks also own most of the remaining plantable area in Ballard Canyon.

L to R: Mike Larner, Geoffrey Rusack, Wes Hagen & Alison Rusack at November 2013 celebration of AVA approval at Rusack Vineyards

Tom Stolpman, a Long Beach based trial lawyer, bought 220 acres here with his wife Marilyn in 1990. They began planting in 1992, putting in a wide variety of grapes. Over several years, they got to see which varieties excelled. Bordeaux varieties did less well than Sangiovese, Syrah and other Rhone varieties.

They originally sold all their fruit. In 2001 Sashi Moorman came on board as winemaker. Tom and Marilyn's son Peter now manages the operation, which currently uses 90 percent of the estate fruit for the Stolpman label. The 152 planted acres are predominantly planted to Syrah. There is also substantial acreage growing Sangiovese, Roussanne and Grenache.

Beckmen Vineyards purchased 365 acres in 1996 and began planting what is now the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. Steve Beckmen and his father Tom farm 37 sub-blocks, 18 of which are planted to eight different clones of Syrah.

Tom Beckmen left and Steve Beckmen right, with tasting room manager

The Larners purchased their 134-acre ranch at the southern end of what is now the Ballard Canyon AVA in 1997. Michael explains that there was nothing but sage, chaparral and Texas Longhorn cattle here when they put in irrigation in 1998 and planted, starting in 1999. The 34-acre vineyard contains 23 acres of Syrah, six acres of Grenache, and much smaller amounts of Viognier, Mourvèdre and Malvasia Blanca.

After selling all their fruit to a number of different producers for several years, the Larners began making a small amount of their own wine starting with the 2009 vintage. Michael, who is the winemaker, was a geologist who received his masters in viticulture from U.C. Davis in 2005.

Jonata arrived here in 2001, when Santa Barbara-based money manager Charles Banks and his business partner, Stanley Kroenke, purchased 586 acres and began planting the first of what is now 84 vineyard acres on predominantly sandy soils. They planted Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. The winemaker is the very talented Matt Dees.

Jonata Estate Manager Armand de Maigret

My notes on 38 wines made exclusively from Ballard Canyon fruit can be found on the complete version of this report on my blog here. In addition to powerful, balanced and flavorful Syrahs, there are some terrific white wines and Grenaches listed there, as well as Jonata's rich and complex Bordeaux blends. In the future, all or most of these will carry the Ballard Canyon AVA on their label.

Currently, the only Ballard Canyon area tasting room that is open daily to the public is the Rusack Vineyard visitor center. The Larners' current tasting room is on Los Olivos's tasting room row, along with the Stolpman tasting room. Beckmen's tasting room is at the winery located south of town in Los Olivos.