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Santa Barbara's Happy Place for Bordeaux Varieties

I predict you will be hearing a lot more about Happy Canyon wines in the coming years.
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view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane

Santa Barbara area grape growers nearly gave up on Bordeaux varieties planted here in the 1970s after they failed to ripen sufficiently to eliminate green flavors more vintages than not. There are exceptions, of course, and Jonata in Ballard Canyon proved there are warmer areas where Bordeaux varieties can do very well.

Santa Barbara's hottest growing region, on the far eastern edge of Santa Ynez Valley, has also shown that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, can produce superlative results.

Some Cabernets and Bordeaux blends I've rated highly in the past year -- 93 points and higher -- hail from this region. This includes Goodland Wines' 2011 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red, and Star Lane's 2007 Astral and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the works is the new Crown Point flagship wine, based on the 2013 vintage, being made by former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel. It is rumored to have a planned sales price in the $200 range. Our next stop then on our in-depth tour of Santa Barbara's sub-AVAs is Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines

This appellation sped along a fast track, going from vineyards first being planted in 1996 to approval by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in late 2009. How did a fairly tiny area -- with only about 500 total planted acres -- accomplish this in barely 13 years?

It helps there are some very deep pockets amongst winery owners here. The group also enlisted the aid of Sta. Rita Hills's successful TTB petition scribe -- Wes Hagen. Foremost in its favor is the fact the area does have a real variety focus, and climate and soils that are readily distinguishable from those of their neighbors outside the appellation.

Bordeaux varieties planted here include Sauvignon Blanc, which has shown very good results. My favorites to date have been the 2012 Grassini Family (92+ points) and the 2012 Star Lane (91+ points). In addition, there are some acres of Rhone varieties here, primarily Syrah, but also Viognier, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

According to Wes Hagen, who extensively researched the area in compiling the petition for appellation status, the area's name originated during the Prohibition era when it harbored the only still in Santa Barbara's north county. According to an area realtor whose father told him what he'd heard from his own father, if you lived north of Santa Barbara and wanted some alcohol in those days, you had to "take a ride up Happy Canyon."

Temperatures in Happy Canyon can run into the 90's during the summer, but are tempered by wind that typically arises at 4 p.m., and low evening temperatures. Doug Margerum, who makes wine for Happy Canyon Vineyards and his own Margerum label, claims that what's great and unusual about the combination of the varieties grown here and the climate is that "the grapes become physiologically mature and ripe before they get a tremendous amount of sugar."

It should be noted that many of the landowners in this area have traditionally been in the thoroughbred horse raising business. These wealthy landowners and horse fanciers don't appreciate tourists, so none of the wineries here -- and there are only three brick and mortar wineries so far located in the appellation -- are permitted to have tasting rooms.

The first vineyards planted here outside of a very small planting dating to the mid-1970s were the McGinley Vineyard, originally called Westerly, and Happy Canyon Vineyards, both started in 1996.

Happy Canyon Vineyards is planted to Bordeaux varieties. McGinley was planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Roussane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This vineyard is now owned by Roger Bower, a Texan who made millions producing fire-fighting foam. Bower also recently purchased the former Cimarone Vineyard here, renaming it Crown Point.

The next two major vineyards in the area, both planted beginning in 1998, are Star Lane and Vogelzgang.

Star Lane represents half the planted acreage in Happy Canyon, with about 250 acres of vines. It's the furthest north and east of the area's vineyards, and includes several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are planted at an elevation of 1500 feet.

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane

Star Lane is owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, bankers who got their start in wine by owning the Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, Missouri, since 1974. They purchased the Star Lane property in 1996, and built a magnificent winemaking complex here, complete with hand excavated caves. This showcase facility is unfortunately not open to the public because of the area's ban on tasting rooms.

The new winemaker for Star Lane is the talented and articulate Tyler Thomas, who was formerly winemaker at Donelan in Sonoma. I got to visit with him briefly at Star Lane at the end of last year, tasting some terrific barrel samples with him. I look forward to the new Star Lane wines he will produce over the next few years.

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas

Vogelzgang was founded in 1998 and now has 77 producing acres of vineyards. Winemaker Robbie Meyer, formerly assistant winemaker at Peter Michael, is working on estate wines for Vogelzgang. Most of their grapes are currently sold to area wineries, including Foxen, Dragonette, Gainey and Ojai.

Grassini Family is among the newest arrivals, having started planting vineyards in 2002. They completed their winery in 2010. The vineyard includes 15 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, and I think that's the best thing they make, by far, at this point.

Grassini CEO Katie Grassini

With all that's going on in this area, I predict you will be hearing a lot more about Happy Canyon wines in the coming years.

Since there are no tasting rooms here, you should plan to visit Grassini and Vogelzgang's tasting rooms in the City of Santa Barbara. Star Lane's tasting room at 1280 Drum Canyon Road in Lompoc is open daily.

For my tasting notes on 23 wines from this appellation, see the complete version of this report on my blog here.