Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Ballard Canyon becomes its own American Viticultural Area
BY WENDY THIES SELL
Years of effort by local vintners paid off when the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recently agreed to designate the 7,800-acre Ballard Canyon as a new American Viticultural Area.
Wineries producing wine with grapes grown is this area can now print the words “Ballard Canyon” on labels, which sets them apart from other producers.
The region, located in the Santa Ynez Valley between Los Olivos and Buellton, is home to 16 vineyards, including Stolpman, Rusack, Jonata, Purisima Mountain, and Tierra Alta.
Michael Larner, owner of Larner Vineyard and president of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers’ Alliance, described the news as “the definition of a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
He likens the level of excitement to welcoming a newborn. (Larner and his wife actually welcomed a baby girl just a few weeks before they got word that the new American Viticultural Area would be approved.)
“I am beyond honored to have been a part of [the viticultural area’s] creation and to share this accolade with all the outstanding producers, vintners, and property owners on Ballard Canyon who formed a community-based alliance to pull this off,” Larner said. “As a region, this is a seal of approval that brings along not just distinction, but pedigree.”
Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, told the Sun in an e-mail, “It is an exciting time in Santa Barbara County during the height of harvest to learn that Ballard Canyon is now an officially recognized [American Viticultural Area]. Santa Barbara County is a diverse wine region and to have further delineation within the Santa Ynez Valley (Sta. Rita Hills and Ballard Canyon) is proof that Syrah and Pinot Noir thrive here.”
More than half of the vineyard acres planted in Ballard Canyon are syrah—the varietal vintners believe will garner worldwide recognition with the new viticultural area designation. The high-quality syrah grown in Ballard Canyon is expressive, concentrated, and special.
“The growers on Ballard Canyon know that many varietals do well here, but our champion is definitely syrah,” Larner added.
He said the turning point came a few years ago when a handful of Ballard Canyon wineries hosted a large wine tasting for prominent sommeliers/wine buyers for Sommelier Journal.
“We sampled the same vintage syrah from six of the larger estates: Stolpman, Jonata, Rusack, Harrison-Clark, Larner, and Beckmen. All of us poured our 2009 syrahs and everyone in the room was impressed [by] how the wines had similarities despite subtle differences from the winemakers’ imprint,” Larner said. “This meant the land spoke louder than the individual winemakers, and the predominant fingerprint came from our unique soil, climate, varieties, etc. … The essence of an [American Viticultural Area].”
Many of the sommeliers wondered why their beautiful little section of Santa Barbara County—producing equally beautiful wines—didn’t have its own appellation boundary lines. The vintners gathered that day knew the time was right to start the process to become a viticultural area.
Larner and his fellow vintners enlisted the expertise of an astute neighbor, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards, in helping to write the federal petition. Hagen had already been successful in crafting petitions and guiding fellow Santa Barbara County grape growers in the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon areas in their efforts to establish viticultural areas.
Members of the Ballard Canyon alliance spent more than a year gathering data on climate, soils, varietals, geology, boundaries, and history. They filed their petition with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in April of 2011 and submitted revisions in January of 2012. The bureau announced its decision publicly on Sept. 30; the Ballard Canyon viticultural area becomes official on Oct. 30.
The bureau designates viticultural areas to allow vintners in the United States to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they purchase.
“As a winemaker, this distinction will provide a new marketing tool in our belt—an origin now recognized officially with the potential to be worldwide,” Larner explained. “As a grower, it is the biggest pat on the back for all the effort, sleepless nights watching for frost, adapting our daily activities to whatever Mother Nature has doled us. Now we can see that our land is working with us, complementing the fruits of our labor.”
Ballard Canyon joins the existing viticultural areas of the region, including Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley, and the broader Santa Barbara County.
Larner added, “Nothing brings a sense of bigger accomplishment [than] to know that our little valley carved out of Santa Barbara County—that has been making Rhone-styled wines of unsurpassed qualities—will now be included in the textbooks of sommeliers across the globe.”
Sun wine and food writer Wendy Thies Sell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.