Wednesday, May 18, 2022     Volume: 23, Issue: 11
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

The county's newest AVA, Alisos Canyon, owes its existence largely to two local winemakers

KENNY CRESS

Wes Hagen and Noah Rowles, two longtime area winemakers, figured Alisos Canyon had the wherewithal to be the newest designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Santa Barbara County.

The two men liked the area’s location. They liked the soil. They believed in the workers who tilled the soil and harvested the grapes.


Drink up
To find out more information about the Alisos Canyon AVA, visit sbcountywines.com. To read up on Dovecote Estate Vineyard, visit dovecotewine.com, where you can request a private tasting of the Rhone-style wines the Alisos Canyon winery is producing.

A MAIN DRIVER
Noah Rowles, owner and winemaker at Dovecoate Estate Ranch and Winery in Los Alamos, and renowned area winemaker Wes Hagen pushed to get Alisos Canyon designated as the latest Santa Barbara County American Viticultural Area.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LACEY FUSSEL

So they labored to make Alisos Canyon become an AVA reality. Hagen authored the petition. Rowles helped drive the process. After six years of work, according to Wine Enthusiast, the U.S. Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved Alisos Canyon as an AVA in late August.

“It was a great adventure, and something I’m very proud to have led to fruition,” Rowles said.

Rowles is owner and winemaker at Dovecote Estate Ranch and Winery in Los Alamos, and Hagen is the winemaker and brand ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines in the Santa Maria Valley.

Hagen also helped create three other AVAs in the county, Ballard Canyon being the most recent in 2012. Before that, he helped successfully craft the petitions for the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon areas. In 2013, Michael Cervin of The Wall Street Journal and Decanter ranked Hagen No. 68 among the 100 most influential winemakers in the Untied States.

Rowles and Hagen worked together to make Alisos Canyon the seventh Santa Barbara County AVA, now on the veritable viticultural map with the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, and Los Olivos District AVAs.

California has the lion’s share of AVAs, with 140 of the 251 in the U.S. as of Oct. 8, according to the TTB.  


PRIME LOCATION
Alisos Canyon’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes it unique, and the area’s cooling marine winds and fog along the San Antonio Creek Valley are the distinct factors that inspired local winemakers to secure its AVA designation.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LACEY FUSSEL

AVAs help distinguish a wine’s character and makeup, based on terroir, “the idea that wine has unique qualities depending on where the grapes are grown—the soil, climate, altitude, and so on,” according to Food and Wine magazine. “In America, we’re now becoming more and more knowledgeable about our own terroir, as evidenced by the push to establish more AVAs. ... The smaller the AVA, the more idiosyncratic the terroir.”

Advocating for Alisos Canyon to be designated as an AVA, Hagen wrote, “Alisos Canyon falls perfectly within the Goldilocks Rhone Zone, a phenomenon that has proven itself over three decades of wine growing history in Santa Barbara.”

Grape growers in Alisos Canyon cultivate grape varieties that are indigenous to the Rhone Valley in southern France. These grapes grew roots along the banks of the Rhone River and include syrah, grenache, mourvedre, viognier, and roussanne. 

Santa Barbara County has three “Goldilocks Rhone Zones”—where the climate is “perfectly suited for Rhone grapes,” according to the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. Each of those zones is situated along a river or creek channel about 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean. These channels run from the Pacific to the interior coastal ranges: the Santa Ynez River, Santa Maria River channel, and San Antonio Creek channel. 

The Alisos Canyon AVA covers nearly 5,800 acres along San Antionio Creek Valley, taking in cool marine winds and fog from the Pacific Ocean, giving it a similar climate to the French wine region. The Vintners Association describes the mean temperature as one of the lowest of all the county’s AVAs, resulting in a degree-day average above the Santa Rita Hills and below Ballard Canyon.


GROUND-TO-GLASS
Dovecote Estate Winery in Los Alamos is now located in the Alisos Canyon AVA, the newest designated American Viticulture Area in Santa Barbara County.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LACEY FUSSEL

Rowles spearheaded the effort to get Alisos Canyon designated as its own AVA soon after he bought the Thompson Vineyard property along Alisos Canyon Road near Los Alamos in 2014. The vineyard, first planted in 1990, yields 42 acres of cool-climate Rhone grapes, with vines that produce low yields and intense flavors. 

But every year is different. 

In some ways, Rowles said, this October was good for area winemaking. In other ways, it wasn’t.

“This year’s crop isn’t the prettiest, but any veteran winemaker will tell you that great wine isn’t made based on the cosmetics of the grapes or vineyard,” Rowles said.

In other words, looks aren’t everything.

“Very often the fruit that looks like it went through a war can yield the most elegant and unique wines,” Rowles said. “We saw some sudden and rapid late-season dehydration in berries, and then some vines were partially aborting their fruit load presumably as a survival strategy.”

The unseasonable heat in early October could have been at least partially to blame, but it didn’t bother Rowles. In fact, he was encouraged by it.


THE RHONE FACTOR
The Alisos Canyon AVA lends itself to Rhone-style wines, such as the ones produced by Dovecote. Area vineyards grow grape varieties that are indigenous to that region of France.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LACEY FUSSEL

“Normally, we do well with the later heat spikes that often occur in October. Alisos Canyon—and my vineyard in particular, Thompson Vineyards—is one of the last to be harvested in the entire Santa Barbara County every year,” he said. “A little late-season warmth is generally a good thing, as in October the angle of the sun is less harsh and the amount of daytime hours have dropped, so the vines aren’t as stressed as they would be if the heat came mid-year when they were getting 12 hours of sunlight every day.”

Rowles was less happy with the summer of smoky skies over region, however. 

“2020 had another issue that I believe exacerbated the multiple heat spikes we all endured this summer: sustained poor air quality,” Rowles said.

He emphasized, though, that he was not concerned about smoke taint or any direct phenolic or flavor impacts. 

“For me at Dovecote, I am choosing to base my harvest decisions on flavors versus looks this year,” the veteran winemaker said. “We will invest a lot of time meticulously hand-sorting fruit in the winery and likely end up with a smaller overall 2020 vintage, but I am confident the extra attention and effort will result in some unique and expressive wines.” 

Contributor Kenny Cress knows a good wine when he hears about it. Reach him through the editor at clanham@santamariasun.com.










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