There are many ways of telling what a vine needs in the vineyard. On our visit, Michael took us into the Syrah at his Vineyard in Ballard Canyon and spoke to us about how the vines communicate with them. “We think of the vines as living beings” Michael says. The vines he says will tell you if they are happy, you will see them with tendril and shoots straight up reaching for the sun. You can tell by their vigor that they are happy and that they are getting enough water. When the vines are stressed the tendrils will droop and the leaves will turn away from the sun, because they don’t want to photosynthesize.
In addition they have moisture probes at varying depths and they can see how fast the roots are taking the water. If the vines are unhappy they can push the water deeper to get to the feeder roots and the tap root.
The leaves will also show you in different ways if they have potassium deficiencies or if there are nitrogen problems.
“The vines will tell you what they need” Michael says, “It’s up to us to read it and learn it’s language”.
The happy Syrah he grows here at Larner Vineyards is sold to other wineries in addition to making his Estate Syrah. But only the estate Syrah will be in the new “Ballard Canyon” bottles. You can stop by and taste his Syrah in Los Olivos at the Larner Tasting room in the Los Olivos General Store.
Michael Larner’s parents found Ballard Canyon to be a magical place. From the curvy roads at the top of the canyon, the expansive views from Purisima Mountain Vineyard and they delicious way that Rhone Variety grapes grow here, I have to agree. Amidst the “eclecticness” that is Santa Barbara County, this quiet valley is growing some amazing grapes, primarily Rhones, with a focus on the Champion grape of this valley, Syrah.
We had an opportunity to spend some time with Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards and Winery out at his Ballard Canyon Vineyard earlier this year. In this video, he tells us about the history of his vineyard here in Ballard Canyon.
Michael Larner’s father had wanted to own a vineyard. After spending time doing documentaries on wineries and vineyards in France he was smitten with the idea of this type of lifestyle and with the thought of a family legacy that could be handed down. Living in LA, Santa Barbara County was practically in their backyard and they found this property in Ballard Canyon. Covered in sage and chaparral they started making 34 acres of the 134 acre property ready for a vineyard in 1998. Michael was a geologist. He went into geology to avoid lab coats or sitting behind a desk.
“the idea of working outside, being with the family and maybe actually making a product that’s really kind of cool was exciting”
With the 34 acres ready they ordered 34 acres of grapevines to plant. But it was a busy season, lots of new vineyards were going in and the nurseries had over promised all around. The new Larner Vineyard ended up getting just 17 acres of vines. “Truth be told that was the best thing that happened to us. Because here we are a new vineyard, we didn’t have a lot of winery contacts and if we had come out with 34 acres of grapes we would have had a lot of grapes to sell. But we came out with 17 and it slowly built and that has been the secret to our success. Our internal model is “Rome wasn’t built in a day” which is apropos since we lived in Rome, but we have to do things step by step. First we planted the vineyard, then I started making a little wine. We do this slowly, my hope is that in my generation I will be making the estate, but if I don’t, no problem. My kids and my sisters kids, can then take over. It allows that flexibility.”
While his mother and father were the driving force behind the vineyard, his sister and he were quick to jump in. As he began classes at UC Davis, his sister shifted from working for “Business Week” to “Wine Enthusiast”. So they both dove into the industry at about the same time.
He and his dad built the vineyard together. Always hands on and wanting to learn, he laughs “The irrigation company always laughs at me when I go in for valves, because they always loved the fact that I would jump in the trenches with them and help them move pipes because I wanted to learn. I didn’t know what they were doing so I wanted to find out.” In addition he worked on his education. “Because when you are running a vineyard you have downtime, 1999 we planted the vines, we are not going to see our first crop until 2001 or 2002, I mean were are training the vines but I’ve got two years to do stuff. So I start taking classes at Alan Hancock, viticulture classes and then got to the point where I wasn’t just taking classes I was teaching them, I was a quick learner.” In addition to classes at Alan Hancock, he worked for E. Guigal in the Rhone Valley in Ampuis, France, and Antinori in Tuscany. He got into the Masters program at UC Davis and got a masters in viticulture and enology. He was planning an internship with Penfolds in Australia when his father passed away. “My dad and mother paved the path and when all of a sudden there is nobody driving, we had to determine if we were going to stay on this road.”
2005 at the 7 year mark, was the first year that the vineyard broke even. “So we are suffering the loss of the figure-head, but there are all these positive signs. So I called up Peter Gago and said, you know what, I can’t do the internship I can’t be away from the ranch for 2 month. But my wife and I took a month and went and turned it into a business trip and went around to see how they were making wines and the style that they are doing and having more time with winemakers one on one. It was definitely instrumental informing my palate and my style of how we grow grapes and make wine.”
And so the Larner family legacy continues with Michael Larner growing grapes, both for himself and other local wineries. He was instrumental in the formation of the Ballard Canyon AVA and actively works with the AVA to get the word out about the great wines coming out of this little valley. Syrah is the forerunner, but all of the Rhone varietals do well here and many vineyards are expanding to try new lesser know grapes.
We spoke with Michael Larner out at his Ballard Canyon Vineyard in June and asked about how heat spikes affect him around Harvest.
“The nature of Syrah is that it is always harvested in October.” “We never see heat spikes in October so we don’t have to panic.”
Heat spikes cause sugars to go up. As the vines become stressed for water the first place they get it from is the berries. As the berries dehydrate from the vine pulling moisture the sugar levels increase and concentrate. This is only temporary and the sugar levels will stabilize again when the temperature drops or when the vine gets more water.
Watching the weather and planning ahead they can water before a heatspike so that the sugar levels don’t soar. This gives the clients a couple more weeks before harvesting when the wineries are typically full at the end of harvest. Michael says he tells clients “Let me water it, rather that you having to water it in the winery!”.
Syrah. You know it. You have heard it called Shiraz and made into lush giant styles from Australia. Maybe you have had it in a GSM, that Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Chances are you have even tried it as a single variety wine, perhaps a French wine from Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s not the nation’s top variety sitting behind the Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay that made Napa what it is. Syrah however is extraordinarily expressive. In Ballard Canyon it is the most widely grown grape. Much of that happened by accident. Growers didn’t plant Syrah because they heard about someone else planting it, it was just simply the right grape to plant in this soil and this climate. Then it thrived. Syrah composes more than half of the planted vineyard acres in the Ballard Canyon AVA, so it’s no wonder that they chose this variety as their Champion as they tell the world about Ballard Canyon.
Recently while we were in Santa Barbara, Michael Larner took the time to show us the Syrah in the Larner Vineyard, explain how they chose their clones and the future of Syrah at Larner Vineyard.
Of the 33 acres of vineyards at Larner, 23 acres are planted in Syrah. When they began planning in the late 90’s there was only so much information on this variety available at the time. They searched for the top three clones of Syrah from France, Australia and California and then laid out their 11 blocks. They also created an experimental block with clones that they were interested in but didn’t want to commit to a full 2 or 3 acres. There are 6 different rows of an experimental selection of clones. These rows can then be looked at from a purely viticultural perspective. This gives Michael the opportunity to see how the different clones work and decide if he might want to use them in the future. The property is 130 acres and they have another 30 acres that they will eventually plant with grapes, so this block has become their training ground for grapes.
In addition they will be doing some Massale Selection in an area of the property. This is a process of pulling canes when the sap has started to move back into them and then planting them to let them root. They will then allow these vines to go to seed and start propagating off the seeds. They do that a couple of times to speed the acclimation process of these vines that are all still relatively new (by Old World Standards) to California.
There are enough rows in the experimental block to harvest grapes and separately ferment, but you would be fermenting in 5 gallon lots. Michael used to sell these to small home winemakers who were very excited that Larner would sell as little as ¼ ton of grapes, but now they harvest all of these together and co-ferment them for the estate wines.
Ironically the experimental block has become their Cru. This spot has about 7 feet of sand and is probably the worst soil on the site. Even the weeds don’t like this spot. Surprisingly it has been beneficial, forcing these vines that would normally be vigorous to not overproduce. Almost every cluster here is picture perfect, making it the place for beautiful shots of Syrah grapes and vines.
At a recent event we had the opportunity to taste Syrahs from 7 of the Vineyards in Ballard Canyon. The styles vary dependent on the winemaker and the site, but there is an underlying similarity from the AVA that cannot be dismissed. In Michael’s words “You know you have a good vineyard when the vineyard speaks louder than the winemaker.” This is the case with the Ballard Canyon AVA. The underlying similarities in these wines shine through past the voices of the winemakers. The next bottling of the Larner Syrah will be in the new Ballard Canyon bottles. (Stolpman has a beautiful post and photo about the new bottles.) These bottles are reserved for Ballard Canyon AVA Estate Syrahs and have the Ballard Canyon embossed on the neck of the bottle. Watch for these, the new voice of Syrah will be coming from Ballard Canyon.
Larner Vineyard & Winery has a Tasting room in Los Olivos attached to the Los Olivos General Store. They are open Thursday to Monday from 11am to 5pm.
We had the opportunity to speak one on one with Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards and Winery in Ballard Canyon, out at the vineyard. This beautiful property is at the Southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA.
In this Video Michael talks about the formation and the plans for the new Ballard Canyon AVA.
The AVA was established in October of 2013 and covers just 7,800 acres, sitting in the very center of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Planted primarily with Rhone Varieties with scatterings of some Bordeaux and Italian varieties. There area 600 planted acres of vineyard in Ballard Canyon and at least ½ of the planted vineyards are of Syrah.
The catalyst for the forming of the AVA came in 2010 when Ballard Canyon hosted a group of 100 sommeliers from Sommelier Journal. In a side by side tasting of the wines of Ballard Canyon there were nuances of minerality, clarity of fruit, structure and tannins that ran through all of the wines. Of course each had it’s signature from the winemaker, but side by side the similarities rang through loudly. This was a case where the vineyards were speaking louder than the winemakers. The sommeliers in the Q & A following the tasting asked why they were not an AVA? And so it began. This is a tight knit group of vineyards. There are only 15 vineyards in the AVA and they were focused. They brought in Wes Hagen, who had already written 2 AVA proposals. With a focus of purpose the AVA was established in 3 years.
Once established they returned to the idea of clarity of purpose. As I mentioned, over ½ of the vineyards planted are in Syrah. Much of this happened without the Vineyards speaking to each other. This grape grows well here and it became their Champion. As they move forward they have a special Rhone style bottle with “Ballard Canyon” in the glass on the neck that can be used only for Estate wines and only for Syrah. In this way they can focus on getting the word out about the new AVA with a focus on this variety.
Don’t get me wrong, the other Rhone Varieties that are grown here are spectacular they have Grenache and Mourvedre that will knock your socks off, but you should first and foremost taste their Syrah.
1st Annual Larner Winemaker Dinner at the Ballard Inn & Restaurant
Ballard Inn, Ballard CA
The warm atmosphere of the Ballard Inn, was the perfect setting to enjoy the beautiful wines of Larner Vineyard and Winery grown in the brand new Ballard Canyon AVA (by the man who got this AVA going) and have them paired with the Asian & New French inspired dishes of Chef Budi Kazali.
As guests arrived, Michael Larner was pouring his 2012 rosé, and the guests found seats in the comfortable parlor, or ventured back out onto the porch to watch as the sun started to dip toward sunset. The rose is a GSM made in the saignée method, bleeding off the juice. It is about 55% Syrah, 30% Grenache and the rest Mouvedre.
Larner Wine Dinner Appetizer
The 2013 Malvasia Bianca came out next as well as passed hors d’ouevres. Conversation was light and easy, but we were all waiting for the main event. Table by table the guests were seated in the small dining room that holds about 50, and Michael spoke about the wines and the things that make this place so special for him. This is the place that he and his wife Christina come to celebrate momentous occasions, so The Ballard Inn, Chef Budi and great memories are all wrapped up together for them. Holding their first winemaker dinner here, was really the icing on the cake.
The menu was spectacular
Larner Dinner Menu
As we came to the table Michael began with a little background.
Larner is about Geology Origins and Territory.
Michael’s background is in Geology and he spent time doing geotechnical engineering. His parents Stevan & Christine had been looking since 70’s for a vineyard to take them into their retirement. In the late 90’s found this place in Ballard Canyon and invited him to join them in the vineyard venture.
He came out and fell in love with the place.
Michael finds that there is a synergy between geology and winemaking. Both get you out in the field getting dust on your feet and sunburnt.
Viticulturalists talk about soil. Soil starts from the decomposition and erosion of something else and that is the geology of it. This is the “origin” of the soil.
In France they talk about terrioir, which is the expression of climate & soil. Here in America that would translate to “territory”. The Larner “territory” is Ballard Canyon. They seek to express this territory in their wine.
So there you have it. Geology, Origins, Territory. That is what Larner Wine is all about.
We started dinner with the Kombu Brined Local Halibut Sashmi with Japanese Cucumber & Nagaimo Peach Vinaigrette & Basil Oil paired with the 2012 Larner Viognier. I will admit..I had to go look up Kombu and Nagaimo and here’s what I found. Kombu is an edible kelp that is often used to flavor broths. Nagaimo is an Asian yam that can be eaten raw and is typically shaved or grated. Regardless, the dish was light and nuanced and with the peach vinaigrette, it tied in beautifully with the wine. You should have seen us all laying bits on our fork to create the perfect bite.
The second course was Jimenez Farm Rabbit & Shitake Confit with Black Pepper Gnocchi & Brown Butter Demi Glace, paired with 2009 Elemental, GSM blend. This blend is where Michael gets to be more creative, channeling his wife’s artistic energy. For him a blend doesn’t have a standard bar that it is striving to reach like a 100% variety wine does. You can blend it to make you and your palate happy. The name “Elemental” comes from blending these separate elements: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. This wine is meant to be multidimensional, pairing with anything from pizza to the Rabbit and Mushroom dish that Budi created to accompany it.
The 3rd course was the one that Emily had been waiting for. Emily runs the tasting room and deals with the social media and much more for Larner and she loves the Mourvedre. Typically Mourvedre is a blending grape and it is rare to see it on it’s own. Since Michael keeps all his lots and clones separate for as long as he can, he has an opportunity to see them grow and evolve before blending. The 2010 Mourvedre surprised him with expressions of game spice, chocolate spice and crushed rock characteristics and he determined to let it stand on it’s own. Budi paired this with Rack of Wild Boar with Velasquez Farm Nopales & Bacon Forbidden Rice with Bing Cherry Glaze. I got to watch as Emily took her first bite, her eyes closed and I think she might have even moaned a little. It was perfect. It is rare to see something as gamey as Wild Boar on a menu, but the “gaminess” is what made it pair so well with the wine, that and the cherry glaze which pulled up the fruit character. I will admit to not knowing what Nopales were. The word sounded familiar, but within this context I couldn’t place it. Understandable I think, Nopales are the paddles of the prickly pear cactus, they were unexpected and delicious.
The 4th course was to pair with Ballard Canyon’s signature wine, Syrah. Syrah is the poster child for Ballard Canyon and by far is the most widely planted grape there. While it is planted all over Santa Barbara County, it flourishes in Ballard Canyon with a structure and minerality that you don’t find elsewhere in Santa Barbara. The Larner Syrah is made up of a about 7 different clones and is sourced from all over the vineyard. The lots are kept separate and then brought back together to blend giving you a synopsis of the Larner Vineyard. The pairing for this went exotic again with Buffalo prepared 2 ways. First braised Buffalo short ribs & then a buffalo ravioli with Sautéed Celtuce in a Chinese Black Bean Sauce. (full disclosure..we all went “Celtuce? is that like a lettuce?” So let me set the record straight, it is also known as “stem lettuce” or “chinese lettuce” and it is the stem that it used.)
Our last course was dessert and we enjoyed a different side of the Malvasia Bianca here paired with the Coconut Mochi with Lychee Ice Cream. The nose on the wine and the taste and smell of the dessert were really complimentary.
Chef Budi, Ballard Inn
At this point Budi made it out of the kitchen to speak to us. This was a fun dinner for him, pairing with wines he loves and mixing it up with things outside the norm was fun for him. He did also mention one of the big perks for him with these dinners. “Everybody orders everything and No left overs!”
If you find yourself in Santa Barbara, make the trip to the Ballard Inn. Budi’s food is not to be missed. Stop in Los Olivos and do a tasting with Larner Wines. You won’t be able to leave without a bottle or two.
While we were in Santa Barbara for the Vintners Spring Weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards and Winery. He graciously took time to speak with us while he was setting up for the Grand Tasting.
So we are here with Michael Larner of Larner Winery and you are in the new Ballard Canyon AVA right?That’s right. We formed last year. At harvest in October we were certified and approved. We are very excited.
Michael Larner was actually instrumental in the creation of the AVA. After a visit from a group of Sommeliers sent by Sommeliers Journal in 2010 to taste Ballard Canyon Syrahs, he rallied the vineyard owners and contacted Wes Hagen who had put together the Sta Rita Hills AVA to get the ball rolling on creating this new AVA.
What wines are you making with your winery?We are what we call Rhone Valley varietal specific, so we have Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, a little bit of an outlier of Malvasia Bianca. Of the 34 acres we have 23 planted in Syrah and that is really our champion of Ballard Canyon. Essentially all of us, Rusack, Jonata, Beckmen, Stolpman we are all really specialized in Syrah more than anything, so that really becomes the champion as well as also becoming the face of Ballard Canyon. We are actually going to do something unique creating a bottle mold that is specifically made for Ballard Canyon producers that says Ballard Canyon on the shoulder and that will be something we can take to the market. The only Caveat is that it has to be A. an estate and B. is has to be Syrah. So we want to go out into the market putting our best foot forward with Syrah. Because the AVA is 7600 acres with about 600 acre planted and over 300 in Syrah, it is definitely our Champion definitely what we want people to know about when we go out into the market.
The day before we had taken a vineyard hike at Beckmen’s Purisimo Mountain Vineyard which is North of Larner in Ballard Canyon. I had an opportunity to speak with Steve Beckmen about how he had chosen to layout his vineyard. The decisions on where to plant different varieties are based on so many variables, including soil, water, temperature, sun and even wind. So I asked Michael about how he had made these choices for his vineyard.
Michael: At Larner Vineyard our slopes are south facing slopes and our Syrah is kind of in the middle section. We actually put our Grenache on top. We are always worried about ripening so we put it at the higher elevation to push it a little, and then on the lower elevations we do more of our whites. Most of our site is sandy compared to Beckmen, so because of that we match soils a little differently than they do. That is probably why we have more of our Syrah in the middle. We are on any given day maybe a degree or two cooler than them. The main thing for us is that Ballard Canyon is defined by the presence of chalk or limestone, and up at Beckmen, Stolpman it’s limestone, you come down to me on the south side and we are more chalk. It’s still the same material it’s just a little more friable in my neck of the woods, where it’s a little more compacted up on the north side. It’s still rendered from the same foundation of bedrock, but ours is basically overlaid by sand so it allows the vines to be stressed enough to produce low quantities, high concentration, but then there is a nice underlay of chalk in our case that also brings a minerality. I think that was sort of the unique thing about Ballard, the way it formed was essentially 6 of us producers that were pouring wine for Sommelier Journal we tasted through all the wines and looked at each other and thought wow there’s a lot of similarities. We all have our different fingerprint in terms of oak use etcetera, but there was definitely a lot of very characteristic minerality, that we all picked up on. Then when we did the Q & A with these sommeliers, they said “Why aren’t you guys an AVA” and we said okay no brainer, why aren’t we an AVA. So we started forming it in 2010.
We let him get back to setting up as it was closing in the time to open the gates for the Grand Tasting and later came back to taste the wines. His “Elemental” is a gorgeous GSM blend that is a favorite in many restaurants. They also have a 2012 Viognier that is brand new and a lovely GSM Rosé.
We also met his wife Christina later in the day. She had a booth with her Wine Art and I picked up one of her stunning paintings of a cluster of Viognier on the vine, painted in Syrah.
They have a tasting room in Los Olivos attached to the Los Olivos General Store, right behind the classic Gas Pump! You can stop in there and taste all of their wines.