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.