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.
The Key to Wine Country event in Santa Barbara was created by the Santa Barbara Vintners to give you a chance to get to know a little more about the wineries. More than just discounted tastings, many of the participating wineries set up unique events to give you an insiders perspective on their wines, vineyards and styles.
Our Key Weekend began in the Santa Maria Valley at Riverbench Vineyard with a vineyard walk on Friday morning with Rawley Hermreck the Vineyard Manager. Rawley walked us into the vineyard and explained the planting and trellising techniques that they use.
We were able to see the new vines that would be planted the next day in the front block (watch for some pictures of this process!). Laura the tasting room manager set us up to learn how to dip their pinot bottles in wax for the beautiful wax closure, and then we enjoyed lunch on the back patio with Rawley and his dog Sadie complete with a tasting of the Riverbench wines. They have a sparkling program and the Blanc de Blanc was really lovely. Of course I left with that bottle of Pinot I dipped!
We had some free time before our next event and spent a little time wandering in Los Olivos, ending up in the tiniest tasting room and enjoyed the casual laid back atmosphere at Carhartt.
Carhartt Tasting Patio
Our next event was the Larner Winemaker Dinner at the Ballard Inn. The Ballard Inn is a beautiful spot just south of Los Olivos. Chef Budi Kazali is also the owner of the the Inn, purchasing it in 2004. He blends Asian and New French styles with fresh local ingredients to create some captivating dishes.
Ballard Inn, Ballard CA
The evening began at 6 pm with Michael Larner pouring his Rose as well as the Malvasia Bianca and guests relaxed in the parlor or on the porch, watching the sun start to dip and the trees start to glow. Passed hors d’oeuvres kept our stomachs at bay as we waited for the main event. The pairings were beautiful and the intimate dining room made for a singular experience. Watch for the full blog post on this incredible evening as well as our series of conversations with Michael Larner.
Presquile Wine Event
Saturday our day began with a unique event at Presqu’ile Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. Presqu’ile gathered 4 winemakers, including their own Dieter Cronje, to taste through wines made from grapes from the Presqu’ile Vineyards.
On hand were Ernst Storm of Storm Wines, Kevin Law of Luceant Luminesce and Ariki Hill of Labyrinth. We tasted through 9 wines doing side by side comparisons and listening to the winemakers discuss their winemaking techniques and unique aspects of each vintage. The event took place on the crushpad of the winery, high above the tasting room in this gravity flow space. Matt Murphy, President of Presqu’ile is warm and welcoming and kicked off the event with an introduction and welcome. This was a fascinating journey to taste the differences in these wines and search for the underlying commonality that the soil and the site bring. It was truly an amazing event for a wine geek! I was in heaven and took page upon page of notes! Of course the atmosphere was stunning as you looked to the panel sitting next to the railing that looked down on the winery floor, the glassware, the charcuterie laid out with such care and the attentiveness to warmth and hospitality… it was a beautiful event.
We had to dash out sooner than I would have liked so that we could make it to Buellton for another unique event. Cold Heaven Cellars was holding a “Rhone Scentual” event. We arrived at the Buellton tasting room and were greeted by Kara and Liz.
Coldheaven Rhone Scent-ual Experience
In the barrel room they had 2 tables set with tasting wheels, sheets for notes and lovely blue mason jars each filled with a different item to spark your aromatic senses. We began with the white wines (Viogniers of course!) and while we were all a little shy at first, this quickly became a case of grabbing for jars and then wanting to share the fragrance with the people around you. Conversations were animated and we all found that we were smelling things in a new way and with much more thought. It was a discovery each time you opened a jar. Kara and Liz had samples of diatomaceous earth, white pepper, white flowers, fresh peaches, grapefruit peal and so many others. For the Reds at the other table they had chocolate, leather, fresh berries, cinnamon, just to start, I can’t remember them all! This was really a wonderful experience and Kara was there every step of the way encouraging you to make more discoveries and talk about other fragrances that you found in your scent memory. This event, broke down those barriers of intimidation from tasting notes. You may think that you can’t smell the habanero on that wine, but once you dip your nose in that jar, your memory is sparked and you can find it! Those tasting notes aren’t really as crazy and out there as people sometimes think. It’s just a matter of creating those scent memories and keeping them active!
With a little time to kill before the evening event, we headed to Industrial Eats for lunch. Mention Industrial Eats to anyone in the valley and you will get the same response. People will often close their eyes briefly, envisioning the last thing they had there, and then will animatedly tell you about the amazing things you should order there. We had attended the Sta. Rita Hills AVA dinner here back in April and were excited to go try some wood fired pizza for lunch. The tables are long community tables allowing large groups to sit together or smaller groups to make new friends. The food here is phenomenal and the service is great. Don’t miss stopping here!
Ross Rankin, Imagine Wine Maker
Our last event of the day was in Santa Ynez at Imagine Wine. They held an evening of Music, Art, Food and “Blogging”. I’m blushing a little, the “blogging” was added since we were attending. Located on the corner of Numancia and Edison this tasting room is also an art gallery that is flooded with natural light from 2 sides. For this event they featured the work of Robert Karl Vogel, as well as music from Jim Campbell and then of course the wines. Ross Rankin, the owner and winemaker had barrel samples out on the corner of the porch and took guests through the stories of each wine. Jim
Campbell performed “every song you know by heart (almost).” (really, I could sing along with everything!). Lyndee Rankin had great food set out to accompany the wines and you could wander and sip as you enjoyed the “En Plein Air” paintings by Robert Karl Vogel, landscapes and cloudscapes of California and the Sierras. Also sculptures by Blake Rankin, (son of the winemaker) dotted the tasting room. The centerpiece for the gallery is a sculpture called Wings, which is the inspiration for one of his father’s wines.
Ross’s wines are unique in that he believes in aging his wines before release. We did get to taste his new (Barbera)? which he created specifically to have a wine for a quicker release. It was a lovely evening with the art, music and wine inspiring great conversations among the varied guests. Watch for a video blog with insights from Ross on his wines!
I unfortunately had to fly home to Vegas, so Michael enjoyed the Sunday Vineyard Hike and Farm-to-table lunch at Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard without me. So here…I’ll turn it over to him.
Buttonwood Wine Tasting with Karen Steinwachs
It was a great weekend for wine tasting and a beautiful morning. I was looking forward to seeing the Farm and tasting the wines. We had stopped by their booth at the grand tasting during the Spring Vintners Weekend event and their wines were amazing. After tasting them again that still held true. Karen Steinwachs, their winemaker told us during the tour, that they try to keep the wines affordable. This is possible because they do everything in house, but the wines really could sell for twice the amount they sell them for. When you drive in you only see the tasting room and the surrounding farm, that is because the vineyard and winery are up on the plateau. So we drove up the hill and started out the day at the winery at the top of the plateau where Karen poured our first wine a 2013 “Zingy”, a Sav Blanc, and told us stories about how it was named. She then gave us a tour of the wine making and storage facility, followed by a walk around the picturesque views of the vineyard. We made our way back to the winery tried another Sav Blanc, the 2011 Devin, we then made our way back down the hill to the picnic grounds below,
Pascale Beale, Salad Demo
Salad with Grenache
where we were treated to a chef Demo by Pascale Beale and tasted various wines with fresh from the farm Salads. We will have a more complete Blog post and video on this adventure at Buttonwood. This is a must stop, to see the combination of Farm and Vineyard. If you can visit this Fall while they are doing their Harvest Tour, it should not be missed.
Stay Tuned, in the next couple of weeks we will be Posting Blogs and Videos on this amazing Weekend. We will also be launching a Ballard Canyon Series, with Interviews with Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard & Winery, and Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards. This will be a 4 week Series starting July 7th 2014. We will also be at the Wine Bloggers Conference in July to talk to with more winemakers and hear more stories from Santa Barbara. So you can expect more information on this incredible region for wines.
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.