|Rusack Vineyards sits in the center of Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County|
In 1987, Ballard Canyon in eastern Santa Barbara County had only three small vineyards, and was best known for a sweet Chardonnay called "Dr.'s Fun Baby."
It still has only about 560 acres of vines; there's a single vineyard in Monterey County with 15 times as much land planted to grapes.
But Ballard Canyon, the newest American Viticultural Area, is the site of an effort to make not just great Syrah, and not just Syrah with identifiable regional character, but a Syrah in a special package that must, by rule, cost more than $30 a bottle.
|Stolpman Vineyards sits on limestone soils|
Vintners are discussing making a $30 minimum Syrah at a time when the difficulty in selling Syrah to Americans has become too old a joke to retell here.
Ah, what the hell. Randall Grahm told me this one: What's the difference between a case of the crabs and a case of Syrah? The crabs go away.
Crabs wouldn't like Ballard Canyon. There isn't much water, less than 15 inches of annual rainfall, and the natural vegetation is so sparse that a few cattle can graze a field barren.
Overall, Ballard Canyon is considerably warmer than Sta. Rita Hills to the west; it has about the same annual growing degree days (a measure of total temperature) as St. Helena in the center of Napa Valley. But grapes keep their acidity because of a huge diurnal shift; while the high temperatures are high, in growing season, the nighttime low temperatures are the lowest in the county.
Only one winding road goes through Ballard Canyon, which sits between the small towns of Buellton to the south and Los Olivos to the east. There are no grocery stores or restaurants or stoplights. There is a town of Ballard, but it isn't in Ballard Canyon.
What Ballard Canyon -- completely within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA -- has that's very unusual in California is limestone soils in the northern part.
|Jeff Newton (third from right) and his vineyard crew|
Shortly afterward, Tom Stolpman came to Ballard Canyon and bought the limestone-rich parcel the Perrins were looking at, and made the first modern plantings, discovering by trial and error that Syrah and Sangiovese worked best. But American Sangiovese is even harder to sell than Syrah, so other newcomers' vineyard plantings have concentrated on the latter.
If you want to visit the 7,800-acre canyon, you can go to Rusack Vineyards' tasting room, which was the site last week of a celebration. In October, Ballard Canyon became the newest AVA, requiring only three years from the time the growers applied.
Approval came quickly because there are only 26 vintners, and all agreed. Wes Hagen, winemaker from Clos Pepe Estate in Lompoc in the western part of the county, wrote the application, his third, and he encouraged growers to be inclusive. Jorian Hill has the only vineyard in the AVA that could be considered borderline, as it slopes down to the Buellton flats, but it starts up on a plateau with the others.
In fact, all of the Ballard Canyon vineyards, with one arguable exception, are planted on hillsides or slopes.
|Bison and cows can graze the land bare|
It's not high-elevation winegrowing particularly, topping out at less than 400 meters. But it is, unlike many AVAs, geographically consistent.
Yet the growers can credit the impetus for creating an AVA to Sommelier Journal, a magazine that announced just last month that it has ceased publication.
In 2010, Sommelier Journal contributing editor Randy Caparoso arranged a 3-day visit of 40 sommeliers from around the country to Santa Barbara County. They went to wineries all over and did group tastings. On the second day, after spending the morning tasting Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in Sta. Rita Hills, they drove to Ballard Canyon for lunch at Jonata followed by a tasting in the barn at Larner Vineyards.
"Ballard Canyon wasn't anything at the time," says Michael Larner. "We decided to present only Syrahs at the tasting. We know the way to communicate is to speak the same language, and Syrah was the most planted."
About half the grapevines in Ballard Canyon are Syrah. Grenache is the second-most planted grape at about 10%, and as in most of California, there are smaller plantings of 20 other grapes. The tasting could have been a mishmash of Chardonnay (Raj Parr buys some from three vineyards for Sandhi) and Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The decision made by the small committee putting together the Sommelier Journal tasting -- let's just do Syrah -- turned out to have enormous consequences.
"The sommeliers all said, this should be an AVA," Larner says.
Caparoso says tasting all those wines together made that obvious.
"These wines knocked your socks off, which is saying something because the day before they had another Syrah seminar in Santa Maria Valley," says Caparoso, who is trying to find a new publisher for Sommelier Journal. "They were dark, they were rich, but they had great acid. Not only do they have a lot of fruit, but they have other types of aromas. They have garrigue-type aromas. They smack of lavender, of rosemary. I rarely see that in Australia, for all the great plantings they have there. You rarely see it in California. Those wines have those types of flavors that you associate with the northern Rhone. It's not just simple fruit. It's a fully realized expression of the grape."
Larner says the somms weren't the only ones who noticed; the winemakers themselves had never really tasted all of each others' wines before.
|Autumn colors at Tierra Alta vineyard|
The Ballard Canyon AVA has geographical boundaries, but like (almost?) every existing AVA -- and unlike most European regions -- it has no current rules about how vines must be grown or wines must be made.
However, Gerbac says wineries are discussing having this special branded package for Ballard Canyon Syrah, and the price floor would be a way to ensure quality.
"We talked about yield limits, but we thought having this minimum price would take care of that," Gerbac says. "You have to have fairly limited yields to make a wine worth $30."
It's an interesting concept, unknown elsewhere in the world. But it makes some sense.
In Europe, wine regions are geographic and cultural. In the US, they're mostly for marketing: the enormous Columbia Valley AVA is 50% larger than the state of Rhode Island. Sonoma Coast, already a gerrymandered snake, was recently expanded to make Gallo happy. Even America's most famous region, Napa Valley, combines cool and breezy Carneros with hot, sunny Calistoga -- yet Napa Valley Cabernet can come from either.
If AVAs are driven by commerce, why wouldn't a minimum price be appropriate? Producers who want to sell Syrah for less could use the Santa Ynez Valley AVA on the label, or even Santa Barbara County.
Luxembourg, another country that understands money, has something like this with its groups like Domaine et Tradition; Rieslings from individual producers in that group use a special shared label -- like the proposed special Syrah bottle -- and cost about double. But not only is group membership voluntary, every member must approve every other member's wine. I can't see that happening in California, even in a small region like Ballard Canyon. But who knows; if vintners want to brand Ballard Canyon as the source of quality Syrah, they do have to deliver the goods.
Whether or not Ballard Canyon vintners can get $30 a bottle for Syrah, they've come a long way since Dr.'s Fun Baby.