Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Ballard Canyon AVA considers $30 minimum retail price for Syrah

Rusack Vineyards sits in the center of Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County
This is American Syrah's new hope.

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
Says Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac: "The $30 price floor is for wines that would be bottled in a custom molded bottle with the words Ballard Canyon embossed. The idea would be to create a symbol of quality for wines bottled by those wineries who also farm the land. Technically anyone who buys fruit from the AVA could put (Ballard Canyon) on their label, they just wouldn't be able to use the custom bottle."

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
Jeff Newton, founder of Coastal Vineyard Care Services, says the Perrin family from France's Rhone Valley visited Ballard Canyon several times before deciding to buy land in Paso Robles to found Tablas Creek. "That land was cheaper," Newton says.

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
"We had a meeting, there were only 10 of us, and said, the market's calling for it, the sommeliers are calling for it, let's go for it," Larner says. "It's a lot easier to get something moving when you have such a small group."

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.

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kschlach said...

If vintners wanted to have a minimum price for BC Syrah they should have trademarked the name and licensed it rather go the AVA route. As you admit at the end, there is no reason why a producer couldn't sell BC Syrah for $5 if they wanted (and lose money).

Dave Nershi, CSW said...

Minimum prices aren't appropriate because price-fixing is illegal per the Sherman Antitrust Act. We don't want gas stations establishing a $4.00 minimum price per gallon...

W. Blake Gray said...

DN: Sorry, but there's no way to use the antitrust act on Ballard Canyon Syrah. Unlike with gasoline, which is all the same and available from only a few multinational distributors, consumers could buy cheaper Syrah from hundreds of other producers, here and abroad.

Dave Nershi, CSW said...

It's an interesting approach, but I believe it would be challenged. The FTC says: A plain agreement among competitors to fix prices is almost always illegal, whether prices are fixed at a minimum, maximum, or within some range. http://www.ftc.gov/bc/antitrust/price_fixing.shtm

Andy said...

Not sure about the legality or rationale...but I can say one thing. Ballard canyon syrahs are exceptional. I have had numerous versions of Larner syrah from various producers over the years-- as a common thread they have the acidity and "savory-ness" of cool climate syrahs and the big, luscious fruit from warm climate syrahs which both play together in harmony. Tonight, I am going to drink one of my 09 McPrice Myers Larner syrahs just cause it sounds so good....

W. Blake Gray said...

Please note an update to this story from the first version: the price floor would be for a particular bottle, similar to the Domaines et Traditions Riesling.

Kyle, you may be right that they may need to trademark a name other than just "Ballard Canyon Syrah."

I'm not going to comment further here on the antitrust issue, but BC vintners might as well consult their attorney.

tercero wines said...

The idea of a minimum price for syrahs in the area is certainly an interesting one. Being a producer who purchases fruit from the area, I'm all about creating more visibility for the area as I too feel it is a gem among gems in Santa Barbara County.

One thing that somewhat bums me out is that, though syrah certainly does well here, so does Grenache, a variety that has tremendous upside potential. I'd love to see emphasis on this, but my guess is that we won't because some of the 'larger' producers in the area don't have much planted not produce much at all.

Something else to note about the AVA - it is quite varied in both soil and climate, believe it or not. For instance, the Larner Vineyard sits in a belt of fog most mornings during harvest, whereas driving a mile up the road, you'll hit sunshine. Also, Larner is 100% sand whereas other vineyard are planted to limestone, as you said . .


Patrick Frank said...

Yes Ballard Canyon is one of the more richly deserved AVAs. And yes, many of those growers care a lot about quality and are making excellent juice. But a guaranteed price floor makes me suspicious. I fail to see why it's necessary. We know who the quality producers are; and they price their product according to their needs. The current system is working, in other words.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting idea, and a fun article, Blake. One small correction. We did look in Ballard Canyon before settling on a property in Paso Robles, but didn't reject the area because it was too expensive (anyone who's looked at the investment we put in at the beginning of the Tablas Creek project, from vine imports to nursery to winery will realize that the land cost was only a tiny part of what was needed, and we wouldn't have shied away from a parcel because of its cost). We decided on Paso Robles because we were looking for a little more southern Rhone-like climate to focus on Mourvedre and Grenache -- more than Syrah, which is a comparatively minor grape in Chateauneuf du Pape -- and we felt that Paso Robles offered us just a touch more warmth. But it is a great area, and particularly good for Syrah. I'll follow with interest how this develops, and wish them luck.


Jonas Landau, everydaywineguy said...

Still sounds like collusion and as for "They have garrigue-type aromas. They smack of lavender, of rosemary."
I'll believe it when I smell it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Jason. Had Tablas Creek rosé a couple weeks ago in Napa. Nice wine.

SAarLooS said...

there is no minimum on the wines from the Ballard Canyon AVA.
The Group was discussing a special bottling on Estate Fruit from the AVA. Those bottles that we discussed would sell for a minimum of 30.

It is not a blanket price for the AVA.

Damaris said...

Jonata "appears to have the flattest vineyard"...is this based on an observation from afar or from touring the entire 600 acre site?

Matt Mauldin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Mauldin said...

The comment on Jonata- "it also appears to have the healthiest grapevines, which still have rich golden-colored leaves when many of the vines on the hills around it are looking straggly and near-bare."

If vines lose their leaves and go dormant based on when the grapes are harvested- wouldn't Jonata's foliage have more to do with what varietals they grow (mostly Bordeaux varietals that struggle to get ripe in BC) and the timing of their picks?

I'm guessing that the other vineyards in the AVA that are mostly Syrah were picked earlier, thus losing their leaves earlier.

W. Blake Gray said...

Damaris: "Touring the entire 600 acre site?"

I want to be polite but .... bwahahahahaha. I toured the entire canyon. Have you been there? It didn't exactly take all day.

Damaris said...

Blake: I want to be polite and will be polite.
Yes, I spend a lot of time on the property. That's why I was surprised to hear it described that way.

Unknown said...

I haven't been to Jonata's vineyard(s). One of the previous comments touched upon their vines still looking a bit healthier given the time of year. One likely leap of logic, their wines tend to be a richer/lusher expression. Most likely they are harvesting much later than their surrounding neighbors at higher brix.?

Anyway, thanks for covering the AVA, some very nice wines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Well gosh, Damaris, if you think something's wrong here and you're an expert on the subject, don't be passive-aggressive. Just tell us who you are and what you know. See Jason Haas' comment above, for example.

Unknown said...

Dear Matt and Unknown,

Thank you for the comments. JONATA is planted mostly to Syrah but includes nine other grapes spread out over a rather large area, most of which cannot be seen from neighboring properties. As far as harvest dates, they are comparable if not the same as our neighbors. Harvest was finished in early to mid-October, with much red fruit coming in in early August. We manage to ripen Cabernet and Cabernet Franc without excessive hang-time through very rigid farming and incredibly low yields.

The conditions at JONATA are also different from some of the neighboring sites in that nearly all of our vines are planted on sand, spare 5 or 6 acres at the top of the ranch. - Wayne, JONATA

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Wayne. Help me out here: Is there a relatively flat vineyard at Jonata -- not that that's a bad thing, let's not get crazy here, some of the world's best vineyards are relatively flat -- or is that an optical illusion?

Unknown said...

Blake. The portion of the vineyard that is visible from our neighbor's property is gently sloped. However, that is maybe a 1/4 of the vineyard. The majority of the 83 acres that is JONATA, is spread over hundreds of acres, mostly hills, some of which are very steep. Our highest points are among the highest in the canyon. However, when compared to Beckmen Vineyard for example, one of the highest and steepest in the area, the visible part of JONATA would seem considerably flatter. But to call JONATA flat would be inaccurate. Like most vineyards on Ballard, there is great contour to the land.

Matt Mauldin said...

Thanks Wayne for weighing in- I didn't realize Jonata was planted to that much Syrah. Thanks Blake for writing about Santa Barbara County and Ballard Canyon Syrah!

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Wayne, I changed the post to reflect your comments.

Unknown said...

You didn't need to do that Blake, but thank you.

Man About Wine said...

I am late, as often, to comment, but it is not hard to sell Syrah or Sangio. Sell it to D Swift Phinney and let him mark it up. Or market it like Kors or Hilfiger. Heck, you don't need to sell 100,000 cases, does anybody? Listening to R. Graham moan about sales or marketing is like letting Obama make your Dr. appointments for you.

Unknown said...

Blake, thank you for the well written piece and for bringing our great news to your audience. As former Ballard Canyon Winegrower's Alliance president and a founder of the Ballard Canyon AVA we are all very excited and honored to be introduced to the wonderful list of California AVAs. All the vintners on Ballard Canyon are also very energized in ensuring that both the industry (restaurants, somms, shops, etc…) as well as consumers understand our story - a very exclusive AVA with only 7,600 acres, 6 wineries, 18 vineyards, and the majority of acreage dedicated to Syrah. Hence we have all agreed that our champion and message will revolve around Syrah. Therefore the only thing we have "conspired" to do is bottle our estate Syrahs in a custom cartouche burgundy bottle mold (not unlike Chateauneuf-du-pape). It just so happens that everyone making estate Syrah on Ballard Canyon already has a higher than $30 price point. So I could see how it might be interpreted that we are setting a minimum price of $30, since we all agreed that only Syrah will be bottled in the custom mold bottle - therefore by default any Syrah with the custom mold will most likely be over $30 in the market place. Contrary to your title however, there is no price fixing, anyone on Ballard is free to use the custom mold on Syrah regardless of price. Considering most of us farm sustainably or organically, in very sandy soils, to very low yields per acre, mostly with the same precision bound Coastal Vineyard Care farming company - anybody below $30 a bottle would be in the red.

Unknown said...

I should further note that the total AVA acreage is some 7,600 acres, current bearing vine acreage is only at 540 plus or minus.