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Ballard Canyon- Santa Ynez Valley’s Latest AVA-To-Be

We are extremely excited to introduce you to our newest guest blogger, Chris Knox, General Manager of Bin 2860. Each month he will be bringing us some of latest and greatest wine happenings around the Santa Ynez  Valley. For his first post he is introducing us to one of the most exciting developments in our area: Ballard Canyon. So read on hear all about Santa Valley’s latest AVA!

Santa Ynez Valley is giving birth. Thatʼs right, the gestation period has only just begun, but I can already tell you that this babyʼs going to be world famous. And itʼs going to be rather large as babies go, measuring in at a whopping 7,794 acres!  Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for the coming of Santa Ynez Valleyʼs latest AVA (American Viticultural Area) Ballard Canyon, a quiet, picturesque area nestled between US Route 101 to the west, Alamo Pintado Rd. to the east, Los Olivos to the north and Buellton to the south.

This is definitely an exciting time not just for wine geeks, but also for anyone who enjoys witnessing history in the making. As renowned sommelier and winemaker Rajat Parr recently told me, Ballard Canyon is poised to be regarded on the world wine stage as truly on par (yes pun is fully intended) with regions of such notoriety as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux. And we get to be present at its birth and help to steward it from its infancy through to its adolescence and finally maturity as a world class wine region allits own.

I got to speak with one of the midwives (to carry on the analogy) of this beautiful baby-to-be, Mike Larner, whose Larner Vineyard is regarded as producing some of the best Syrah and Grenache in the area. Mike was kind enough to drop by the wine shop and share a unique insiderʼs perspective on what goes into creating a new AVA and what makes Ballard Canyon so special and dear to his heart. But before we get into that, letʼs briefly set the stage a bit.

Why the heck do we need yet another AVA anyway? Oh, and what IS an AVA? Well, briefly an AVA is an American Viticultural Area, a federally recognized wine region that is climatically and geologically unique. An AVA is our American equivalent of the French AOC system or Italyʼs DOC and DOCG designations, with two main exceptions – we do not legally limit what grapes can be grown within those boundaries nor do we have a governing body that determines the overall quality of wines produced from those regions. We leave those determinations to the grape growers and the consumers respectively. To label a wine with a certain place of origin specified, at least 85% of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown from within that stated place of origin which must also be a federally recognized AVA.

That takes care of the “what”, which brings us to the “why”. Thereʼs been a movement in California to gradually break larger AVAs into smaller ones, thus giving the consumer more specificity with which to make their own quality determinations. Often, when a larger AVA is drawn up it is done so before a great deal of experimentation with what grapes will grow well there and without a true intimate working knowledge of all the smaller microclimates within its borders. Then, over time, as more and more vineyards are planted and grape growers and winemakers have had many vintages under their belts they may come to realize that the larger AVA has lost its ability to convey the necessary specificity that it should. They begin to notice that certain pockets within the broader AVA seem to have unique defining characteristics that set them apart from the surrounding region. Such is the way that Santa Barbara Countyʼs first officially recognized AVA was born – Santa Maria, followed by Santa Ynez Valley. The latest two, Sta. Rita Hills (established in 2001) and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (established in 2009) were actually originally a part of Santa Ynez Valley, but were found to be so unique they warranted their own AVA designation.

Which brings us right back around to the formation of Santa Ynez Valleyʼs soon to be newest AVA, Ballard Canyon. Led by the efforts of Mike Larner of Larner Vineyards, Sashi Moorman of Stolpman, Matt Dees of Jonata, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards, John Falcone of  Rusak (and Falcone), and Hillary Harrison of Harrison-Clarke, Ballard Canyon will be the smallest AVA in Santa Ynez Valley, with just under 8,000 acres (560 of which are planted). Compare that to Happy Canyonʼs 24,000 acres or Sta. Rita Hillsʼ 64,000 acres! Mike Larner, nicknamed by Larry Sarloos as the Mayor of Ballard Canyon, said “The sense of community has been really great…itʼs a small community, but everyone has been chipping in and helping out.”

Mike Larner speaks with great passion and optimism about Ballard Canyonʼs bright future. He, along with his fellow members in the Ballard Canyon Winegrowersʼ Alliance, are dedicated to introducing the world to world class wines, particularly Syrah, from the region he is fortunate enough to call home.  “We want people when they think about Syrah, to think Ballard Canyon…and vice versa,” Mike says.  And when asked what makes Ballard Canyon so unique and worthy of its own appellation, Mike responds enthusiastically “Definitely there are two main factors weʼve found when doing this study and one of them ironically is not so much climate on the whole as it is wind patterns, though clearly the wind patterns contribute to the overall climate. Weʼve noticed that the wind patterns are really unique compared to the rest of the valley.” He explains that Ballard Canyon is uniquely positioned so as to receive some cool climate influence from Sta. Rita Hills to the west while also benefitting from some of the warmth from further east, creating a perfect confluence of cool and warm weather characteristics, lending great depth and complexity to its wines. Mike then goes on to say that the second defining characteristic is the predominance of sand inthe soil composition, joined by some clay, limestone chalk and chert, all of which lead to a beautiful sense of minerality in the wines.

If all goes well, the application for Ballard Canyonʼs AVA status should be approved sometime in 2012. But as Mike says “The great thing is that itʼs retroactive. So, as of the date of the filing, those wines can be labelled with the new AVA…so anything thatʼs made from this year on will be able to be Ballard Canyon even if itʼs not granted until 2012. So we can still label our 2011ʼs as Ballard Canyon.”

Of course you donʼt have to wait for the official approval of Ballard Canyonʼs AVA status to enjoy some truly amazing wines from its member vineyards and wineries. Be sure to check out some single vineyard wines from Larner Vineyard by such prestigious producers as Paul Lato, Kaena, Jaffurs, Bonaccorsi, Herman Story and Kenneth Crawford. Also, be sure to try wines from Larner Vineyardʼs neighbors Stolpman, Jonata, Beckmen (Purisima Mountain Vineyard), Rusack, Harrison-Clarke, Jorian Hill & Saarloos & Sons. See for yourself what makes Ballard Canyon so incredibly special and its wines absolutely world-class!

Ballard Canyon AVA Map


  1. Jen Hart says:

    Wow! So exciting!!!! Such amazing fruit coming from there! Truly deserved!

    Amazing photos! Great article! Keep ‘em coming!

  2. GREAT! Great! Great! job!!

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