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I like my wine just like I like my women...

Jul 08, 2015 at 12:00 AM

Big and Bold. Just like a Syrah... That is how I like my women.

Speaking of which, read the following article from WineFTW and give www.goldenroostersb.com a call at (805)880-3539 of get a quote online for  a winetasting tour in one of the most beautiful ABA in Santa Barbara county, a true hidden gem.

May 30, 2015


Region on the rise: Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA

Browsing through some photos of my last visit to California I got a huge pang of nostalgia, hence this post about my trip to Ballard Canyon AVA*, as it particularly resonated with me.

First, some background: in 2014 I went to the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) in Buellton (Santa Barbara County). As part of this event I attended a presentation about the Santa Barbara area in general, and Ballard Canyon in particular, by Michael Larner, vintner-winemaker at Larner Vineyards and locomotive in the Ballard Canyon AVA initiative.

During the conference, I also got to sit in on a tutored tasting of Syrah-based Ballard Canyon wines with a panel of eight leading light growers from the AVA, namely Beckmen Vineyards, Harrison Clarke, Jonata Wines, Kimsey Vineyard, Larner Vineyard, Rusack, Saarloos and Sons, and Stolpman Vineyards.

We were told that, after experimenting with many different varieties, the growers and producers of Ballard Canyon felt that Syrah was the grape best-suited throughout their area. Over half of the AVA’s planted area is Syrah, with an additional 30% planted to other Rhône varietals including Grenache, Viognier and Roussanne.

The information and wines presented were fascinating, and my appetite for adventure was whetted: curious to know more, I bundled my travel companion-photographer-friend into our hire car and we took a short side trip to see what was what. I certainly hadn’t read or heard much about the wines of Ballard Canyon before my time in this part of California, possibly because Ballard Canyon is a comparatively new wine region (AVA status was only granted in October 2013), and as such, it has not been extensively featured as a wine travel destination to date.

However, we’d heard that Ballard Canyon was wine history in the making (apparently, renowned sommelier Rajat Parr has predicted that it will rank alongside regions such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux), so it seemed high time to make the short drive from the WBC base in Buellton to the wine tourism mini-mecca that is Los Olivos and from there, along the Ballard Canyon road.

So first, Los Olivos: with a population of roughly 1,130 it may be small but it boasts a multitude of attractive tasting rooms, cafés, wine bars and restaurants, not forgetting the spendy Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa, making it a veritable haven for well-heeled travellers who like their wine served up with a certain style.

The French have a term, “bobo,” meaning bohemian-bourgeois, which sums up Los Olivos quite nicely, I think (and I mean that as a compliment).

For me, highlights here included a really good meal at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café (I wrote about it here), and a fun tasting at Saarloos & Sons’ stylish visitor facility (easily recognised thanks to the vintage pink caravan parked outside).

Call me shallow but sometimes, a little terroir goes a long way (and I’d already done my homework at the Wine Bloggers Conference), so the chocolate blackberry Syrah cup cakes in an egg box, scented candles and Facebook photo booth on offer here were a welcome respite.

After the delights of downtown Los Olivos we were ready for a contrast, neatly provided by a gentle drive along the Ballard Canyon road (downtown tasting rooms are great for ease of access, but if you yearn to eye-ball the vines, handle the soil or ponder over pruning methods, an urban location doesn’t tell the whole story).

So we took a short, roughly 8-mile drive and got reacquainted with the quiet life. Ballard Canyon is certainly ripe for discovery by wine tourists who want to step off the beaten track. If it’s cup cakes you crave, stay put in Los Olivos: there’s nothing in the way of shops or food stops along this route, but there’s plenty to please the eye, if you appreciate natural beauty.

We kept our speed down and marvelled at the rolling hills and gentle slopes, the orderly vineyards and open expanses of land covered with sun-scorched, golden-brown grasses, dotted with mighty oak trees and the odd buffalo. I snapped pictures of the ranch signs standing proud, here and there, along the road side.

We wanted to admire the vines and views, to unwind and taste. The choice was simple: Rusack is currently the only estate with a public tasting room on the Ballard Canyon road (most of the AVA’s other producers have tasting facilities in nearby towns, although Michael Larner confirmed that he hopes to get a building at his winery licensed as a tasting room – at the time of writing, he has been waiting for four years).

Asked about the scarcity of winery-located tasting rooms, local sources suggested that Rusack had “grandfather” rights, but that today, local authorities are loath to let wineries build tasting rooms in rural areas, for fear that tourists might drink and drive. It was also hinted that local residents might fear change, seeing winery development and events as a source of increased road traffic.

So, setting foot in Rusack’s handsome estate feels like something of a privilege. Visitors are welcome to consume food (along with Rusack wines) sitting on the shady patio overlooking the beautifully-manicured gardens and grounds.

The tasting room sells plates of cheese and crackers, but we bought some organic, hyper-local picnic provisions from the fabulous Global Gardens Caliterrean Café in Los Alamos, which we enjoyed with the Rusack Reserve Syrah in its special, custom-moulded bottle featured at the top of this post (unveiled at the 2014 WBC, the new Ballard Canyon Syrah bottle is exclusively for Syrahs that are estate grown in the AVA).

During our visit, we were lucky enough to run into Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac (pictured below), who kindly answered our geeky questions (meeting the man behind the label is a big bonus for wine buffs). We discovered that Rusack is in fact something of a pioneer in Ballard Canyon AVA’s history: in 1974, pioneer Gene Hallock founded the Ballard Canyon Winery, on what is now Rusack Vineyards.

A planting boom in the 1990’s saw the arrival of the Stolpman, Beckmen, Harrison, Larner, and Saarloos families, followed by Jonata and Tierra Alta, and subsequently by names including Kimsey, Jorian Hill, and Rancho Boa Vista who focused on Syrah and Rhône grape varieties.

The desire for AVA recognition was born out of a 2010 sommelier seminar, hosted by six Ballard Canyon wineries who got together to focus on Syrah. Michael Larner took the lead, a petition was researched, written and submitted, and finally, Ballard Canyon was granted its very own AVA, three years later.

It’s located between US Route 101 to the west, Alamo Pintado Rd. to the east, Los Olivos to the north and Buellton to the south, spans almost 7,800 acres (3,157 hectares) of which 560 acres (227 hectares) are planted to vines, and is the smallest AVA in Santa Ynez Valley, comprising 18* registered vintners.

Of the nine estates that produce and bottle wine, three have tasting rooms in Los Olivos, namely Saarloos and Sons (mentioned above), Larner (located within the town’s picturesque General Store), and Stolpman.

Beckmen’s wines can be tasted at the winery itself, located to the south of town, Harrison Clarke accepts visitors at the estate by appointment only, and Jonata has a tasting facility in a warehouse setting in Buellton. Chatting to the staff at the various locations we visited, I learned that the first commercial vineyards were planted here in the 1970’s: the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay favoured back in the day have been replaced for the most part by better-suited Syrah, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc and white Rhône varieties.

As luck would have it, our first-time foray into Ballard Canyon wine country was nicely topped off by a chance encounter. As we toured around the countryside looking for photo opportunities, we passed a distinctive windmill and some good-looking vines, complete with handy grape variety signage. An older man was carefully driving a tractor up and down the vines. Seeing us watching with interest, he stepped down from his cab at the end of a row and introduced himself: it was none other than Larry Saarloos himself.

It was kismet: we’d tasted the wines, gobbled the cup cakes, met Keith Saarloos at the WBC, and finally, had a delightful and informative conversation with his father, a man who was charm personified. Our Ballard Canyon, Syrah-centric experience was complete.

*An AVA (American Viticultural Area) is a federally-recognised US wine region that is climatically and geologically unique. Unlike France’s AOP areas, the AVA designation does not restrict which grapes can be grown, nor is there a governing body that examines the overall quality of wines produced. In the US, for a wine to be labelled using an AVA name, a minimum 85% of its grapes must have been grown within the stated place of origin.

Golden Rooster Transportation and Wine Tours has been helping visitors to Santa Barbara's wine country interested in wine tasting from Santa Rita Hills, Foxen Canyon, Ballard Canyon, the Santa Ynez area, and Los Olivos plan, explore and visit the well knonw premium wineries, as well as finding hidden gems in wine country.Give www.goldenroostersb.com a call and get a quote today.


** There are 18 vineyard members of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers Alliance, nine of which produce and bottle wine