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Santa Barbara, CA, United States
I enjoy creating original wine-pairing recipes that are healthful and delicious. I work for Touring & Tasting a Santa Barbara based wine club and national magazine as Food Editor. However, I am not paid for this blog and the opinions expressed here are strictly my own. I received my Personal Chef Skills Competency Award from the SBCC's School Of Culinary Arts. In 2012, I started Inside Wine - Santa Barbara with pal Lila Brown which features wine tastings with winery owners and winemakers. I also serve on the Board of the Santa Barbara Culinary Arts group, which had Julia Child as one of the founding members and funds scholarships for SBCC culinary students in her name.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara County

Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara County's newest wine AVA,  is just east of highway 154, north of the turnoff towards Solvang. Few people have visited the wineries in Happy Canyon because there are no tasting rooms or public tours, in order to keep the quiet, rural atmosphere.

The first property one sees on Happy Canyon Road is the impressive spread of Happy Canyon Vineyards. The picture-perfect horse stables and training grounds are visible from the road; much farther back on their private property are two regulation-size polo fields where proprietor Tom Barrack and a team of professional Argentinian polo players practice the sport. They provided a demonstration match at the end of the day for a group of us, including Touring & Tasting, who had been invited to a trade-only open house at the five Happy Canyon wineries.

Starlane gravity flowTouring &; Tasting President Paul Arganbright and I chose to start our Happy Canyon winery visits at the farthest end of the AVA. Dierberg & Starlane Vineyards is comprised of two brands: Starlane Vineyard, which produces Bordeaux varietals in Happy Canyon, and Dierberg Vineyard, which produces Burgundian varietals from their Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills vineyards. I had heard the size of the Starlane property was impressive, but the point hit home with a sign at the gate indicating "3 miles to winery". Along the drive, we marveled at the acres of vineyards curving among the hills, the pristine blue sky, and the spectacular setting of the residence, wine caves and winery at the foot of Figueroa Mountain.

gravity flow wineryThe gravity flow winery was designed to minimize handling of the grapes and juice. The massive winery is set into the side of the mountain with a ramping drive up the back to the third floor where trucks can unload the grape harvest. Grapes are pressed on the third floor, flow down to tanks on the second floor, then down to the ground floor for bottling. The Dierberg & Starlane Vineyard wines are made with exacting standards, including handpicking the grapes. Mary Dierberg was pouring samples of the elegant results.

Vogelzang winesVogelzang had a charming outdoor setting next to their vineyard for the tasting, pouring their highly-rated Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. Michelle described to us how the Vogelzangs found their property. They were looking for loamy clay soil with a shallow pan--that is, poor soil that was not too deep, because both of those factors favor concentration of flavor in the grapes. They also were looking for land with native mustard and brush rather than land covered with trees and bushes because the latter means the soil will produce a more vegetative taste to the wine. Another factor was ample well water, a very important factor in the Santa Ynez Valley where the higher elevations can have low water tables.  On good advice from their vineyard manager, they entered a contract to sell their grapes for the first eight years before making their own wine, helping to amortize the cost of startup. Today, Vogelzang's premium grapes are purchased by other notable wineries such as Fiddlehead, Foxen, Dragonette, Andrew Murray, Ken Brown, Rusack, Zaca Mesa, Carr and Gainey. Vogelzang's own estate wines have been crafted under the care of winemaker Robbie Meyer.
Grassini Vineyards on Touring & Tasting coverWhen we turned into Grassini Family Vineyards, something seemed familiar about the gorgeous grounds. Paul reminded me that their picturesque lake was on the cover of the Summer/Fall 2011 Issue of Touring & Tasting. I think the photo captures the beauty and tranquility of the place. Mandy GrassiniThe winery has the feeling of a tenuto in Italy, complete with the friendliness of the family and staff. Account Manager Paul Azdril was pouring their well-balanced Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blend. Mandy, one of the lovely Grassini daughters, showed off her Rhodesian ridgeback. We also had a peek at their wine caves, reminiscent of those in "the old country" and ideal for maintaining temperature and humidity levels.

Crown Point vineyards' Sara BushCrown Point Vineyard encompasses Westerly Vineyards, bought by proprietor Roger Bower last year and the former Cimarone/Three Creek Vineyard he purchased last year that will yield the grapes for the first Crown Point wines, due to be released in 2017. The utmost care is being put into the vineyard and winery practices, with promises of ultra-premium wines. The pretty and vivacious Sara Bush was pouring the Westerly Cab, Syrah, and Merlot, plus pinot from the Sta. Rita Hills. She recently joined Crown Point after being with KCOY and KEYT and was excited about her new career path. We chatted with news reporter John Palmintieri, who was at Crown Point to cover the trade event, and enjoyed some nice catered food, live music and the spectacular panoramic view of Happy Canyon from the expansive deck.

panoramic view Crown Point Vineyards
Tom Barrack polo
At the end of the day, everyone made their way to the Piocho Ranch polo fields for a lavish bbq dinner and some beautiful wines from Happy Canyon Vineyards, made by their winemaker Doug Margerum, who beside making his eponymous wines, has been the winemaker for Happy Canyon Vineyards since its inception. Tom Barrack brought one of the polo horses to the visitors' pavilion to explain some of the facts of polo to the guests, joking that polo was "the sport of gentlemen, played by thugs". The athletic proprietor showed his prowess in a game that is a blaze of thoroughbreds furiously galloping from one end of the 300 yard field to the other. We had the chance to chat with daughter Jodi and her husband Sean, who said they are "working hard to be great stewards of the land". Happy Canyon is committed to sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices. One vineyard block of Cabernet has never had a machine in it--all vineyard tending is done by hand.

Happy Canyon AVA is notable because, as the most easterly AVA in Santa Barbara County, it is the warmest, allowing ripeness to develop in the grapes. Yet it still benefits from the cooling marine influence that travels through the only east-west transverse range in a winemaking region. Great terroir, attention to detail, top-shelf winemaking techniques, and familiy legacies all contribute to making Happy Canyon AVA wines remarkable. We'll be hearing much more about this idyllic corner of the Valley as their excellent wines continue to garner recognition.
For more on Happy Canyon AVA, click here.

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