Ballard Canyon: Santa Barbara’s Newest AVA

Ballard Canyon AVA

If you’ve read any of my posts here on Sippity Sup, you know that I love to learn. For the last year or so I’ve been focused on exploring the thousands of variables that go into the production of wine. Trying to understand the nuances that different grape varietals, regions and winemaking strategies bring, and trying to absorb it all. I’ve recently heard that a new California Central Coast AVA (American Viticulture Area– an appellation system similar to France’s AOC or Appelation d’origine controlée), Ballard Canyon, is producing some world-class Rhône varietal wines, Syrah in particular.

I’d been interested in getting to know these wines better, so how long do you think it took me to decide if I would accept a media invitation to the Santa Barbara Celebration of Harvest Festival Wine Seminar and Grand Tasting? If you said two seconds, you’re close (I had to ponder for an extra second because I’d miss my second Spanish class at ULCAx). Having just completed the UCLAx Wine Management and Education certificate program (earned with distinction, I might add), I’ve moved on to boning up on Spanish before our South American jaunt at year-end.

But back to Santa Barbara (Solvang actually) and the first event of the morning. Yes, it’s OK to taste wine at 10am. You can spit. Or you can, slowly, discerningly, and with moderation, drink in the amazing craft, dedication and knowledge of winemaking pioneers like Richard Sanford, Dick Doré and Doug Margerum– among others, who participated in a panel discussion sharing their wines and personal stories.

One of those “others” is Peter Stolpman, the 30-something winemaker for Stolpman Vineyards. Pete took over day-to-day management of his family business at age 27 after learning to make wine in Australia and Italy. Ironically, the wine he seemed destined to make back home has its roots in France– Syrah.

At one point in the panel discussion, Pete said that he “found that Syrah was the magical grape for our vineyard.” Due to Ballard Canyon’s limestone ridges (providing old-world minerality), mixed climate (wind, clay soil and a nice diurnal shift, hot in the day and cool at night) they’re able to pick the grapes fresh and fully ripe. Moreover, the winery is committed to sustainable practices such as organic farming (natural ecosystems, no herbicides or pesticides, use of native yeasts), dry farming (no irrigation) and socially equitable employment. Always a plus in my book.

Santa Barbara Harvest Festival

All of which contributes to wine that authentically expresses the terroir of this baby AVA nestled within the larger Santa Ynez AVA. The 2012 Stolpman Vineyard Estate Grown Syrah that we tasted exhibited impressions of chewy tar, smoke, meat, iron and pepper adding interest to rich dark berry fruit and a whiff of flowers and dried herbs on the nose. This is not your fruit bomb Shiraz, but a balanced, complex and noble wine that speaks with a French accent.

Pete Stolpman wants Ballard Canyon Syrah to become a single thought, like Napa Cabs, Oregon Pinots or NY Rieslings. To that end, as President of the Ballard Canyon wine Growers Alliance, he and seven other grower-producers of Ballard Canyon Syrah have started to use a proprietary bottle that has “Ballard Canyon” engraved three times around the bottle neck. An old world strategy that certainly hasn’t hurt recognition of Châteauneuf du Pape. KEN

Ken Eskenazi & Sippity Sup at Santa Barbara Vinters Harvest Festival 2014