Only seven estates produce wine in this AVA (American Viticultural Area), which was established in 2013. A couple more have no Ballard Canyon wine on the market right now. Ten additional vineyards are selling their fruit, which means outside wineries are capitalizing on the elite attributes of this small stretch of land.
What is elite here is Syrah. It's the signature wine, the one not to miss, although you'll taste beautiful Grenache, Viognier and other wines from this AVA too.
A key player in all of this is Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard & Winery (above), a co-founder of the AVA and president from 2010 to 2014. Larner is proud of the special bottle designed just for Syrah and embossed with name of the AVA.
The rules are strict. Only wineries within the AVA can use the bottle, and their Syrah must be made from Ballard Canyon grapes. No other varietal can go into the bottle. It's permissible, however, for the Syrah to be co-fermented with Viognier.
Seven of the nine wineries entitled to use the bottle at this moment are Larner, Stolpman, Beckmen, Rusack, Jonata, Harrison-Clarke and Jorian Hill. So if you are a bottle collector, look for those Syrahs. The other two are Saarloos & Sons, which doesn't have a Ballard Canyon wine on the market now, and Kimsey Vineyard, which hasn't released wine yet.
The Larner red barn (above) is where the meetings that led to establishing the AVA took place. It's also where grapes are brought after harvest for pick up or delivery to the 23 wineries that buy Larner fruit.
On a sunny morning, a group joined Larner for a walk in the vineyard, glasses of Malvasia Bianca in hand--he grows that too, only 1.4 acres of it in addition to 2 acres of Mourvedre, 2 1/2 of Viognier, 6 acres of Grenache and 23 of Syrah.
The Larner ranch spreads over 134 acres, 34 of which are planted to vineyards. Wineries that have contracted for grapes have their rows identified by numbers. Above is a block of Syrah vines from the Estrella clone, which originated with Estrella Rivery Winery in Paso Robles, where Gary Eberle planted the Syrah grapes.
"The signature of the vineyard is minerality," Larner said. The climate and soils of this AVA make it ideal for Rhone varietals such as Syrah. "Pinot Noir and Chardonnay get too ripe here," he said.
Larner Vineyard sells 80% of its grapes. Six of the wineries that make wine from those grapes poured at a tasting after the tour to show how Larner fruit expresses itself in the bottle. They set their wines out on barrels in the red barn--Larner's tasting room is in the Los Olivos General Store in nearby Los Olivos.
Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz Wines poured a 2012 Grenache, the one wine she produces from Larner grapes. She made it at the Buellton Bodegas, a co-op wine-making facility for small producers started by Michael Larner in 2013.
"My goal is to express the aromatics and the beauty of the varietals so I am very gentle with the fruit," said Magdevski, who started out as a garage winemaker.
A Grenache specialist, Mikael Sigouin of Kaena Wine Company set out a vertical tasting of six Grenaches from Larner vineyard grapes (above). "To me, '09 was the best vintage of the decade," he said. "Up until '09, I thought '07 was the hit." Favorable weather helped make '09 outstanding.
As a sommelier in Toronto, Paul Lato bought a lot of wine from Santa Barbara County. "I loved the wines, and I loved the area," he said. Finally, he packed his belongings into two suitcases, headed south and started Paul Lato Wines with $50,000.
From 150 cases at the beginning in 2002, production has grown to 3,000 cases. Lato's Larner wines are Grenache and Syrah (above). The 2011 Grenache came from a problem year with rains during harvest. "But we survived those well," he said. "We made really good wines."
The only white wine at the tasting was a Viognier from McPrice Myers Wine Company. Subtly floral, the wine was fermented to "right before dryness," Myers said. Based in Paso Robles, Myers makes a lot of Paso wine, but buys Syrah, Grenache and Viognier from Larner.
Russell P. From of Herman Story Wines (Herman, a rancher, was his grandfather) poured a 2007 Larner Syrah that was wonderfully rich. The four Larner Vineyard acres allotted to him are planted with half Grenache and half Syrah. "It's a great spot, a great little valley," he said.
Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines set out a 2009 Syrah, made 100% with grapes from the Estrella block, along with a 2012 Syrah and the 2003 Pape Star, which is a blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre and 15% Syrah. It's his best seller, he said, and so popular he can't get enough grapes for it from Larner and when necessary buys them elsewhere.
"Our winemaking style is geared toward wines that can age," Kunin said, as is the case with Pape Star. The current release of the wine is 2013.
Michael Larner makes about 1200 cases of wine a year. Those he poured included a red blend called Elemental and the 2010 reserve Syrah, which is the wine I chose to go with my sandwich when we sat with the winemakers, including Mikael Sigouin of Kaena (above), for lunch after the tasting.
Syrah, said Larner, "is definitely our flagship wine. Syrah does so well here."
To learn more, Listen to Michael Larner on the SoCal Restaurant Show at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 6. The radio station is AM 830 KLAA on the AM radio band. The show is also streamed live on the show's website, www.SoCalRestaurantShow.com.