There are some people who would rather you not know about Happy Canyon — and when you drive down its roads, which wind past horse pastures and rolling hills covered in grapevines, it’s easy to understand why. This tiny, isolated American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the easternmost part of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County is very much an unspoiled paradise. And so far, the locals have succeeded in blocking the canyon from having tasting rooms, which significantly limits the exposure of its wineries — but also keeps tourism and traffic to a minimum.
Perhaps it’s the right move, since if the Bordeaux-style wines coming out of Happy Canyon were better known, they would likely be in high demand, and enthusiasts would be pouring into the area clamoring to taste them.
An Emerging Subregion
The Santa Ynez Valley, overall, doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but if you know any of the wines from its four sub-AVAs, you probably know the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir coming out of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, in the western part of the valley, where cool Pacific breezes help create an ideal microclimate for those grapes.
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On the other side of the valley, Happy Canyon is hot. Temperatures regularly top 100 degrees on summer days, and drop dramatically at night, down 50 or 60 degrees, even in July and August. That diurnal shift is ideal for the Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc — that are commonly grown there. The soils are rocky mixtures of sand, gravel, and clay that are rich with minerals and tend to yield concentrated wines.
So why don’t you know about Happy Canyon’s wines yet?
Two reasons. First, the AVA was only established in 2009 (though winemakers have sought fruit from the area since its first vintage in 2001). Second, the wineries are mostly marketed through word of mouth — and through some tasting rooms in Santa Barbara. Because visibility is limited, distribution tends to stay in Southern California and the Central Coast.
Key Grapes, Vineyards, and Wineries
“Santa Barbara County is probably one of the most beautiful spots in wine country all over the world. People see it in pictures and you just can’t get it until you get here,” says Sean Pitts, executive winemaker and president of Happy Canyon Vineyards. “It’s still a bit of a hidden gem, but we’re still growing in terms of people knowing where we are.”
Adjacent to Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, Happy Canyon Vineyards is located on Piocho Ranch, which is also home to polo fields and the Piocho polo team. The winery started releasing its own wines in 2010, focusing exclusively on estate-grown Bordeaux-style red and white blends under the Piocho label and limited-run blends under its Barrack Family Estate label. Its 2016 Piocho Red Blend is earthy with notes of raspberry, black cherry, plum, cedar, and chocolate, and is easily drinkable now — though if you can hold onto it for a few years (even up to 10 years), it’ll be even better. The Barrack Ten-Goal is 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with small percentages of Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec in the blend. It’s so rich and intensely flavored, it could be mistaken for a Napa Valley release.
Star Lane Vineyard, which is situated next to the Vogelzang and Jack McGinley vineyards, has 780 acres — the entire eastern border of the valley — and 145 of them are planted with grapes in vineyards surrounded by wild sage and rosemary. “That’s what Happy Canyon tastes like to me,” says Star Lane’s California sales manager, Tracy Witkin. “You can taste it in the wine.”
Tyler Thomas, Star Lane’s winemaker, makes the wines for both Star Lane and its sister label Dierberg with what Witkin calls a “granular scientific approach.” For example, he ferments the grapes row by row rather than block by block in an effort to capture the unique expressions in each part of the vineyard, and then he blends those individual blocks of grapes into stellar Cabs and Pinots. “In one block, from one side to the other side, you can have totally different soil composition,” Witkin explains. “Even in the same block, you can’t say, ‘This block tastes like this.’”
Thomas’s meticulous cultivation is as much a scientific experiment to gain a deep understanding of Star Lane’s terroir as it is a quest to make the best possible wines. “He wants to know why,” Witkin says. “He’s constantly trying to figure out why.” Thomas also uses open-top fermentation for the Pinot Noir, she notes, and separate wine presses for reds and whites.
Another major player in Happy Canyon is Grassini Family Vineyards, founded by Larry and Sharon Grassini. They converted their land to vineyards in 2002 and now produce 5,000 cases annually from 35 acres of grapes — primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Grassini wines tend to have a drier style, big fruit, and mellow complexity, which, the Grassinis say, reflects Larry’s Italian heritage.
The 2016 Articondo Red Blend, named after Larry’s grandfather, is 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Petit Verdot, and 15 percent Cabernet Franc. It has savory, herbaceous notes with hints of lavender and spice. “When we started planting [grapes], no one thought you could plant Cabernet in Santa Barbara County,” says Jared Kent, Grassini’s hospitality manager. “We definitely started showing people that not only can you grow Cabernet out here, you can grow beautiful Cabernet.”
Katie Grassini, the winery’s CEO, explains that Happy Canyon became known for Sauvignon Blanc early on. “It found its footing and knew what it was doing,” she says, adding that “the Cabernet took a little longer for the roots to get in there and the vines to mature, and for the winemakers to figure out what they were doing with it.”
A good example of a Happy Canyon Cabernet, says Kent, is Grassini’s 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, which is blended with 8 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Cabernet Franc. “You get your big body, you get your long finish, but it’s slightly softer than other California Cabernets,” he says. “It’s not the aggressive, big, full Cabernet you’re thinking when you get California Cab.”
More traditional California Cabernets can be found across the road at Crown Point Vineyards, which produces only two releases annually: a Cabernet Sauvignon and an Estate Selection Bordeaux blend. Crown Point’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon in particular has been highly lauded.
“I love great wine,” says Crown Point’s owner, Roger Bower. “I thought it would be a great challenge to see if I could make one.” Bower and his French team, winemaker Simon Faury, who studied viticulture at the University of Bordeaux, and consulting winemaker Philippe Melka, a native of Bordeaux who is also a geologist, focus their efforts on making the finest reds possible from Crown Point’s terroir. “This place is a diamond in the rough,” says Bower. “It’s the only place in Santa Barbara County we can do it, because it’s the warmest.”
Crown Point produces approximately 2,000 cases of each wine annually. Unlike other wineries that will tier their releases to make sure there’s a comfortable price point for everyone, Crown Point prices all its wines at $150 a bottle. It may be expensive, but it still feels like a steal. A bottle like the 2015 Estate Selection — made with 71 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Cabernet Franc, 9 percent Petit Verdot, 9 percent Malbec, and 2 percent Merlot — could easily cost four times as much in Napa.
There is such scale and variety coming out Happy Canyon, a place with just under 24,000 acres in its entirety. Maybe because of that size, or because the AVA is so off the radar, discovering these wines feels like an adventure. (The area is so much off the beaten path that it was a haven for bootleggers during Prohibition — hence the name Happy Canyon, because people would go there to “get happy.”)
Pitts from Happy Canyon Vineyards points out that the wines from this AVA aren’t as “ripe and rich as Napa Valley” or as “Old World and earthy” as Bordeaux, but he thinks they “maintain this beautiful sweet spot right in between the two. We are our terroir.”
“Luckily enough,” he says, “these vines make very consistent, wonderful wines. I think all the wines coming out of Happy Canyon are fantastic. We just all put our own little spin and style on it.”