July 2006
Ballard Canyon : a Photo Journal
Page: - 1 2 -next >>

The Santa Ynez Valley evokes several winery names to those familiar with the area - or anyone who has seen the movie "Sideways," for that matter. From the cool foggy Santa Rita Hills in the west to the more arid climate of Happy Canyon in the east, the Santa Ynez Valley is able to provide hospitable growing conditions to several varieties of grapes - all due to the varying climates and soils. While the new Sta. Rita Hills AVA has been making a name for itself with the potential for world class Pinot Noir, there are a few additional growing areas in the valley that have been quietly zeroing in on nirvana for other varieties of grapes. Ballard Canyon is one of those areas on the brink of becoming something big.

Ballard Canyon is bisected by a 6 mile-long two-lane road that runs north-south, just to the east and roughly parallel to Hwy 101. Connecting Buellton (at Hwy 246) and Los Olivos (at Hwy 154), this area is home to some of the finest vineyards on the Central Coast. Although relatively flat and wide at the south end, the canyon narrows substantially at its north end, and one has to climb over 1,000 ft. to arrive in Los Olivos. Part of the fascinating landscape here is that there are several of these small canyons running north-south - in contrast to the mountain ranges that form the transverse east-west Santa Ynez Valley.

Organized by winemaker Tim Grubb (Departure Wines), this tour featured stops at Tierra Alta, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain, finishing with lunch at Larner vineyards. At each point, we were able to hear directly from the grower or vineyard manager exactly what makes Ballard Canyon so special.

Above : several views of Tierra Alta Vineyard, looking both east (top right) and south (middle). Above Right : vineyard manager John Belfy, of Buona Terra Farming (Ashley's, Rio Vista, and Huber).

We all met in Los Olivos. In order to reduce the car traffic to the vineyards, as well as the dust (it attracts the mites and hoppers), Tim had arranged to have us travel in two 15 passenger vans. Slipping by Mattei's Tavern, we swung south, driving up the steep road leading to the canyon. First stop, Tierra Alta Vineyard, just on the other side of the hill, and across from Windmill Vineyard. Here, we met with John Belfy, who led us up one of the vineyard roads with a view of vineyard and beyond.

John Belfy explained that Tierra Alta is all on vertical trellising, with movable catch wires. One of the steeper vineyards located in the Ballard Corridor, Tierra Alta was planted in 2000 to Tablas Clone 99 of Syrah. Additional varieties include: grenache, sauvignon blanc, and a small amount of tempranillo. The fruit has been cropped to levels of about 1.7 ton per acre. Things like leaf pulling are done by hand, though the vineyard is mechanically hedged and topped to reduce vigor before veraison arrives. All of the Sauvignon Blanc goes to Brander. Tim Grubb's Departure Wines uses fruit from an area affectionately called the "vegetable garden." Joey Tensley spoke about his 3ac parcel, and mentioned that he spends a little more in fees to keep the crop down in the top half of the section - primarily to make what he refers to as "feminine wines, but with nice fruit and backbone." The bottom half of the Tensley section is more vigorous. This fruit goes to Joey's wife, for use in her Rose. The top of the section ripens a week ahead of bottom, so it gets picked earlier. Additional people using fruit from this vineyard include: Kaena (grenache), Blair Fox (syrah). According to John, the vineyard "owner doesn't make wine, just wants to drink wine" and sell fruit.

From here, we piled back into the vans and headed south a bit to meet with Jeff Newton at Stolpman Vineyards.

Above : several views of Stolpman Vineyards, with Jeff Newton - Coastal Vineyard Care Associates (Harrison-Clarke, Rusack, Jonata, Wilkening).

We travelled down the road just a bit to Stolpman Vineyards, meeting up with Jeff Newton. Jeff acknowledged that this area is probably best known for its syrah, but felt that it was also producing some "phenomenal grenache," as well sangiovese. In fact, he seemed particularly excited about the sangiovese, and has been working with Alberto Antonini - who, according to Jeff, was nearly as excited as he was. Interestingly, Jeff's confirmation about the soils in this area came from yet another variety - chardonnay! Apparently, he noticed the Chardonnay at Wilkening Vnyd did much better than it should, and found out that the limestone veins in the area translate to superior soils for the vines. Here's an interesting bit of trivia: back in the early '90s, Jeff spent some time with the Perin Family (Ch. Beaucastel) looking at this same property for sale to them. Ultimately they chose to locate in Paso Robles (Tablas Creek), but they looked here first. Jeff then recommended to Tom Stolpman that he buy it - he did, and they started planting in 1992 on all phyloxera-resistant rootstalk at the time. Since then, they have experimented with several additional rootstalks.

Jeff had gone all out for us, bringing in a backhoe to dig a pit so we could a cross-section of the soils. He climbed into the pit to illustrate the limestone strata run from southern Monterey county through westside Paso and into parts of Santa Ynez Valley. Limestone has a high ph, and this is planted on rootstalk that is resistant to limestone-induced iron deficiency (110R, a cross of two American species). Ordinary soil about ph6 - the soil here is ph8. The Stolpman syrah is sold by acre, at about $7500-8500/acre. This particular block is being sold by acre to a new label (Sangue?) - Jeff says that the attention to detail this fellow is paying for should result in satisfying his goal of achieving a highly rated wine. Shoot density here is 2-1/2 shoots/ft, and they use clips on the wires to keep the shoots parallel, with same number of clusters per shoot.

Jeff told us they have abandoned the leaf pulling on the syrah - but eliminate laterals which are growing out of the fruit zone, giving the clusters diffuse light. About 2 tons/acre right here. They also clip the wings off the clusters, to help eliminate the potential for green flavors. Whe the vineyard is at about 80% veraison, they do a "green drop." Originally, Stolpman Vnyds was more about selling the fruit, but are now focusing more on making wines. Winemaker Sashi Moorman, previously worked at Ojai, and has been here about 5 yrs. Not coincidentally, there have been many changes since then, such as tearing out 10'rows x 6'vines rows, and replanting to higher density of 6'rows x 3'vines. They have also been working with Alberto Antonini as a consultant. Interestingly, Michel Rolland is consultant on a nearby vineyard (Jonata - owned by the Screaming Eagle people) and has also remarked that the sangiovese here was amazing.

Final thoughts by Jeff - well, he thinks that Ballard Cyn may have its own AVA someday. And, if this seems a little far-fetched, don't forget about those folks in the Sta. Rita Hills. From here, we piled back into the vans and headed for our rendezvous with Steve Beckmen, at his Purisima Mountain Vineyard.

July 2006
Ballard Canyon : a Photo Journal
Page: - 1 2 -next >>

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Last Update 9.18.06