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Spotlight on Ballard Canyon

Update: The Ballard Canyon AVA was approved on October 1, 2013 and I revised this article accordingly.

Ballard Canyon is a small AVA within Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley AVA. It is not yet a familiar name to most enthusiasts of California wine, but it's few vineyards are very high in quality. Some are strong brands on their own: Beckman Purisma MountainStolpman, Larner and Jonata. Others, such as Harrison-Clarke and Rusack Vineyards, have gained little attention nationally but are well-respected by local experts. Approved by the TTB on October 1, 2013, Ballard Canyon can now begin to build its own identity.

Ballard Canyon sits between the very cool1 and coastal Sta. Rita Hills AVA and the significantly warmer2 Happy Canyon AVA to the east. It runs north-south between the towns of Los Olivos and Buellton. The area sees some morning fog during the growing season and is cooled in the afternoon by sea breezes, especially at the higher altitudes. Since it is a roughly north-south valley though, it's not nearly as breezy as Sta Rita Hills nor the highest reaches of Happy Canyon.



Map of the Ballard AVA vineyards (map from Stolpman Vineyards).

The Ballard Canyon AVA comprises 7,800+ acres, mostly rolling hills—rising to nearly 1,300 feet—and gentle slopes. The largely open ground is covered with dry grasses. Thick-trunked oak trees stand aloof here and there. Long-horned cattle stand ahoof here and there. Just 565 acres are under vine.

The first commercial vineyards in Ballard Canyon, planted in the 1970’s, leaned toward Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Those were the “go-to” grapes of the time. Neither is particularly well-suited to the area though. Except in a few specific sites, Cabernet Sauvignon doesn't get ripe enough and Chardonnay can’t hold onto its acidity. Syrah, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc and white Rhone varieties have proved to be much better fits. So too Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Steven Gerbac, winemaker at Rusack Vineyards, gave me a guided tour of Ballard Canyon on August 12. Rusack is on the site of the area’s original producer. That business was purchased out of bankruptcy in the mid-1990’s by Geoff and Alison Wrigley Rusack. They have since created their own brand and presided over substantial vineyard replanting3.

Winemaker Steven Gerbac on the porch at Rusack Vineyards. August 12, 2013
This and all other photos in this article by Fred Swan.

Rusack’s 48-acre estate vineyard straddles Ballard Canyon Road. It’s planted primarily to Syrah and Sangiovese but also includes Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Fog lingered in the vineyard at 9am on this mid-August day, keeping the grapes cool.

A cool, foggy morning at Rusack Vineyards in Ballard Canyon. August 12, 2013

Though small, the Rusack Vineyard contains three distinct soil types. The most unique is Arnold Sand which is only found there and at Jonata. It looks and feels like very fine, dark beach sand and drains extremely well.

The soils of Rusack Vineyard in the pending Ballard Canyon AVA.

Whereas Rusack is on the valley floor, the Harrison-Clarke Vineyard is high on a hill and has completely different soil. The topsoil has been eroded and washed away over millennia. What remains is solid white, chalky-looking rock that speaks to the area’s existence as a seabed some 26+ million years ago.

Harrison-Clarke Vineyard has stony white soil somewhat similar to limestone.

The Tierra Alta Vineyard (not to be confused with Bokisch’s Terra Alta in Lodi). Tierra Alta, planted in 2000, is lauded for its Syrah. It is also said to be Ballard Canyon’s steepest vineyard, though that’s not obvious in this photo. 

Tierra Alta Vineyard is up in the hills of Ballard Canyon.

Here are a number of photos I took from one hilltop within Ballard Canyon. The first photo looks west toward a portion of the large and highly-reputed Stolpman vineyard. Stolpman Vineyards website offers a map of its vineyard and varieties.

A look at part of the Stolpman Vineyard in Ballard Canyon.

This shot points just south of the previous one. In the foreground is the southern tip of Stolpman vineyard, beyond that their vegetable garden. Behind the red barn are Stolpman’s olive trees and immediately beyond those is the Jonata Vineyard. In the back  to the right is Purisma Mountain Vineyard (Beckman).

Three of Ballard Canyon's top vineyards: Beckman Purisma Mountain, Jonata and Stolpman.

In six photos, here’s a nearly 360 degree view from the same hilltop. Because of the all undulations, only a small portion of the AVAs vineyards can be seem from any one vantage point.







There are few vineyards in Ballard Canyon and even fewer wineries. Larner Winery is adding one though. It seems to be a little behind schedule. That’s not surprising as most everyone I’ve talked to in Santa Barbara County about land development projects has stories of woe related to getting necessary government approvals. A separate tasting room will be established in the town of Ballard which is actually just outside of the AVA boundaries.

On yet another hilltop, the esteemed Larner Vineyard is adding a winery to make estate wines.

Ballard Canyon AVA Details

Latitude: 34.6 degrees

Elevation: 400-1,280 feet

Climate: Mediterranean

Temperature: Average high of 83 degrees during the growing season with an average diurnal shift of nearly 40 degrees.

Wind: A north-south running set of hills protects Ballard Canyon from the intense winds that affect the Sta. Rita Hills AVA though gentle breezes do provide some relief from the summer heat. The lower winds mean less shatter early in the vintage and better ripening throughout the growing season.

Annual Rainfall: about 14 inches

Soils: Generally well-draining to excessively draining soils of sand and clay loam. The percentage of clay loam increases on slopes and hilltops. A few hilltops consist primarily of something akin to limestone.

Total Acres: more than 7,800

Vineyard Acres: 565

Primary Red Grape Varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc

Primary White Grape Varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne

A Selection of Significant Vineyards and Wineries

Harrison-Clarke Vineyard
Jorian Hill
Purisma Mountain (Beckman)
Rusack Vineyards
Saarloos and Sons
Tierra Alta

1 Sta. Rita Hills is a Region I on the Winkler scale
2 Happy Canyon is a Region III on the Winkler scale
3 The replanting took place from 2000 through 2003 and improved both varietal selection and vine orientation.

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This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.