On January 16, 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment (Amendment XVIII) and the Volstead Act went into effect in the United States. The ratification of these acts of Congress prohibited the consumption of “intoxicating liquors”, except for use in medicine, church rituals and up to 200 gallons per year of personal, home consumption. As one might expect, Prohibition was fairly controversial and not wholly embraced by the people.
The public’s demand for hooch led to speakeasies, bathtub gin and, in California alone, a 700% increase in vineyard plantings (to make “grape juice”). It also led people to a little region known as College Ranch, which was the location of the only spirits still in the north county of Santa Barbara. Because the area held the cure for what ailed ‘em, the locals lovingly nicknamed the spot “Happy Canyon.”
Some seventy-six years after the end of the Noble Experiment, canyon winemakers won a proposal to have the area registered as an official AVA: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, currently consisting of 23,941 acres, 492 of which are planted for six vineyards and three wineries, in the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley.
I had the great pleasure of learning all about Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara on a recent trip to Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards. Vintners Mary and Jim Dierberg grow over 237 acres of vines on their Star Lane property (half the total acres planted across the entire valley), including all five of the red Bordeaux varietals and Sauvignon Blanc. On their cooler-climate Dierberg estate, 160 acres are planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah grapes to produce “Burgundy inspired” wines. The former dude ranch-turned-vineyard/winery sits at the highest elevation in the valley, with their Sauvignon Blanc vines reigning over all, high up the hills at 1500 feet.
To celebrate the diversity of Happy Canyon’s soil composition, climate, rainfall, topography, etc., the Dierbergs and winemaker Nick de Luca strive to produce terroir-driven wines, while also showcasing the individuality of the grapes, themselves. The vineyard has been farmed organically since 2006, they use ground cover under the vines, eschew tilling, and most of their wines are fermented using native yeasts. All wines are made with free-run juice and, whenever possible, they use natural gravity flow instead of pump systems. Even their caves were dug by hand – all 27,000 ft of them – a process that took over five years to complete. They like to call their philosophy “Old method winemaking using new technology.”
And the result? Incredible balance, amazing acidity. Deep, complex wines that can be enjoyed young or cellared for greater finesse. The differences and nuances from one vintage to the next are discernible in the way that the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara wines are noticeably different from the rest of the juice produced in Santa Ynez Valley.
In order for a region to qualify for its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation, petitioners must prove that the area is significantly different from the surrounding appellation in terms of mesoclimate and geography, thereby producing distinguishable fruit. Everything from rainfall to soil content, pH, drainage, topographical history, etc is documented, analyzed and contrasted with neighboring locations. If the differences are significant, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms can award the new AVA certification. Once approved, all wines with the AVA certification must contain at least 85% juice from the specified AVA.
What a happy requirement that is, in the case of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Of the wines I’ve tried – especially those from Dierberg/Star Lane, these wines are dynamic, distinguished and delicious. It truly is a Happy Canyon, indeed.