Wine Country: Happy Canyon: From Moonshine to Luxury Wine

Posted on Oct 1 by SEASONS Magazine

“In the summer, it’s hot! The people are really sweaty but the grapes are really happy,” says Katie Grassini of Grassini Family Vineyards. Courtesy Photo.

By Wendy Thies Sell

If the folklore is true, people seeking to “get happy” off of bootleg alcohol during Prohibition took a trip up Happy Canyon in remote eastern Santa Barbara County, where moonshiners set up shop next to abundant natural springs northwest of Cachuma Lake.

Nearly a century later, Happy Canyon is still wild and largely untouched. Cattle and horses graze on the oak-studded golden hillsides; however, 700 acres of vineyard and a handful of sophisticated wineries have replaced the rudimentary hooch stills.

Drive into Happy Canyon and it’s impossible to ignore the majestic 360-degree mountain views and breathtakingly big sky. Locals claim they don’t need a flashlight at night because the stars are so bright!

“I’ve been here three and a half years and I still pull over on my way to work to take pictures, it’s so beautiful!” exclaims Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards winemaker Tyler Thomas.

The 4,000-acre Star Lane property, owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, is home to the largest vineyard in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA and rare, own-rooted cabernet sauvignon vines. Their 220 acres of diverse hillside blocks grown in complex soils demand “precision viticulture.”

Happy Canyon Vineyard, courtesy photo.

Happy Canyon Vineyard, courtesy photo.

Star Lane’s three-story gravity-flow winery with a 26,000-square-foot cave system is one of the county’s most impressive wine-production facilities.

Last spring the winery hosted an extraordinary luncheon to showcase its wines, flying in Japanese sushi master Kiminari Togawa of Tokyo’s Sushi Karaku and top sommeliers, to showcase how beautifully their wines—sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, even their $120/bottle “Astral” cabernet sauvignon—pair with traditional-style sushi.

The Dierbergs’ considerable investment is evidence of their confidence in their site.

The ideal climate is key; warm days fully ripen the fruit, while the fog keeps Happy Canyon nights cool.

“The best areas to grow Bordelaise varieties are warm and dry. Those are the two main variables that are critical to creating high-quality cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot,” Thomas says. “When you say you need a warm and dry area, you are describing Happy Canyon!”

Neighbor Crown Point Vineyards made a splash in 2016 with release of its inaugural vintage of wines: the 2013 Crown Point cabernet sauvignon and Relevant Red, a proprietary estate blend carry lofty-for-Santa Barbara price tags of $185 a bottle.

“This wine is positioned to compete with the best that Napa has. If this had a Napa label on it, we’d be charging $500 for it, but we’re in Santa Barbara County, and it’s not known for this type of wines…yet,” says proprietor Roger Bower.

Crown Point’s estate winemaker, Adam Henkel, arrived in 2013, coming from Napa’s Harlan Estate. Bordeaux native Philippe Melka recently joined the team as consulting winemaker.

“The quality of cabernet has really blown me away, and it keeps getting better every year,” says Henkel.

Crown Point transformed a horse barn into a state-of-the-art winery and replanted vines, choosing unique clonal and root stock selections. “All I think about is making the best wine off this property that I can,” Henkel says.

Crown Point Vineyards winemaker Adam Henkel says his Happy Canyon wines are in the same ballpark as Napa Valley wines. Courtesy photo.

Piocho Ranch is home to the 58-acre, organically farmed Happy Canyon Vineyard, polo fields, and an exclusive facility where professional polo players practice, compete and board their horses. “We combine the two passions and tell our family story that way,” explains executive winemaker Sean Pitts, son-in-law of Piocho Ranch’s founder, Thomas Barrack, the former chairman of Miramax. Their wine labels feature polo players on horseback and polo terminology. The family is making the commitment to excel at developing both great polo teams and wine.

Nearby Grimm’s Bluff procured winemaker Paul Lato and vineyard expert Philippe Coderey to plant a 16.6-acre organic and biodynamically farmed vineyard, focusing on sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

Owner Rick Grimm sold his London-based oil company, moved his family to Happy Canyon and hasn’t looked back. “Why would you want to live anywhere else: the climate, the lifestyle, the ease of life, the scenic beauty,” he says. The national spotlight shined on Happy Canyon in 2016, when The Amazing Race filmed its season finale at Grassini Family Vineyards, a gorgeous sustainably farmed wine estate producing luxury cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and merlot in a solar-powered winery and caves.

Grimm's Bluff Vineyard, photo by Wendy Thies Sell.

Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, photo by Wendy Thies Sell.

Contestants who raced through the vineyard didn’t stop to smell the distinctive Happy Canyon aromas, but the winemakers sure do.

“It really holds a certain smell,” explains Grassini winemaker Bradley Long. “The smell definitely makes its way into the bottle: sage, rosemary, barley grass, legumes. It all creates ‘sense of place.’ There’s something really special about this area.”

Air is part of the terroir. Winemakers here use the expression, “air-oir.” But it’s not just the air—there’s another layer.

Wes Hagen, who shepherded the Happy Canyon AVA petition approved in 2009, believes the diverse soils add to the uniqueness of the region.

The serpentine/chert minerals “provide a calcium/magnesium ratio that I’ve never seen in vineyard soils, and it restricts vigor to shrink the vine, the cluster and the berry to limit yields and produce intensely unique wines,” Hagen explains.

Santa Barbara County limits the number of visitors to Happy Canyon’s wineries, so wine is sold directly to consumers or from off-site tasting rooms.

There is no better way to appreciate a winery than to walk through the vineyard and the cellar, inhale the aromas and actually experience it. That is when lifelong customers invest in the dream.

Grassini CEO Katie Grassini looks on the bright side, “I think it works out because it adds to the allure of the area. When people do get to visit, they feel very lucky, and it’s memorable!”

These determined pioneers are forging their own American wine frontier and, in turn, writing the new legend of Happy Canyon.  

The 4,000-acre Star Lane Vineyard Estate, photo by George Rose.

The 4,000-acre Star Lane Vineyard Estate, photo by George Rose.

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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