Discover the Cabernet Sauvignon Wonderland of Happy Canyon

Discover the Cabernet Sauvignon Wonderland of Happy Canyon
Photo courtesy Jim Dierberg

In the 1980s and 1990s, the action in the Santa Ynez Valley focused on the central and western parts of the region. Vineyards flourished from Los Olivos north into Foxen Canyon, and stretched beyond Buellton towards Lompoc—landscapes that formed the backdrop for 2004’s Sideways.

The east, by contrast, was bare of grapevines. Rolling, hilly and sparsely populated, its lands undulated in the lee of the Los Padres Mountains. Long the domain of wealthy horse ranchers, the area is now known as Happy Canyon. In summer the climate is dry and hot, with the Pacific maritime influence pretty much spent by the time it gets this far inland. 

Where Cab Gets Happy

In the mid-1990s, things started to change in Happy Canyon. A booming U.S. economy brought unprecedented vitality to Santa Barbara County wineries. Its Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Syrahs, Merlots and Sauvignon Blancs received elaborate praise from critics and were embraced by sommeliers, with a single varietal exception: Cabernet Sauvignon.

Even in the warmer areas around Los Olivos, the weather remained too cool to ripen the great grape of Bordeaux. So some visionaries decided to do something about it by exploring the possibilities in Happy Canyon.

Among the first to arrive was the Vogelzang family. “In 1994, while visiting the area, we noticed that the land and climate reminded us of Calistoga,” says Mary Beth Vogelzang, referring to the warmest appellation in Napa Valley. “It felt like the Cabernet Sauvignon climate I loved.” 

The Vogelzangs began planting grapes in 1998. At first they sold their grapes to others, “But in 2005, we decided we would produce our own Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier” under the Vogelzang label, says Mary Beth.

Around the same time, the Dierberg family also planted vineyards. Jim was a St. Louis, Missouri banker who, with his wife Mary, was looking for pristine ranch land in California, and chose Happy Canyon. “They first planted in 1996, with quite a bit of Bordeaux varieties, and also some Syrah,” says winemaker Andy Alba, who crafts the wines for the family’s three brands, of which Star Lane specializes in Happy Canyon wines. 

He explains why the canyon is perfect for Cabernet. “The warmth is the number one feature. Happy Canyon accumulates degree days comparable to the deepest parts of Napa Valley.” (Degree days are an official measurement of heat.)

Warmth Equals Ripeness

Then there’s Doug Margerum. His eponymous brand is best known for Rhône-style red wines, including Grenache and Syrah. But he dips into Happy Canyon both for the Sauvignon Blanc he makes for his own brand, and for the Bordeaux-style wines he crafts for Happy Canyon Vineyard, which is owned by Thomas J. Barrack III, a real estate magnate. Margerum points out that Barrack originally planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot on his property at the behest of the parent company of giant Beringer Vineyards, whose viticulturalists “felt that Happy Canyon was climatically correct for Bordeaux varieties.”

Margerum points to a mesa that separates Happy Canyon from points further west. “That effectively stops the maritime influence from going as far back into the valley as it could. You can’t grow Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Ynez Valley; you’d get that green note. But here, we get grapes that are physiologically ripe.”

Exploring Possibilities

One of the younger winemakers to explore the possibilities of Happy Canyon fruit is 29-year old Ryan Roark, whose Roark Wine Co. buys Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc from local vineyards, including Vogelzang. Roark worked in the Loire, New Zealand and at the famous Napa winery, Etude, before launching his own project in 2009.

From a critic’s point of view, the Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordeaux-style wines of Happy Canyon show real promise and, in a few cases, are truly exciting. Happy Canyon Vineyards, Star Lane and Vogelzang, in particular, set the pace. It may take a generation, but Happy Canyon promises to make Cab lovers smile.

Photo by Brent Winebrenner

Hollywood North: The Santa Ynez Valley

Located just 90 miles north of Los Angeles, the valley has attracted the world’s biggest movie stars and moguls since the early 20th century. Golden age stars such as Clark Gable and Bing Crosby made getaways to Los Olivos and Mattei’s Tavern, which currently is being renovated. Nearby La Quinta Resort attracted screen queens Bette Davis and Greta Garbo.

In more modern times, the celebrity roster includes Fess Parker (TV’s Davy Crockett) in the 1950s), rocker David Crosby, Dolly Parton, Matt LeBlanc, director Steven Spielberg, Bo Derek, Fergie, Noah Wyle and tennis champion Jimmy Connors.

The valley’s biggest celebrities arrived in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan had his Rancho del Cielo high up in the mountains, while Michael Jackson created his fantastical Neverland—complete with a full amusement park and zoo–on the valley floor.

You might spot a blue-jeaned star sipping beer and listening to the music at Cold Spring Tavern

“You see billionaires driving old beat-up trucks,” laughs Cheryl Ladd (best known for TV’s Charlie’s Angels).

Observes Walt Disney’s president of marketing, Ricky Straus, who restored a 1920s cottage here in Los Alamos, “We fell in love with the community. You have what’s available in the Napa and Sonoma wine regions but within driving distance of L.A. I spend my week at the studio, and on the weekends I’m harvesting olives.”

Published on November 25, 2015
Topics: California Travel Guide, Wine News + Trends