It takes many people to establish an AVA. One man, Michael Larner, was instrumental in getting the Ballard Canyon AVA off the ground. Michael’s background, love of wine, and his family vineyard, Larner Vineyard and Winery, all played a part in establishing one of the smallest AVAs in Santa Barbara County.
Ballard Canyon AVA
Established in 2013, the Ballard Canyon AVA is the only Syrah-focused appellation in America. The AVA spans over 7.700 acres, with 550 acres planted with vine. At least half the AVA is planted with Syrah, while about 30% is planted with Grenache, Viognier, and Roussanne.
The climate, cold nights, warm days, early morning fog, and high winds create grapes that instill freshness, balance, and concentration in the wine. Syrah differs from the northern Rhone in that the grapes produce wines with more weight.
One distinction of the Ballard Canyon AVA is those growers and producers package their estate-grown Syrah in a custom bottle embossed in raised glass with the words BALLARD CANYON encircling the bottle shoulder. Consider Syrah from this region, “Ballard Canyon in a glass.”
The Larner Family
In 1999, Christina and Stevan Larner established Larner Vineyard and Winery. Their love of wine came from Stevan’s time in Europe as a cinematographer. He developed a love of wine that soon transcended his children, Monica and Michael. The family lived in Rome for four years while Stevan worked in Italy.
Stevan’s desire to own a vineyard brought him to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1995. It was love at first sight. Stevan purchased a cattle ranch in Ballard in 1997. It ultimately became Larner Vineyard.
The vineyard and winery are now in their 2nd generation with Michael at the helm. Michael received his Bachelor’s Degree in geology from the University of Colorado, Boulder. It was followed by a Master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology from the University of California, Davis. He commenced his carreer as a cellar apprentice at Marchesi Antinori’s Tenuta Guado al Tasso in Tuscany and E. Guigal’s Château d’Ampuis in the Rhone Valley. He has also worked at Babcock Winery and Rusack Vineyards. He has been making wine since 1999 after moving back to California in 1998 to clear the land for planting grapes.
Michael considers himself a geologist first, and you will find reference to his background in Geology in the estate brand of wine, the names of his wines, and the labels. The geology motto comes through in many ways, whether it be the terroir composition of the vineyard. Even the label branding with its geological reference symbolizes the winery’s four partners.
In partnership with his wife, Christine, Michael says he takes on the scientific aspect of wine and his wife’s artistic side. The ultimate result of the two comes out in their wines.
Michael’s sister Monica plays a small role in the winery. As a wine writer in Italy, she returns to California to approve the final wines by sharing her input on blending and aging.
Larner Vineyard and Winery in Ballard Canyon AVA
Larner is a hands-on operation. The 34-acre vineyard is California Certified Organic. The Larner’s grow Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, Viognier and Malvasia Bianca.
Michael feels that the grapes create the blend, not the winemaker.
Earthfluence Viognier: The wine delivers tropical notes with viscosity, minerality, freshness, and florals.
Although I did not taste the Malvasia Bianca on this visit, I sampled it in 2016. What I found interesting is the wine ages in 50% stainless steel and 48% concrete, and 2% Acacia barrels.
Unconformity: In geological terms, unconformity is a break in time in an otherwise continuous rock record, often caused by erosion or a pause in sediment accumulation, followed by the deposition of sediments anew. At Larner, it is the timeline of wine. In this case, the blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvédre creates unconformity.
Elemental: This blend emphasizes the Grenache grape but blends in lesser amounts of Syrah and Mourvédre.
Syrah 2018: Created in a more traditional style and is composed of four estate blocks. The wine aged 26 months in 42% new oak, 35% French and 7% American, and 58% neutral French oak. I found a full-bodied vibrant wine with flavors of blackberry and black cherry.
Reserve Syrah: Compared to the Syrah, the reserve came across as a more opulent wine because of the stem inclusion and 30% whole cluster. The Reserve Syrah is co-fermented with 3% Viognier and ages for three years in primarily new French oak.
Earthfluence Cabernet Franc: As a lover of Cabernet Franc, I could not end the tasting without sampling the Cabernet Franc. It was a marvelous representation of the variety; I could not leave the winery without purchasing a bottle.
Visiting Larner Vineyard and Winery
Vineyard visits are by appointment only
Larner Los Olivos Tasting Room
2900 Grand Avenue
Los Olivos, CA 93441
Open Daily from 11 – 5 pm.
Larner and the Ballard Canyon AVA
It is apparent meeting Michael that the family’s passion for Ballard Canyon AVA shines through in the vineyard and the wines they produce.
Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer received a hosted wine tasting. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.