Learn, discuss, and share lessons in Viticulture and Enology experienced from the people behind Larner Vineyard & Winery, located in Ballard Canyon AVA - Santa Barbara's Wine Country's Syrah territory.
n. In geology, an erratic refers to material moved by some sort of geologic force or process from one location to another. One of the more common methods of this type of movement of even large rock masses is by a glacier, which erodes and transports a fragment as it travels, then deposits when recedes. Ultimately leaving a rock deposited in an environment that is not native or expected.
While glaciers never made it far enough south to cover the Ballard Canyon AVA, that sense of something out of place has defined this year’s growing season and translated directly into harvest. With our fingers crossed we began a later than usual emergence of the grape vines, with bud-break around 2 weeks behind the previous years. Spring was cool and with the onset of summer came “erratic” weather patterns – with random heat spikes for short durations, leaving their mark on both canopy and fruit. The vines continued in stride until mid-August where both the heat spikes returned coupled with the vines being parched from their marathon of growing that season, resulting in specific soil types and rootstocks altering their ripening habits.
It is no secret that over the years an echelon of fruit ripeness occurs on our organically farmed estate, with the Viognier and Malvasia Bianca being harvested first, followed by Syrah and Grenache, then finishing the season with Mourvèdre. However, as the 2018 vintage has shown, there are times that whether a geologist or winemaker, you find yourself looking at something that is unpredictable. This harvest began with picking Grenache first, next Syrah, followed by Mourvèdre and lastly the Malvasia Bianca then Viognier.
While it may appear on the surface that the geologic process responsible for the erratic behavior of the fruit ripening was weather, the sequence of the heat spikes coupled with the soil where the roots have laid their foundation, moved blocks and cultivars in an irregular pattern. Either way, what proved paramount was to identify those variables to ensure that while something may not be following a normal trajectory, it is harvested at its optimal moment rather than where it may have previously been formed. Only then will the geologist see the erratic as out of place, yet still somehow beautifully integrated into the environment to which it was delivered.
n. In geology, an unconformity between parallel layers of sedimentary rocks which represent a period of erosion or non-deposition. This break in a sedimentary sequence will not have a difference of inclination (orientation or angle) between the two strata on either side of the boundary. While not easily evident in some cases, the lapse can represent a measureable change in the depositional environment.
This disturbance in a local environment also parallels the last six years of growing conditions experienced at the Larner Estate. The 2012 vintage experienced early rains, November, which dried out before our regular rainy season that following February – kicking off a five-year drought run. Both the 2013 and 2015 vintages we almost the hottest on record, whereas the 2014 and 2016 resembled more classic vintages yet still lower in moisture. The 2017 vintage paralleled the 2015 vintage, but cooled down towards the end – rendering wines that are powerful, yet still maintain elegance. All of these years were continuous in one aspect, lower total rainfall quantities.
The disconformity occurred over the winter of 2017 into 2018, where a dry early winter season spawned wildfires coupled with early rains resulted in devastating mudslides in burn areas like the Montecito area (#montecitostrong). The 2018 season then continued with late rains (March and April) that resulted in a very cool spring and to date very tepid peak temperatures. The result appears to be a vintage that unlike the previous, in some cases a full month early, could ultimately be a full month later than normal. These vintages test a winemakers craft to ensure the grapes ripen without being defined by vegetal characters.
Fortunately, the signature of an estate vineyard with pedigree is one that can produce a consistent quality of wine-grapes despite varying vintage conditions. This is why the famous wine critic labeled our vineyard a “Californian Grand Cru” – wine-speak for a prestigious site. Therefore, despite disconformities with vintages, the wines rendered from our organically farmed vines continue to outshine. Despite years of drought or cooler peak temperatures, our family can rely on our site expression to remain true, the signature of a vineyard that is iconic. Wine critics have coined this with the French word “Terroir”, we Geologist would prefer to call it “Earthfluence”.
n. In geology, stratum or the plural strata, is a layer of igneous rock or sedimentary rock or soil that was formed at the surface of our earth. It will have internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers above or below. When composed of sedimentary rock, it generally consists of one kind of matter representing continuous deposition. The stratum is the fundamental unit in a stratigraphic column and forms the basis of the study in stratigraphy, almost like writing another page in the book of geologic time.
While the estate of Larner Vineyard may be composed of primarily two strata, both the Careaga Sandstone Formation and the Paso Robles Conglomerate Formation, the layers of complexity harvested from the organically cultivated grapes not only distinguish the wines they make, but yield consistency from vintage to vintage. Even looking back in the recent decade where we have experienced a 5-year drought, the resulting wines varied in nuances, yet are steadfast to speak of the land from where they were born.
This begs the question, how do these wines evolve and how do we know where they are going? Luckily at Larner we keep an extensive library starting back to our first vintages in 2009, and occasionally we get to revisit these moments in time. If you still have our inaugural 2009 Syrah or Elemental in the cellar, you will find it to be at its peak of expression, enticing bold fruit still remains, adorned with spices and a solid finish. If you have 2010s, not to worry, pepper spices dominate, with hints of blue fruits, and an even smoother mouth feel. We could go on and on for each vintage, but invite you to look out for any of these wines – we even release some at our wine club events.
If your not into collecting or sitting on wines, not to worry, the 2014s and 2015s being released in our February 2018 shipment represent further distinguishing pages in our vinous almanac. Probably the two most expressive vintages in our now near decade of estate winemaking, they are sure to be noteworthy bookmarks or points of reflection. The best part of enjoying either our young or older wines, is the experience of exploring these pages of our viticultural story or strata – making you no longer just wine lovers, but geologist in our book.
n. To classify and map layers of rock, geologists created a basic unit of stratigraphy called a formation. This rock unit must be distinctive enough in appearance that it can be easily recognized from other surrounding rock layers and it also has to be thick and extensive enough to correlate across wide distances between outcrops and exposures. Formations are typically named after a geographic name of a permanent feature near the location where the rocks are exposed, and when a dominant rock type, such as sandstone or shale is present, it is commonly included in the name.
Larner Vineyard is found in the Careaga Sandstone Formation (Tca) that dates back to the Pliocene Epoch (2.58 to 5.33 Million Years Ago) where in 1999 its organic vines were planted. This relatively young geologic formation through erosion is the origin of our estate’s sandy loams and blocks that have occasional rounded boulders and cobbles from upper elevations with lenses of the Paso Robles Conglomerate Formation (QTp). These resultant soils produce quick draining infertile growing conditions, where the grapevines struggle enough to focus energy on ripening its fruit to the fullest potential.
As we enter into the 2017 harvest, the vines are relieved with another warm but at least a more moist growing season, with vineyard yields about normal, canopy growth surpassing previous years, and most importantly an extended window to pick fruit slowly and methodically to capture the best flavors with balanced acidity. That is the essence of a formation, where like rock units, each grape varietal is distinctive enough in this ideal growing season to form wines that will easily be recognized from its surrounding vintages.
However, the word formation can also used to describe the structure, arrangement or even the process of forming something. For the Larner Family, the 2017 vintage is monumental since after many years of legal, political, and local governmental planning, we begin the formation of our Estate Winery – breaking ground in 2018.
Quicksand--n. The behavior of a soil that is composed of saturated loose sand that when agitated suddenly suffers a transition from a solid state to a liquefied state, having the consistency of a heavy liquid. The liquefied soil loses strength and cannot support weight, and objects sink to the level at which the weight of the object is equal to the weight of the displaced soil/water mix. In extreme cases whole buildings in a 1964 Alaskan earthquake quickly sank and rolled onto their side. Contrary to the old wives tales, an object can float due to buoyancy, so it is best not to struggle - which could ultimately swallow you up.
The Larner Estate Vineyard is primarily composed of Marina Sand, a widespread formation defining the Ballard Canyon American Viticultural Area (AVA). This low-vigor loamy sandy soil allows for outstanding growth where nutrient and water is cherished by each vine. However in cases of frequent rain cycles, experienced in the Winter 2016/Spring 2017 the subsurface can become saturated, sometimes leading to quicksand. While it may appear relatively firm, the occasional tractor working the vineyard becomes a prime target. Bud-break occurred on March 23rd of this vintage, shortly there after was the perfect time to rototill our alternating rows of nutrient-rich cover crop back into the soil to allow for subsurface composting, enriching the feeder roots. This pass does cause some agitation, and therefore we remained vigilant on every part of the vineyard to ensure these tractors would not get sucked up, as they are not very buoyant.
These frequent rains have continued to fall in weekly events, allowing the salts in the soil to be leached away, paving the way for better nutrient uptake. This flush refreshes the soils and allows the roots to work together in making a healthy and balanced vine, with better yield potential than the last 4 years of drought. Of course it is still early in the growing season to predict, but we are off to a terrific start as canopy growth has already surpassed previous year’s length. In May comes the most inspiring moment of the year when the vines begin to flower forming this year’s grape crop, which we love to share at our annual vineyard gathering for wine club members.
The remaining alternating cover crop rows, a refuge for our beneficial insects before they move back up into the canopies, were also mowed in March to drop the frost layer, which was well served as 5 nights so far this season have gone below freezing. This second pass for mowing also was quite nerve racking as we diligently ensured our tractors stayed on Terra Firma, to avoid the quicksand. It is uncanny how this vigilance in our farming has paralleled our continued struggle to obtain a winery and tasting room permit on our estate, so far a 7-year saga. As many of you may know we are closer to reaching this goal, but know the ground we walk is easily disturbed by agitation.
n. A geologic structure lying or extending across an area, in a cross direction to other distinguishing local features. In southern California this anomaly is found in the Transverse Ranges, formed by the San Andreas Fault, beginning at Point Conception in Santa Barbara County and runs all the way into San Diego Counties. They derive the name Transverse due to their almost perfect east-west orientation, where they are in a cross direction to the general north-south orientation of most of California’s coastal mountains. In the stretch within Santa Barbara County, they are locally known as the Santa Ynez Mountains – defining the south skyline of its prestigious wine region.
In Geology, looking for anomalies can be rewarding and exciting, and that same inspiration can be found in winemaking when you go in another direction, almost against the grain. Hence the creation of the 2014 Transverse Syrah, a wine made from other vineyards, not our estate. A challenge to create a Syrah with as much opulence and character found from our own vineyard could only stem from selecting choice sites across this region.
Ultimately four vineyards were sourced; Coquelicot, Verna’s, Rodney’s, and Star Lane – the only common tread is that they too lay across an east-west orientation following the Santa Ynez Mountains – hence its name, Transverse. Each vineyard brings the fingerprint of its location, more pepper tones from the cooler western locations, and bright fruits and berries from the warmer eastern locations, ultimately creating a similar profile we find all encapsulated within our own estate.
Yet in typical Larner fashion this wine only deviates in origin, representing Santa Barbara County, and therefore carries a non-estate label, water colored artwork depicting a geologic outcrop representing various layers found within. A bottled testament to a cross-section of inspiration and aspiration.
n. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a delimited wine grape-growing region having distinguishing features. The main AVA petitioning elements include; (1) Evidence that the name is locally or nationally known as referring to the area, (2) Historical or current evidence that the boundaries are legitimate with boundary descriptions accompanying USGS maps, and (3) Evidence that the growing conditions such as climate, soil, elevation, and physical features are distinctive. This designation allows consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.
In the spring of 2010, my geology background was tapped as president of the Ballard Canyon Winegrower’s Alliance, representing seventeen of the local estate vineyards, all unified in proving that our region was of distinguished caliber. Through obtaining geologic maps, historic soils surveys, rock and soil samples, etc.… I began to formulate the groundwork for our uniqueness. Within six months a clear border of land defined by topographic features, with overlays of soil, climate, and vineyard positioning was complete and filed. The evidence was compelling, the idea of creating an AVA named Ballard Canyon was in order, and thus began the long paperwork trail with the Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB) of proving our need to become our own designated region. After two years of submissions and reviews, all of the estates on Ballard Canyon received the good news in the middle of the 2013 harvest that we had been approved, and Ballard Canyon AVA was born.
However getting our region recognized for its pedigree was simply not enough, many of us felt compelled that we needed to tell the story of Ballard Canyon through its bottlings. Therefore I proposed an aspect of co-branding not yet seen in the continental United States, but has been carried out effectively in other world regions, like Barolo or Chateauneuf du Pape. Ultimately we came up with the concept of having a custom molded burgundy bottle with the words “Ballard Canyon” embossed in its shoulders. To ensure that this resonated with the market, we decided that the custom bottle was only to be used by Ballard Canyon wineries producing wines from their own estate and we further decided that it would be best to use this bottle for the most commonly planted grape varietal in our region, Syrah.
In your shipment you will find the culmination of four years worth of geologic studies, red tape, and passion all bottled. The 2012 Estate Syrah is the first wine from all of Ballard Canyon AVA to adorn this special custom molded bottle. As a founder it represents a piece of our legacy. Syrah from this vintage forth, whether estate, reserve, or dedication, will be housed in this one of a kind bottle to enforce the true definition of an American Viticulral Area.
n. An underground layer of water-bearing permeable region of rock, rock fractures, unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, or silt) or soil through which ground water can move. Aquifers can occur at various depth levels, where those closer to the surface are more likely to be used for water supply and irrigation, but are also more likely to be replenished by the local rainfall. Fluctuations in water availability will not only depend on the depth of the aquifer, but the rate of removal.
Leading into the winter of late 2015/ early 2016 meteorologist called for an “El Niño” with record-breaking rainfall for the Pacific West Coast. Fueled by extremely warm sea belts, the belief was that California could see upwards of 42 inches of rainfall. This doomsday prophecy, much like the Y2K phenomena, similarly disappointed with below-average rainfall for Southern California, leaving us envious of Northern California with reservoirs filled. Hopefully it also will saturate Sacramento with impending water use regulations that might eventually infringe on private water wells.
The beginning of the 2016 vintage has brought little relief in terms of moisture, but the rainfall – although sparse, has accomplished three main goals on our estate vineyard: (1) Leaching salts that can interfere with nutrient take up in the roots in our soils that have formed from the previous three years of drought, (2) Establishing a viable organic cover crop which has now been incorporated back into the soil as a green mulch fertilizer source, and (3) Contributed back to the aquifer to ensure long-term stability of water levels below ground.
A common misconception is that “dry-farmed” vineyards produce better wines, studies all over the academic world designates that vines need approximately 32 gallons of water to complete their entire growing cycle from bud-break to harvest. Therefore regions, like the Ballard Canyon AVA, whom historically get 13 inches of rain will never be able to dry farm and will supplement from their aquifer. Ultimately this does give our estate an advantage, since we can time our irrigation to various stages of phenological development in the vineyard.
In essence using the aquifer can yield better results in producing the optimal wine-grapes and to make wines that are truly complex, age worthy, and balanced. Although we are not completely out of the woods with regard to the effects we have endured from the drought, this vintage seems to have at least returned us to a “normalcy” which has the makings to be a truly classic vintage.
n. A contact surface between successive rock masses or strata that represent a missing interval in the geologic record of time, produced either by an interruption in deposition or by the erosion of depositionally continuous strata followed by renewed deposition. An unconformity is a type of discontinuity where there are periods of time that are not represented.
Whether it was climate change, drought, or adverse weather patterns during the growing season, the 2015 vintage represented a discontinuity for the Larner Estate. Coming off of consecutive vintages of average crop levels, marked by significant heat, this year proved quite frustrating. The beginning of the vintage started similar to 2013 and 2014, starting with early bud-break and warmth. However things changed dramatically around inflorescences (fruit set) with humidity and occasional rainstorms. Uncharacteristic heat returned in early summer, which pushed fruit ripening in a disjointed fashion where sugars advanced faster than flavors and acid respiration. Overall far from a normal vintage, which also had its toll on the crop level, with Syrah coming in 63% down from previous harvests.
Fortunately, as the saying goes – “lower yields equates to higher quality wine”. So far this has defined the wines rendered from this year’s harvest. Unparalleled in intensity and distinct from the previous vintages, the family’s initial take is although we are frustrated not be making a lot of Syrah for the 2015 vintage, we are excited that what has been laid to rest in barrel exudes the richness and opulence of wine lots typically destined for our Reserve programs. The unconformity may be a lesser production of our Estate Syrah, allowing for the relatively small remaining quantity we have to age longer and once again exceed our expectations.
n. As a biological rhythm in the simplest definition means daily. Diurnal can refer to a cycle specific to animals and plants – those that are active during the daytime versus nocturnal. In astronomy, diurnal motion refers to the motion of our stars around the Earth. From climatology, diurnal temperature variation is the cycle of daily temperature change.
The daily temperature variation is imperative to agriculture, especially in viticulture – the science of growing grapes. The diurnal shifts experienced are specific to a region, vineyard, and vintage. This pattern can put a fingerprint on any agricultural commodity that is grown during the entire year. The entire Santa Barbara County wine region has a distinct diurnal temperature fluctuation that renders warm days to near freezing conditions at night.
The beginning of the 2015 vintage well illustrates the extremities of diurnality. Throughout the end of March and early April temperature swings have sometimes been baffling, from record heats to freezing nights. For example, just after Easter of 2015, a record high of 90˚F hit followed that evening by a 5:00 AM frost, a near 60˚F shift in just one day. To viticulturist, this diurnal temperature change ensures that vines grow during the day and sleep at night; scientifically this translates to what is commonly called the “light” and “dark” reactions.
Photosynthesis, the engine behind making plants green and producing sugar upon consumption of CO2 and sunlight, is hence known as the “light” reaction. Acid respiration, the process of wine grapes slowly becoming less acidic, via various paths like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle, is more temperature dependent and thus can occur independent of light – hence we call it the “dark” reaction. The temperature influence regulates a wine grape’s acidity, the cycle shuts down in temperatures below 55˚F thus retaining more natural acidity ultimately in the wine.
Given mildly hot days during our peak part of the growing season coupled with cold nights from the diurnal temperature change, vines will produce wines that have terrific phenological ripeness with high acidity, both key components to make wines that are truly age worthy. Coupled with drought cycles, vintages like 2015 offer promise for an estate vineyard to render wines with complexity and acidity unparalleled. Fortunately the almost patented diurnal temperature shift of the Ballard Canyon American Viticultural Area (AVA), the home of the Larner Vineyard, ensures that every vintage is defined
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