Aspen Times Weekly: Happy Canyon, Crown Point and a Westerly Wind
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Westerly 2012 Côte Blonde
So it is the Rhône blend that I roam to first as I taste the wines of Happy Canyon. Syrah dominates this wine (with a mellowing dose of Viognier) and it is bold and balanced featuring strong earthy notes of spice and fruit. A great food wine, I would pair this with a rack of St. Louis-style pork ribs, generously treated with a pepper and brown sugar rub before being grilling over mesquite. In fact that is exactly what I did.
Not long ago I awoke in Happy Canyon under the influence of a thick fog.
Actually, two fogs. The first, and most immediate, was the fog in my head, a result of the Westerly “Fletcher’s Red” wine I had finished late the night before. But the more mesmerizing mist was the by-product of a deep Pacific marine layer that had crept over California’s Santa Ynez Valley, arranging its cool blanket of moist ocean air across the vineyards that surrounded the Crown Point Vineyards guesthouse where I had spent the night.
Founded in 2012, Crown Point Vineyards is the newest winery in the equally new Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara County. The vision of Texan Roger Bower, it is a project that, while still in its infancy, is positioned to become, in time, a significant player in California Cabernet. Bower’s goal is to make world-class wine from the highest quality estate-grown fruit. His newly built, state-of-the-art winery also serves as home to Westerly Wines, which is currently producing a number of varietals reflecting the terroir of the Santa Barbara sub-regions.
While the vines of Crown Point are in the growing stage, and the earliest vintage slated for release will be the 2013, Westerly is turning out outstanding limited-production, handcrafted wines. These include an excellent Sauvignon Blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley, a well-balanced Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, and a number of red wines sourced from Happy Canyon itself.
The aforementioned Westerly “Fletcher’s Red” is a classic left-bank Bordeaux blend led by Cabernet Sauvignon and supported by Merlot and Petit Verdot, with cameo appearance of Cab Franc. The 2012 is a fine young wine boasting solid tannins, but there are also rich layers of dark fruits and a finish that hangs around for a while. It gives a hint of the promise of the Crown Point Vineyards site.
Bower had the good sense to select a young winemaker with a pedigree for his ventures — one who can grow as the region grows. Adam Henkel is a bourbon drinker from Kentucky who found his way to the Napa Valley (following a stint on the slopes in Jackson Hole) where he began making wines, first at Merryvale, then at Swanson Vineyards in Oakville, and finally, for eight years, at the cult-classic Harlan Estate. There he worked with, and learned from, the great wine folks at Harlan and Bond including director of winegrowing Bob Levy, winemaker Cory Empting, and Mary Maher, who managed the vineyards. It was the winemaking equivalent of a Harvard MBA.
When the opportunity was offered by Bower in the spring of 2013 to come pioneer an area that has the potential to become one of the most unique wine growing regions on earth, Henkel, and his wife, Kellie, headed to Happy Canyon.
The Santa Barbara wine region is blessed by a unique geographical quirk. While most grape growing regions in California (and the world) run from north to south, the valleys in Santa Barbara run from east to west, allowing the cooling ocean breezes and, yes, the fog, to flow into the vineyards and cool them after the warm days. This gives cool climate locations like the Santa Rita Hills a climate perfect for the production of Pinot Noir.
But in Happy Canyon, the easternmost viticultural area in the Santa Barbara wine region, the blanket of fog burns off early each summer morning allowing the temperatures to rise into the 90s daily. This combination of hot days and cool nights (called the diurnal effect) combines with a unique soil profile that mixes loam and clay and stony cobbles to give this place the potential to become a significant region for both Bordeaux and Rhône varietals.
In addition to being hot, Happy Canyon is also young, petite and beautiful. It is said that the region got its name during Prohibition when folks would “take a trip to Happy Canyon” to get their alcohol fix. But it was not until 1996 that vineyards were first planted. In fact, the first Happy Canyon vintage came in 2001, and the AVA was only granted official status in 2009. With just over 23,000 acres, it is the smallest AVA in the Santa Barbara region.
For most of the last half-century, Happy Canyon has been best known for the thoroughbred racehorses that are raised there. Fletcher Jones, who Southern Californians may remember for his auto dealerships, once owned a major chunk of Happy Canyon and established the Westerly Stud Farm there in the 1970s. That is where Westerly Wines got its moniker and it was winemaker Adam Henkel who suggested the red blend be named for Fletcher.
One of the great joys in the world of wine is having the opportunity to watch both vineyards and the people who tend them evolve and grow. Over the coming decades Happy Canyon, the wines of Westerly and Crown Point Vineyards will all be worth a long look.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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