Santa Barbara County gained its seventh American Viticultural Area in late August when the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced the official designation of Alisos Canyon.
Like Santa Barbara County’s first AVA, Santa Maria Valley, Alisos Canyon is a stand-alone region, and lies just south of Los Alamos and east of Highway 101.
The county’s remaining AVAs — Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, the Los Olivos District and Santa Rita Hills — are all sub-appellations of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA. The Alisos Canyon and Santa Maria Valley designations are part of the greater Central Coast AVA.
From conception to its official listing by the TTB, the Alisos Canyon AVA project took more than five years. It was spearheaded by Wes Hagen, a consulting winemaker and brand ambassador for the Miller Family Wine Co., and Noah Rowles, owner of Thompson Vineyard/Dovecote Estate Winery, one of the properties within the new AVA.
The TTB defines an American AVA as “a grape-growing region having distinguishing features, a name and a boundary. These designations allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to the wine’s geographic origin.”
Alisos Canyon is not Hagen’s first rodeo as a researcher and AVA petitioner. His others are Santa Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon and the Los Olivos District, in which he teamed with longtime viticulturist and winemaker Fred Brander.
“Santa Barbara continues its patient and science-based definition of the distinct meso-climates and soils of our precious county,” Hagen told Noozhawk in an email. “I couldn’t be happier that Santa Barbara County now has its seventh AVA since 1981, (a rate of) about an AVA every six years.”
In the petition, Hagen described Alisos Canyon as “the Goldilocks Rhone Zone,” as its climate, soils and geology are neither too hot nor too cold for optimal growth of Rhone grape varietals — syrah, grenache, mourvedre, grenache blanc and viognier, to name but a few.
Included in the Alisos Canyon AVA are six commercial vineyards — Alisos, Black Hills, Martian Ranch, The Third Twin, Thompson/Dovecote and Watch Hill — and portions of three others — the Neely, Rancho Los Alamos and Los Alamos Hills vineyards.
Together, the vineyards comprise 238 acres, and the entire Alisos Canyon AVA includes 5,774 acres and one winery (Martian Ranch), according to the TTB.
Rowles detailed for me why the borders of the new AVA slice through three vineyards, leaving only parts of each included.
“The reason for that was the climate and geology data we analyzed,” he explained. “We didn’t design the borders around vineyard borders, or real estate property lines, but instead let the information about the land speak for itself. In some cases, that resulted in a partial inclusion.
“I’m a scientist at heart and am always open to learning more about something I’ve researched, so if someone were to propose slight modifications to the AVA borders that were based on bona fide research, I would welcome the dialogue.”
Alisos Canyon’s climate is affected by the cool marine air that flows into the region via the drainage system of San Antonio Creek, according to TTB documentation. San Antonio Creek runs roughly east-west, but for a time follows Highway 101 north of Los Alamos and then wraps south around the new AVA.
Alisos Canyon is located about 25 miles from the ocean and is within a “transitional” region — one between the cooler coastal regions and the warmer inland areas. The AVA’s soils are mostly derived from sandstone and shale, the TTB noted.
Via email, Rowles described to me the process that he and Hagen utilized in their effort to make Alisos Canyon official.
“The initiative for the Alisos Canyon AVA came from a conversation I had with Jeff Newton in the summer of 2014,” Rowles wrote. Newton is a founding partner of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates and helped plant the Thompson Vineyard in 1990.
“I was in the process of purchasing the Thompson family’s ranch as a new home for my own family, and wanted to honor the decades of hard work and passion they had put into their vineyard,” Rowles said.
“I asked Jeff what his top three suggestions would be in this regard, and the first thing he said was, ‘Have you tasted the wine?! This place is extremely special — Alisos Canyon needs its own AVA.’”
Newton recommended that Rowles start researching the process that can lead to an AVA, and to bring in Hagen — widely viewed as an expert AVA researcher — to “help draft the petition documents and shepherd the submittal process.”
After Rowles’ preliminary research, he met Hagen in January 2015 over dinner at the The Hitching Post II in Buellton. They shared a bottle of 1998 Tensley Wines Syrah sourced from the Thompson Vineyard, and marveled over how the then-17-year-old wine still displayed freshness, structure and complexity, Rowles told me.
“Wes and I hit it off right away (we are both colossal nerds), and he expressed deep enthusiasm for Alisos Canyon and the prospective idea of an AVA,” he said. “We ironed out the details of the project, defined our responsibilities, and set out to collect and distill mountains of information into the required format of an AVA petition.”
Nearly two years passed, with Hagen and Rowles busy with their respective day jobs and the research required for an AVA petition.
“Finally, in early 2017, Wes and I met to absorb all of the information and start the process of discerning the natural borders of the AVA,” Rowles said. They based the borders on “significant natural differences in elevation, climate, rainfall, temperatures, wind and fog.”
Rowles’ Thompson Vineyard is the new AVA’s oldest site, he said, and one of the oldest inhabited ranches in the area.
— Laurie Jervis tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.