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Clapping for Ballard Canyon

Intimate Taco Party Celebrates One of Nation’s Newest Wine-Growing Appellations


The credit can go to the dirt, but the message for now will be syrah, syrah, syrah.

So pledged second generation vintner Michael Larner on Friday afternoon to an intimate collection of winemakers, grape-growers, and assorted guests who gathered at Rusack Vineyards to toast the federal government’s recent approval of Ballard Canyon as its own appellation, technically known as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). The tight, breeze-blown canyon — which connects the towns of Buellton and Los Olivos and is home to about 15 vineyards on a total approved district of 7,800 acres — has drawn consistent critical praise for producing distinctive syrahs, so Larner was imploring the group to stay on message with that grape, promising that renown for the other grapes that also do well there, such as grenache, viognier, sangiovese, and even cabernet franc, will follow in short order.

From left, Michael Larner, Geoff Rusack, Wes Hagen, and Alison Wrigley-Rusack.
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Bob Dickey

From left, Michael Larner, Geoff Rusack, Wes Hagen, and Alison Wrigley-Rusack.

Larner, a geologist by degree who jumped headfirst into his family’s vineyard business upon the sudden death of his father in 2005, was one of the first to spearhead the idea of Ballard Canyon as its own appellation, and enlisted the services of Clos Pepe Vineyard’s Wes Hagen, who successfully achieved the same status for the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara in recent years. Friday’s event marked Hagen’s “triple crown” of appellation creation, and the long-haired, loquacious vintner sported a “three peat” t-shirt (originally of Los Angeles Lakers origin, complete with an illustrated coach Pat Riley) that everyone in attendance signed to mark the occasion.

Following remarks from Larner and Hagen as well as host Alison Wrigley-Rusack, Rusack’s winemaker Steve Gerbac, and Stolpman Vineyards’ second generation vintner Peter Stolpman, who is taking over as president of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers Organization, the attendees grabbed glasses of wine and plates of tacos made by Ruben “The Grape Whisperer” Solorzano, who’s becoming almost more popular for his cooking skills as he is for his vineyard tending at Stolpman, Jonata, and other properties as a partner in the management company, Coastal Vineyard Care.

Tom Stolpman signs Wes Hagen's "three-peat" shirt with Jeff Newton watching.
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Bob Dickey

Tom Stolpman signs Wes Hagen’s “three-peat” shirt with Jeff Newton watching.

That company’s founder, Jeff Newton, was also in attendance on Friday, and in casual conversation opined that in the decades to come, Ballard Canyon might just steal the show as Santa Barbara County’s best place to grow wine grapes. “In 50 to 100 years,” said Newton, who’s been working the region since the 1970s, “this will be it.”

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