I find Santa Barbara wine country so interesting. As a kid, Santa Barbara always meant vacation—hot days, sandy toes, beach water I could actually swim in. (If you grew up along the San Francisco shoreline, you know what I mean when I say Pacific Beach is never that welcoming). So, it’s interesting that a placed perceived as a summertime getaway where board shorts and flip flops are basically the dress code, could produce wines with any kind of delicacy. Let alone the cool-climate grapes for which it’s gained a reputation, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

But as all you fellow wine nerds know, the cool thing (pun not intended, but not deleted either) is that because of tectonic plate-shifting, Santa Barbara’s Transverse Ranges are exactly that—transverse. Whereas most of California’s coastal ranges run from north to south, limiting some inland locations from cool ocean breezes and fog patterns, in Santa Barbara the ranges go from east to west, thereby funneling in that cool ocean air.

The two major AVAs are Santa Maria and Santa Ynez, the latter of which contains four sub-AVAs: Santa Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos, and Happy Canyon.

But at the end of 2020, Santa Barbara County finalized the approval process for its seventh appellation—Alisos Canyon AVA

Located between the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, about 30 miles in from the Pacific Ocean, Alisos Canyon is home to 5,774 acres that are distinguished by a particulary geological makeup and micro-climate. And, unlike most of its neighbors, the new AVA has garnered a reputation for producing high-quality Rhône-style wines.

During a recent Alisos Canyon AVA Masterclass, fellow wine-writer Matt Kettmann led a discussion between four wine growers who discussed what makes Alisos Canyon individuated from other Santa Barbara AVAs, and exemplified that uniqueness with a conjunctive tasting: Jessica Gasca, Story of Soil, Andrew Murray, Andrew Murray Vineyards, Stephen Searle, Jaffurs Wine Cellars, and Angela Osborne, A Tribute to Grace.

Alisos Canyon is quite small—there’s just about 250 acres of grapes planted across 9 vineyards. The climate is generally warm, especially during the summer days, but evenings and nights can be quite cool due to the San Antonio Creek Valley that cuts through those coastal mountains, filtering in the Pacific Ocean air. There can be up to 50°F of diurnal temperature swings—a key factor in retaining the bright acidity and freshness even in the most broody of varietals, like Petit Sirah.

The AVA is also home to elevated vineyard locations, with the highest peaks ranging anywhere between 500 and 600 feet of altitude. Winemaker Andrew Murray pointed out that it’s these higher sites that are perfect for Syrah—allowing for freshness due to the cooler temperatures found at elevation, keeping it out of the damper valley floor, and allowing for greater sunlight interception to ensure full phenolic ripeness. As you’ll see from tasting notes below, the Syrahs (and Petit Sirahs) from Alisos Canyon are more akin to the cooler Northern Rhone than the riper, jammier flavors often associated with California.

Lastly, soils are quite varied and include shale, sand, limestone. “Growers always get so excited when they find limestone,” comments Murray.


A Tribute to Grace Thompson Vineyard Grenache Blanc 2019

Appearance: pale lemon

Aroma: medium (+) intensity—chamomile, jasmine, lemon, lime, grapefruit, just-ripe white peach and nectarine, wet stone, tarragon, hint pineapple, hint toast

Palate: dry, high acid, medium alcohol, medium body (slight phenolic grip), medium (+) intensity of flavors—confirming the nose

The finish is medium

Conclusion: This is a very good wine in which high acidity keeps the fresh primary characteristics vivacious from start to finish. Those primary characteristics show a broad range, from citrus to just ripe stone fruits and even a slight touch of tropical pineapple in the background. There’s a kind of wet stone minerality that provides a bit of earthiness; a touch of toast adds additional complexity and depth of flavor. There’s a slight phenolic grip—not bitter in anyway, instead lending to the texture, body, and character to the wine. The finish does fall at a medium length: one is left lingering with a sour grapefruit flavor—not at all unpleasant, but just a tad one note. But a wonderful balance, integration of flavors and aromas—and a good level of intensity to those characters—qualifies this wine as very good indeed.

This is a fresh, crisp, refreshing white wine surely intended to drink now. Would love to pair this with a fresh seafood dish (oysters anyone?) or a combination cheese platter.

A Tribute to Grace Thompson Vineyard Grenache Noir 2018

Appearance: pale ruby

Aroma: pronounced aromas—wild red strawberry, red raspberry, pomegranate (fruits are fresh, just-ripe in nature), a touch of  toasted wood, eucalyptus, white pepper, fresh violets, and something reminiscent of incense

Palate: dry, high acid, medium (-) tannins (fine-grained), medium body, medium alcohol and pronounced flavor intensity—confirming the nose

Finish is medium (+) in length

Conclusion: This is a very good wine which incorporates a high level of acid that once again keeps the fresh red fruits prominent and forward on the palate from start to finish. Further, primary characteristics include some spice and herbal notes as well (white pepper, eucalyptus), providing complexity even in these components. There are some secondary characteristics—toasted wood, incense—that gently compliment the primary fruits and florals without ever overwhelming them. Similarly, the tannins are light, well-integrated, only gently coating the palate, never drying, distracting, or detracting. The finish falls just shy of long at a medium (+) length, therefore isn’t qualified as outstanding in the technical sense, but this is a very good wine.

There’s certainly a high enough acidity and concentration of fruit flavors that this wine ‘could’ hold. However, the joy (at least for me) is in the fresh fruitful-ness and gentle herbal, floral and spice note that the wine emits now.

Story of Soil Martian Ranch Gamay Noir 2020

Appearance: pale ruby

Aroma: medium (+) intensity—charred wood (cedar), smoke/toast, ripe red and black cherry, ripe red and black plum, dried herbs de provence,

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium (-) tannins (smooth), medium alcohol, medium (+) flavor intensity—adding cinnamon, and making a note that the fruits, while ripe, also have an almost candy-like quality to them as well; further, secondary characteristics mentioned above, while present, are more subtle on the palate than initially perceived on the nose

Finish is medium (+)

Conclusion: This is a very good wine. A fun wine. It’s light, lively, and refreshing for a red wine and, in saying that, it very well incorporates secondary, heartier characteristics such as smoke, toast, and wood in and amongst the vibrancy of those ripe, candy fruits. Tannins are almost negligible—adding just a touch of texture and allowing the body to round out (any less, and the wine would certainly fall flat). The finish falls at a medium plus; one is left with a bit of that cinnamon and a note of candy.

This wine is surely intended for drinking whilst young. The nature of the fruits are not as such that would develop into anything more interesting—in fact I think the ‘interesting’ thing about this wine is the way it is right now.

Story of Soil Martian Ranch Gamay Noir 2017

Appearance: pale garnet

Aroma: pronounced aromas—dried violets and roses (potpourri), fresh and dried strawberry, cinnamon stick, toast/char, fresh and dried red plum, prune, dried herbs de provence

Palate: dry, high acid, medium tannins (sticky/tacky), high alcohol, medium body, medium (+) intensity—adding raisin; also noting that the fresher fruits have a tart quality to them

Finish is medium

Conclusion: This is a good wine. There’s certainly a diversity of flavor characteristics ranging from primary through to tertiary, including fresh and aged red fruits and florals. The intensity of all those characteristics are prominent both on the nose and on the palate. I will say that (to my palate) the acid and alcohol stick out just a bit—the acid lending to that kind of tart quality that overwhelms the palate just a tad; the alcohol lending a bit of heat that lingers during and after the tasting. And that bit of imbalance lends to the overall medium-length of finish, as fruit flavors get cut off.

I think this is a wine best enjoyed now. More time may lead to further fading of the fruit.

Andrew Murray Watch Hill Vineyard Syrah 2018

Appearance: medium ruby

Aroma: medium intensity—blackberry, black cherry, toast/smoke, black currant, black and red plum (fruits are fully ripe—bursting at the seams) currant leaf, bramble, hint leather and forest floor

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) body, medium (+) tannins (ripe, plush), medium (+) flavor intensity—confirming the palate and adding a bit of tobacco, violet, chocolate, and black pepper as well, and a definite alcoholic warmth on the tongue and inward

The finish is medium (+)

Conclusion: This is a very good wine that, though a bit shy on the nose, provides a variety of flavors once on the palate. Yes, the alcohol is a bit on the high side and provides a definite warmth, but this is so well-balanced with the level of ripeness of the fruit and adds a roundness to the body and an overall decadence and elegance. There’s a high enough acidity to keep the fresh fruits exactly that (fresh), but there are also some tertiary characteristics poking through as well—dried tobacco, leather, even a bit of forest floor—that adds to the depth and complexity of this wine. The finish fell just shy of long at a medium (+) length, however I believe with time this may actually improve. This wine is definitely suitable for aging. Structurally, all components are present: alcohol, acid, tannin, concentration of fruit. Further, the nature of that fruit is that it can evolve over time into their cooked/dried form and make the wine overall more interesting. Though tannins are certainly ripe and plush now, with time they’ll integrate further, as will those oak notes (smoke, toast wood), and with the combination of all these components, I believe the wine will eventually have the long finish it deserves.

Drink now or hold.

Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard Petite Sirah 2018

Appearance: deep ruby

Aroma: pronounced aromas—blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, anise, eucalyptus, tomato leaf, black currant, vanilla, violets, roses, hint nutmeg, black plum, fresh basil, hint of mint (?)

Fruits are fresh and fully ripe

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium (+) tannins (chalky), high alcohol, fully body, pronounced flavor intensity—confirming the nose, and adding some tertiary components—leather, dried tobacco, dried leaves and additional secondary notes—toasted wood

Finish is medium (+) (lingering with those barrel notes and a bit of alcoholic heat as well)

Conclusion: This is a very good wine that clearly has the potential to age and, in fact, I think will benefit from additional time. There’s a good dose of acidity that keeps the fresh, fully ripe black fruits prominent on the palate until just the end. These fruits are just borderline ‘jammy,’ and I think with time they will develop into that more decadent form, lending to the overall elegance of the wine. The alcohol is high, but again this is well suited to the fruit concentrated included and will certainly lend to the age-ability of this wine. Tannins, chalky now, will certainly smooth with time. As is, they add a good textural component to the wine that does not detract or distract, but instead adds to the complexity and overall body of the wine. Right now, the finish is shy of long, thus is not outstanding in quality, but given the wonderful balance of both structural components and flavor/aroma characteristics, as well as the intensity of all characteristics (primary, secondary tertiary), and the complexity these components provide, this is clearly better than simply good.

Drink now or hold.

Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard Syrah 2012

Appearance: medium ruby

Aroma: pronounced aromas—ripe red raspberry, boysenberry, wild strawberry, red currant, vanilla, cinnamon, clove nutmeg, fresh tomato leaf, damp forest floor

Fruits are ripe, jammy

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, high tannin (chalky), pronounced flavor intensity—confirming the nose, adding a bit of fig, dried fig, and prune as well

Finish is long

Conclusion: This is an outstanding wine that ticks all the technical boxes. There’s a high enough acidity to keep those fresh fruits fresh, and yet there are balanced notes of tertiary characteristics, including dried fruits. Notes of oak are like a delicate sprinkling, working to uplift the fruit rather than mask or hide them. Alcohol and tannin are both high, but both very well-incorporated—the alcohol complementing the ripeness of the fruit and their jammy nature; the tannins adding texture and body. This is another wine that is well-suited to aging further in the bottle. As those tannins soften and those fruits continue to mature, that alcohol will become seamlessly integrated even further. The finish, too, is long, providing a finish that speaks to a beautiful combination of all aromas and flavors listed. In fact, at about a minute following the tasting, I found myself discovering even more flavors. Depth, complexity, intensity, and lenght—outstanding.

Drink now or hold.

Andrew Murray Watch Hill Vineyard Syrah 2011

Appearance: deep ruby

Aroma: pronounced aromas—blackberry, boysenberry, black plum, black cherry, licorice, fennel, tomato leaf, toast/smoke, piped tobacco, cinnamon, clove, chocolate, vanilla, molasses, hint leather

Fruits are fresh, fully ripe, some jammy in nature with others (black cherry, black plum) just on the cusp of dried

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, full tannins (ripe, chalky), full body, pronounced flavor intensity—confirming nose and adding hints of coffee, prune, and leather

Finish is long.

Conclusion: Like, the previous wine, this is an outstanding wine that ticks all the technical boxes, but still has room for improvement with age. The complexity of this wine is particularly amazing—the way the primary fruit characteristics range from fresh to jammy to dried. Again, a conscientious use of oak delicately spices the aromatic and flavor profiles, while notes of age add further to that depth and complexity. Alcohol high, yes, but very well-integrated into the wine, providing a fullness to the body, but not a deterring heat component at all. Tannins, also high and, as of right now, chalky. I wager that with time they will soften even further, but I must add that the chalky texture is, for me, an enjoyable component—it seems to soften the high alcohol a bit and makes the fresher fruits seem plush (as if you’re eating them in their entirety—skin and all), creating an overall decadence and elegance to this wine. And the finish—a beautiful combination of all the listed characteristics that intermingle on the tongue for minutes on end.

Outstanding wine. Drink now or hold.

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