Los Alamos Valley: An In-Depth Look At Santa Barbara County’s Unsung Treasure

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In the past decade, Santa Barbara County has exploded with AVAs, and rightfully so.  As we’ve tasted the wines and analyzed the nuances of soil and climate throughout our region, we have begun to carve out special sub-regions of note that have a distinctive voice.  In addition to our early AVAs of Santa Maria Valley (est. 1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (est. 1983), we have Sta. Rita Hills (est. 2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (est. 2009), Ballard Canyon (est. 2013) and the pending Los Olivos District (likely to be established by 2015).  Yet one of the County’s most historic regions remains without a designation of any kind: the Los Alamos Valley.  This past week I spoke with numerous winemakers and farmers who have worked over the years with Los Alamos Valley fruit to hear their thoughts on the site character of Los Alamos, its various subzones, and the idea of an AVA. losalamos2losalamos When researching a region, I always start with soil; my love lies in the dirt.  Los Alamos, like most great regions, has a wealth of exciting soils.  Shale, clay, sand, gravel, sandstone, and a bit of limestone can be found in various pockets.  This variability within the region has led some to suggest that rather than a single AVA, the area should be broken down into several smaller AVAs.  “I do think it would have to be broken down for it to be true to definition, and that in itself might make it less feasible or practical to do so,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. There is also a notable difference in temperature between the valley’s west end near Vandenberg Air Force Base, which can be quite chilly, and the eastern end near Alisos Canyon, where things heat up.  Broadly speaking, Los Alamos Valley is 10 degrees cooler on average than Santa Ynez Valley, and 10 degrees warmer than Santa Maria, though again, there are more subtle nuances from east to west.  As a result of these variations in soil and climate, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variety for the region to hang its hat on.  Much like Santa Maria to its north or Santa Ynez to its south, Los Alamos has a multitude of varietal voices that express this place.

Thompson's rolling slopes
Thompson’s rolling slopes

Starting in the east, near the northern boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we find perhaps the area’s most acclaimed sub-region: Alisos Canyon.  Running east of Highway 101 along Alisos Canyon Road, this area is paradise for Rhone varieties, though Cabernet Franc and Gamay also have potential.  The canyon is home to the famed Thompson Vineyard, which has produced legendary Syrahs for 20 years.  Newer sites, such as Martian Ranch, Watch Hill, and The Third Twin, show equal promise.  Despite being a very small region, Alisos Canyon is defined by several different soils, all of which have either sandstone or shale in their parent material.  In the southeast, at Martian and Alisos, there is Chamise shaly and sandy loam.  This acidic shale seems to imbue the wines, Syrah in particular, with brightness and lift even at higher sugars/alcohols.  Across the road, at Thompson, is Tierra Sandy Loam, an alluvial soil providing more textural breadth in the wines.  The Third Twin (formerly Los Tres Burros), Sine Qua Non’s site above Thompson, shifts into San Andreas-Tierra Complex, a much sandier, sandstone-derived soil.  As we shift toward the mouth of the canyon, particularly at Watch Hill, we see very sandy Arnold series soils, making this prime real estate for Grenache in particular.

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The climate is also ideal for Rhone grapes, a Goldilocks-like balance between not-too-hot and not-too-cold.  “For Rhones, Alisos Canyon is still a cool area and fairly uniform in temperature from its mouth east of the 101 most of the way to Foxen Canyon,” says Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  “As cool as it is, it is somewhat sheltered and warm enough that everything can get ripe yet have the long hang time that lets the flavors develop.  Things can get ripe without being crazy sweet.”  Kunin elaborates on this idea, stating “Alisos is in the Eastern corner of the hypothetical Los Alamos AVA, and so benefits from the warmer airflow of the Santa Ynez Valley. This tempers the predominantly cool coastal breezes that dominate the flats farther West and make them better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In general, I think that it is this hybrid airflow pattern that defines Los Alamos.”  Many have suggested that Alisos Canyon should have its own AVA.  Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care farms many of the sites here (impeccably, I might add), and believes in the potential of not only the Valley as a whole, but Alisos in particular.  “I believe that Los Alamos Valley is special and deserves its own appellation,” says Finkle. “However, Alisos Canyon Road is unique and dominated by Rhone varieties.  As you move west of the town of Los Alamos, the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling.  For this reason there should probably be at least two sub-appellations.”

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Moving just north of Alisos Canyon, before the town of Los Alamos, we head into the Los Alamos flats along Highway 101.  Lucas & Lewellen owns most of the land here, and has long advocated for the potential of Los Alamos.  Their vineyards contain a wealth of interesting grape varieties, 20 in all, ranging from Nebbiolo and Freisa to Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca, functioning as a great window into what unexpected grapes may potentially shine in Los Alamos.  Soil here is alluvial, mostly Botella series (also prominently found in the southern Sta. Rita Hills).  As we continue up Highway 101, past the town of Los Alamos, we start to get into bigger plantings, often owned by larger companies such as Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home.  This could go some ways toward explaining the lack of an AVA for Los Alamos Valley: these larger labels often blend the wines into Central Coast or even North Coast designated wines, rarely vineyard-designating or even putting Santa Barbara County on the label.  “With so many large producers/growers in the area, there hasn’t been the grassroots inertia to garner the acclaim, promote the region or gather data for an AVA application,” explains Kunin.

The steep slopes of Verna's Vineyard
The steep slopes of Verna’s Vineyard

Cat Canyon is the next area of note, located in the northern Los Alamos Valley, just east of Highway 101.  While there are still some bigger corporate plantings, there are also two of the valley’s most noted sites: Verna’s and White Hawk.  Verna’s Vineyard, owned by the Melville family, has served as the source for their more affordable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs.  These are some of the top values in California today, particularly the Pinot Noir, driven by a purity of place and a strong core of hard spice.  Jaffurs also produces a superb Syrah from Verna’s; to taste it next to their Thompson bottling is a great illustration of the large difference in site character between Alisos Canyon and Cat Canyon.  Across the street from Verna’s is White Hawk, a lauded source for Syrah.  Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl has utilized this site for many years, and it is one of only two non-estate vineyards he continues to work with, while his protégé Maggie Harrison incorporates it into her flagship Syrah for her Lillian label.  Ojai’s White Hawk Syrah shows wonderful restraint, with great structure, purity and spice.  Viognier is promising from both sites as well, and Ojai recently produced a beautiful Sangiovese from White Hawk.

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Both Verna’s and White Hawk are essentially gigantic sand dunes, dominated by Arnold and Corralitos sands, and quite a bit colder than the southern and eastern portions of Los Alamos Valley (on a map, it lines up roughly with the eastern Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Bench).  One can taste it in the Syrah, which has more pronounced notes of peppercorn and leaner texture, as compared to the meatier, broader wines of Alisos Canyon.  “Verna’s is a cooler site- you can see the fog in Santa Maria from the top of the hill-side block,” says Jaffurs.  “The north (south facing) side of Cat Canyon is a different site from Verna’s which almost faces north – hence its relative coolness.”

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Western Los Alamos Valley sunset, viewed from the eastern crest of Kick On Ranch

The final region of note is the valley’s far western edge along Highway 135, not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  As a resident of this part of Los Alamos, I can attest that it is very cold, very foggy, and very windy.  Again, there are some bigger/more corporate plantings to be found here, though the quality remains high, particularly in cool climate whites from the large White Hills property, one of the coldest, westernmost vineyards in Santa Barbara County.  The two star sites, however, are Kick On Ranch and Los Alamos Vineyard.

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Sand in the flats of Kick On
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Rocks in Kick On’s upper blocks

Kick On Ranch has garnered the most acclaim for, of all things, Riesling.  This should not come as a surprise given the early success of Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills with Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  Economics forced those areas to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but these varieties remain and thrive in Los Alamos.  Graham Tatomer was one of the first to latch on to this site for his Riesling-focused label, with his single-vineyard bottling a top example of the austere minerality to be found at Kick On.  He has also recently planted Gruner Veltliner, a variety that should show great results here.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach has also been making beautiful Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, from the vineyard.  J. Brix are crafting gorgeous examples of Kick On across the varietal spectrum, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir in several different iterations (their Petillant Naturel Riesling is one of the top methode ancestrale sparklers I’ve tasted from California).  Soil in this part of the valley is quite sandy, consisting of Arnold, Corralitos, Betteravia, and Tierra series.  In Kick-On’s upper blocks, however, one finds fossils and large pieces of sandstone and shale.  “The ancient-beach soil is mesmerizing,” says Emily Towe of J. Brix.  “We can’t walk Kick On without stopping over and over to pick up shells, stones, fossils. It’s a whisper of history from when it was the bottom of the sea, long before it became the Valley of the Cottonwoods. The vines get to live in both worlds, in a way.”  The minerality in the whites here is amazing, with intensity rarely found outside of Europe’s chilliest climes.  Pinot Noir showcases an intriguing herbal side, with tomato leaf and root vegetable notes, along with dark fruit and spice highlights that are distinct from Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria. lavydsign The other site of note is the legendary Los Alamos Vineyard.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen operated from a barn on the property here in their earliest days.  Gavin Chanin, who is now producing stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyard, also has fond memories of his early time here.  “During my first harvest in Santa Barbara I lived next door to Los Alamos vineyard in a bunk house, and we used to drink beer and watch them night harvest with huge flood lights,” recalls Chanin.  “It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me.”  Los Alamos Vineyard, like its neighbors in this part of the Valley, is quite sandy, with steep slopes and incredible exposures.  Chardonnay exhibits an intense, almost searing minerality, with fruit playing a background role.  These are not wines defined by aromatic intensity; rather, they are almost entirely about texture and mineral presence, in a fashion not found elsewhere in California.  The Pinots exhibit a similar herbaceousness as that found in Kick On.  “Los Alamos Vineyard is very unique,” says Chanin.  “The wines are rich but held together with great acidity, freshness and minerality. It is my most coastal vineyard but also our warmest because Los Alamos is somewhat cut off from the ocean.”  To taste the wines from Chanin, or Au Bon Climat through their “Historic Vineyard Series” bottlings, is a revelation: they are unlike any other Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County.  These are site-driven, beautifully balanced wines that speak loudly of their origins.

So, what is the future for Los Alamos Valley?  The winemakers I spoke with were divided: some believe an AVA would be beneficial, some believe it should be broken into several small AVAs, some believe only Alisos Canyon should have an AVA, and some believe there shouldn’t be any AVAs at all.  Given the diversity of the region, this is no surprise.  “I hate the idea of type casting Los Alamos because it has the potential to do so much at a very high level,” says Chanin.  “Very often with AVAs people only want to plant/produce what the AVA is best known for.”  Craig Jaffurs shares his skepticism at an overarching AVA, though believes Alisos Canyon may be worth designating.  “The larger Los Alamos Valley has not shown enough distinction to warrant becoming an AVA.  Alisos Canyon would be a worthy AVA in the same sense Ballard Canyon is.”  Bryan Babcock, a Sta. Rita Hills veteran who has worked with such sites as El Camino and Loma Verde in Los Alamos Valley’s northern sector, is quick to caution against Pinot Noir becoming Los Alamos’ flagship variety, and also points to the challenges of fractured AVAs.  “I would not hang my hat on Pinot, at least not yet. If you try to be a Pinot appellation, you will be crawling out from under the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley for the next 100 years… Also be careful about fracturing your AVA and destroying any potential clout that you would have had otherwise. If you don’t put together a critical mass of interest and players, you will witness the still birth of your AVA.”

There are currently, to my knowledge, no plans in the works to establish an AVA within Los Alamos Valley, though there is constant talk about it among the area’s vintners.  Perhaps we’ll never see an official designation for this area, which is a shame, as there are so many beautiful, unique wines coming from here.  As Seth Kunin states, “the concentration of flavor combined with unique structure [in Los Alamos] allows for significant ageing. Certainly some of the best examples of older (5-10 year-old) Syrahs that I have tasted from Santa Barbara County come from Los Alamos.”  I couldn’t agree more.  With the influx of new producers working with the fruit here, and exciting new plantings such as Mike Roth’s Mullet site, there is renewed energy in Los Alamos, carrying on the work of early pioneers like Ojai, Au Bon Climat, and Bedford.  Sites such as Thompson, Los Alamos Vineyard, White Hawk, and Verna’s are already legendary, and I have no doubt that we’ll be discussing Kick On Ranch, Martian, and Watch Hill with the same reverence in the years to come.  I hope that, as we continue to further refine our knowledge of site in Santa Barbara County, we continue to argue the merits of place as passionately as those I spoke with have done here.  It is this open dialogue and elegant exchange of ideas that will continue to elevate our area. A selection of Los Alamos bottlings to seek out:

Alisos Canyon
– Luminesce Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Ojai Thompson Vineyard Syrah, Grenache
– Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah
– Martian Ranch Grenache, Syrah, Gamay, Viognier
– Tercero Watch Hill Grenache
– Bedford Syrah
– Andrew Murray Watch Hill Syrah

Cat Canyon
– Jaffurs Verna’s Vineyard Syrah
– Melville- Anything from Verna’s Vineyard
– Lillian Syrah
– Ojai White Hawk Syrah, Sangiovese
– Tercero White Hawk Viognier, Syrah

Western Los Alamos
– Tatomer Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix Kick On Ranch Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris
– Municipal Winemakers Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Stirm Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Forlorn Hope Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Ojai Kick On Ranch Pinot Noir, Riesling
– Chanin Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Clendenen Family Syrah-Viognier La Cuna
– Bedford Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc

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