'A New Niche to Taste and Explore': Alisos Canyon is America's Newest Appellation | Wine Enthusiast
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‘A New Niche to Taste and Explore’: Alisos Canyon is America’s Newest Appellation

After six years of research, work and waiting, Alisos Canyon is an official American Viticultural Area, or AVA. Today, the federal government approved the creation of this small appellation in Santa Barbara County, California.

Located near the tiny town of Los Alamos, between the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys, Alisos Canyon stretches into the sandy hills on both sides of Alisos Canyon Road. It runs roughly from Highway 101 to Foxen Canyon Road.

At nearly 5,800 acres, the appellation is home to about 240 acres of wine grapes planted on nine ranches. That includes vineyards known for Syrah, Grenache and other Rhône grapes.


Noah Rowles, owner of Thompson Vineyards, spearheaded the campaign to recognize the area soon after he bought the property in 2014.

One of his first moves was to ask veteran vineyard consultant Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates what could be done to help the region, whose wines had to be classified by the generic “Santa Barbara County” appellation. Newton advised creating an AVA for Alisos Canyon.

“The more I experienced the area, the more I believed that the wines here shared a common soul, aromatically and texturally,” says Rowles.

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Thompson Vineyard / Photo courtesy Dovecote Estate

He began to mine climatic, geologic and historical data to support the area’s application. Rowles learned that the area was slightly warmer than the Sta. Rita Hills, home to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and a bit cooler than Ballard Canyon, a hotbed for Rhône grapes.

The sandy soils were also critical, as they allowed vineyards to be grown on their own roots.

“From the top of the hills to the canyon floor, you can pick up beach sand and let it slide through your fingers, like an hourglass,” says Rowles, who was also excited by the region’s chalky soils and flint rocks.

Rowles then enlisted the help of AVA wizard and winemaker Wes Hagen. He’s created three other Santa Barbara County appellations: the Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon.

One of Hagen’s first experiences in the county was to watch a presentation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Thompson Vineyard.

“I sipped a bottle of Cab Franc over three hours and fell in love,” he says. “The area was immediately special to me, and the Thompson Syrah has always been one of my favorites in the county.”

Hagen finished work on the federal petition in 2016.

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Photo courtesy Dovecote Estate

Ken Brown, who’s made wine in the region since 1977, is happy about the news.

“It will be positive for vineyards, wineries and consumers,” he says. “The only option at this time is to label the wines from this area as Santa Barbara County, which is too general and does not give any sense of where the wine comes from in this very diverse county.”

Joey Tensley will soon be in the midst of his 27th harvest of Thompson Vineyard Syrah. “What sets it aside is the rolling hills and cool afternoon winds,” he says. “I hope it will lead to a little more recognition. Los Alamos has always been lost between Santa Ynez and Santa Maria.”

But it’s not just Rhône grapes in Alisos Canyon. Martian Ranch grows biodynamic Tempranillo, Albariño, Gamay and Cabernet Franc. Meanwhile, Alisos Vineyard grows Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.

Alison Thomson features Nebbiolo in wines for her brand, L.A. Lepiane Wines. She’s worked in the region for 15 years. Its once more affordable, off-the-radar status has started to change as accolades mount and grape prices rise.

“Achieving ripeness in flavor and tannin, without pushing sugars too high, makes growing Nebbiolo notoriously challenging,” she says. “The moderated temperatures as well as the soils help to preserve the beautiful, complex and energetic aromatics for which Nebbiolo is known.”

The new AVA continues to evolve. A wider array of grapes were planted recently at Nolan Ranch. Cult winemaker Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non is also part of the scene. He established The Third Twin Vineyard in the hills above Thompson back in 2010.

“My greatest hope is that, in 100 years, when these boundaries are under the microscope of future generations with tools and data sets I can’t even imagine, that we did a competent job of describing something special,” says Hagen. “And by giving it a name, we have given the world of wine a new niche to taste and explore.”

Alisos Canyon
Photo courtesy of Alisos Canyon AVA

Wines from Alisos Canyon AVA

Lepiane 2016 Alisos Vineyard Nebbiolo (Santa Barbara County); $49, 94 points. Aromas of dried cherries, leather and turned earthy are pleasantly rustic on the nose of this bottling by Alison Thomson. The palate is wrapped in a leathery tannins that grab hold of the tongue and don’t let go, delivering rust and dried cherry flavors. Drink now–2036. Cellar Selection.

Epiphany 2017 Thompson Vineyard G-S-M (Santa Barbara County); $40, 93 points. It’s not often that a GSM exhibits cool-climate character, but this bottling from a coveted vineyard in the Alisos Canyon area does just that. Aromas of muddled mulberry and cherry meet with green peppercorn and garam masala on the nose. The palate is herbal and peppery, showing orange peel and dried ginger against the roasted berry core. Editors’ Choice.

Ken Brown 2015 Thompson Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $65, 92 points. Mulberry and dark cranberry aromas meet with earthy forest floor and dark star anise spice on the nose of this single-vineyard expression. The palate shows strong baking-spice aromas, with gingerbread and wild thyme flavors decorating the tangy raspberry and cherry core. Cellar Selection.

Zinke 2016 Thompson Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $45, 92 points. Crisp and bright aromas of light boysenberry and lavender make for a fresh entry to the nose of this bottling. The wine is taut in texture and loaded with acidity, delivering tight berry, charred wood, green-sage, wild thyme and peppercorn flavors.