Dreams, families and wines are all intricately connected. Sometimes the dream of starting a vineyard or winery is shared over a bottle (or two) with the family over a holiday meal. For other families there isn't a specific memory, but just an understanding that the winery or vineyard have always just been there, part of life. Santa Barbara County is blessed with so many family-owned vineyards and wineries. All of which started with a dream. Last week we caught up with Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard. He recently welcomed a new baby and his sister came in from Italy to help with harvest. Family and wine. This is our Santa Barbara County.
You can follow the Larner Vineyard harvest on Facebook and the entire Santa Barbara County harvest on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #sbcharvest.
Was this photo taken in the mines or among the vines at Larner Vineyard? (Just kidding.) When and where was the photo taken? Who is in this picture? Is it hard to source the head lamps?
This is our tribute to the Harvest Moon. The photo was taken at 5.30 am on September 19 in the Syrah 3, 101-14 block and represents our first fruit to come off the vine in harvest 2013! Monica Larner, my sister, and Italian Reviewer for the Wine Advocate and eRobertParker, gets a chance to dump her laptop for harvesting sheers and taste what it’s like to be on “the other side.” Up next for my sister? She gets to clean the bladder press.
You (Michael Larner) have been a visible member of the Santa Barbara County wine community on behalf of your family. Tell us more about your mom and sister, Monica, who also happens to be a highly regarded wine writer and how you all came to own this special piece of land.
The Larner family purchased the property in 1997 in the hope of doing exactly what we are doing today. My dad Stevan Larner (who passed away in 2005) brought a culture of wine to the family and my sister and I seamlessly got caught up in wine, albeit on two different ends representing both production and critique. What Stevan Larner practiced was parenthood by passion, and magically it worked.
In addition to making your own wines under the Larner label, several other prominent wineries in the region purchase fruit from your vineyard. What makes the Larner Vineyard and Ballard Canyon a good place for grapes? What grapes do you grow and what do you think the landscape in Santa Barbara County will look like in 10 years?
We have farmed grapes for dozens of excellent, boutique winemakers over the past decade, many of whom use the “Larner Vineyard” designation on their wines. By selling fruit first, we helped establish the vineyard’s reputation and quality. In a sense we did things backwards: We focused on the vineyard first and the winery later. We continue to believe that what sets Larner apart is the strict growers’ philosophy that distinguishes our wines. Larner Vineyard is the first major wine-growing property along the corridor of winding roads and breathless rural landscapes that make up Ballard Canyon. Any day now, we are waiting for official approval of the Ballard AVA (America Viticulture Area) that would recognize this beautiful parcel of the greater Santa Barbara area for its unique grape-growing characteristics. Ballard Canyon is celebrated for its unique soils, microclimates and grape varieties. Another important distinguishing factor is the high level of quality achieved by all the major wineries located in what will soon be America’s newest AVA. We are all extremely excited.
We are firm believers that the future of Santa Barbara County is in the creation of individual sub-zones and territories that together make up the pieces of a greater mosaic. The Santa Rita Hills is known for Burgundian-styled wines like Pinot Noir, Ballard Canyon for Rhône Valley varieties like Syrah and Happy Canyon for Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Together, these special territories offer more stylistic flexibility and varietal expression to the consumer than any other major wine zone in California. Ultimately, this is what gives Santa Barbara County its competitive edge.
You and your wife recently welcomed a baby daughter into the world. How has it been with harvest and a new baby?
Our baby Sienna was born on born on Sept 3rd, 2014. Sadly, ten days later her other remaining grandfather passed away. It’s been a bittersweet month for our family, further complicated by the fact that harvest came four weeks early. Living amongst the vines, you are constantly reminded of the annual cycles that metaphorically link birth to death. The 2013 harvest will be an especially important one for the Larner family.
What wines and foods are at your family table during the holidays?
My mom Christine (who was born in Krakow) is an inspired cook and Monica always brings a suitcase of Italian ingredients back with her when she visits from Rome. Our holiday meals represent a crazy fusion of four uniquely diverse cuisines: Italian, French, Polish and Californian. We’ve made our own version of pasta alla Gricia with queso and roasted Poblano chili peppers, put hand-kneaded porcini tortellini in red borscht, simmered coq au vin in Chianti Classico and paired poppy seed cake with Recioto di Soave. What we cook is a nod to the culinary traditions that inspire us most. I’d say the Italian theme is probably the strongest because my sister is on the front lines of what’s interesting and new in Italian cooking. It’s no coincidence that the kitchen is by far the biggest room at the Larner residence.