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My Saturday started at 4:30 a.m.

However, “early to work” meant “early off work” — just in time to slide into an empty seat for “RhônesRule: The Wines of Ballard Canyon,” the first of two seminars during “Southern Exposure: The Garagiste Festival” at the Solvang Veterans Hall.

Stewart McLennan, co-founder of the Garagiste Festivals with Doug Minnick, moderated a panel of winemakers who source from vineyards in Ballard Canyon.

McLennan led winemakers Michael Larner, Larry Schaffer and Mikael Sigouin through an hour-long discussion of the merits of Ballard Canyon, the newest of Santa Barbara County’s five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).

The three men are friends and their back-and-forth banter with McLennan about Santa Barbara County versus Paso Robles (also a Rhône superstar) and winemaking styles kept the audience attentive.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved the petition to designate Ballard Canyon last October. “The approval came right in the middle of harvest last year,” Larner said. “We’re very excited to be able to take ‘Santa Ynez Valley’ off labels and be able to add ‘Ballard Canyon’ (to future vintages still in the barrel or tank).”

Crucial to a petition for an AVA is the research outlining the weather (rainfall and degree days), and particulars of soil, including bedrock and lichen, Larner noted. His family’s vineyard is comprised of sand — a factor key both to the distinctness of the AVA and to the grape varietals that best thrive in its soils.

The two Rhône grapes most prevalent in Ballard Canyon are Syrah, with 274 acres planted, and Grenache, with 61, according to Santa Barbara Vintners.

McLennan and Minnick crafted Saturday morning’s seminar around those two red grapes, featuring two by each of the three winemakers.

Following is the order in which we tasted, comments from the winemakers and my brief notes on each.

~ Kaena 2011 Grenache, Tierra Alta Vineyard: Sigouin, who said he first worked with Grenache for Beckmen (where he’s still the winemaker) called Ballard Canyon “a sweet spot for Grenache,” and this vintage of his Kaena exemplifies that. I wrote: “Feminine but with solid tannins.” Clone: Tablas A.

~ Kaena 2011 Grenache, Larner Vineyard: Sigouin emphasized Larner Vineyard’s sandy soils, and the south-facing block from which this vintage hailed. “Every year, Larner is the most solid of all the vineyards I work with,” he said. This was my favorite of the three grenaches (two from Kaena, one from Tercero). It’s balanced and elegant. Clone: ENTAV 362

~ Tercero 2009 Grenache, Larner Vineyard: Schaffer, who has sourced Grenache from Larner since 2008, is a huge supporter of the varietal — in Santa Barbara County in particular. This is a big wine, one that’s short on nuance but long on life. Put it down for five years (IMO).

And then came Syrahs:

~ Tercero 2009 Syrah, Larner Vineyard: This was aged for a whopping 42 months in neutral French oak, Schaffer said, and co-fermented with 5 percent viognier (which I swear I can discern, on the very end of the lengthy finish). This wine is bold but contains layers of flavors.

Larner’s two wines were 2009 and 2010 estate Syrahs. After the attendees had tasted both, Larner posed a question: Did we think the two vintages were more similar, or more different? I and a few other participants voted similar; the majority of the room voted dissimilar. (It’s all right; I stand by my palate).

Both vintages’ clones are 3, 383, 877 and Estrella, but the 2010 contains seven clonal lots and the 2009 just five — all fermented individually, according to Larner’s notes. The 2009 saw 18 months in 30 percent new French oak, and the 2010 was aged in similar barrels, but for 22 months. Both vintages were aged six months in bottle before being released.

The difference between the two, barrel wise: The 2010 utilized 5 percent new American oak barrels, and the 2009 just the French oak.

I favored the 2010 over the 2009 for its “clarity, elegance and lovely finish.” The 2009, I wrote, has “more cherry and less finish.”

Thanks to McLennan, Minnick, Dave and Lisa Dinsmore and Melanie Webber for another superb weekend of Garagiste wine and winemakers.

Coming next: Saturday afternoon with the Garagiste producers.

Copyright Central Coast Wine Press