Although it consists of a mere 34 acres of wine grapes and is less than a decade old, the Santa Ynez Valley’s Larner Vineyard finds itself flaunted on no fewer than 20 separate labels being produced by more than one dozen different winemakers. That sort of vineyard-designated record is comparable to the achievements of Bien Nacido Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley-except that Bien Nacido is more than 20 times the size and three times as old as Larner.
“We’re giving all of our clients the attention to detail they need to really make that good wine,” explained owner and head grower Michael Larner of the unprecedentedly quick success. “Our focus has always been to make sure we are growing good fruit, but at the same time, we work very closely with all of our winemakers, who are kind of like family.”
Totaling 130 acres and located on Ballard Canyon Road just north of Solvang, the Larner family ranch will be the site of the first ever LarnerFte, which will showcase these vineyard-designate wines on Saturday, June 20. Of the 34 acres planted in grapes, there are 22 acres of syrah, six acres of grenache, two-and-a-half of viognier, and two acres of mourvdre-all varietals from France’s Rh’ne Valley-plus one-and-a-half acres of the non-Rh’ne “outlier” grape malvasia bianca.
What makes the vineyard special, though, is that the 22 acres of syrah are broken into 11 two-acre blocks, with as many as three clients pulling fruit from one block. “We’re farming on a very small level,” said Larner. “We’re farming by rows, essentially, and catering to everyone’s different needs.” So when one winemaker wants less leaf cover on their vines or shoots thinned or fruit dropped, Larner will oblige. That sort of care is “paramount to getting good recognition out in the market,” he said.
More recognition will certainly come thanks to LarnerFte, which is being organized under the umbrella of Solvang’s Wandering Dog Wine Bar, whose owners C.T. and Jody Williams serve up dozens of Central Coast wines every day to their customers. Over recent tastes of Kenneth-Crawford grenache and Bonaccorsi syrah-both, of course, from Larner Vineyard-Jody told me, “We started to realize that all of our favorite wines were always going back to Larner Vineyard.”
To show off that consistent quality, the event centers on a grand tasting, from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., which will feature nearly two dozen Larner Vineyard-designated wines from one dozen wineries, such as Kaena (specialists in grenache), Palmina (who polish the malvasia bianca), and Jaffurs (whose syrah caused wine critic Robert Parker to claim that the Larner Vineyard “would merit grand cru status in France”). After that, patrons can purchase glasses or bottles of wine from the producers-or, for a change of pace, beer from Island Brewing-while eating their own picnic lunches (the BYO-food aspect keeps costs down), listening to The House Red Band, or perusing the dessert sale where proceeds go to the PAWS Parks of Santa Ynez Valley. And, from 1:30 p.m. on, attendees can join Michael Larner himself for a tour of the vineyard.
He’ll have plenty of stories to tell, not the least of which is the history of the family ranch, which was the retirement dream of his mom Christine and dad Stevan, a successful cinematographer of such films as Caddy Shack and television series as Roots and The Winds of War, for which he won an Emmy. One of Stevan’s first jobs was doing a documentary on Algerian wines. That’s when “he got bit by the bug,” said his son, explaining, “When it came time to get out of Hollywood, he was so content with the idea of getting far away by getting into the wine industry.”
So he started his search in the mid ‘90s, purchased the ranch in 1997, and planted in 1999 and 2000. But in 2005, tragedy struck, as Stevan rolled an all-terrain vehicle while out looking for the family cat and died a week later at age 75. By that point, Michael, a onetime geologist who became interested in wine after moving to the ranch in 1998, had graduated from UC Davis with a masters in viticulture and enology and worked a harvest in France’s Rh’ne Valley with Philip Guigal. Michael returned to the farm for good.
“It was tough,” said Michael, who said his family convened a “Larner Summit” to discuss the future, which included the completion of his mom’s dream home and the pursuit of their own on-site winery, which he hopes will be completed within two years. “We came to the realization that we’re doing exactly what he would have wanted us to do.”
The first ever LarnerFte goes down at the Larner Vineyard on June 20, from 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., and costs $35 for members of the Wandering Dog Wine Society and $45 for everyone else. Call 686-9126 or see wanderingdogwinebar.com.