CANYON CREW: For their eponymous estate wine project atop Ballard Canyon, Ron and Nancy Piazza, who also co-own Mail Road Wines and Mt. Carmel Vineyard, hired winemaker Gretchen Voelcker, proprietor of Luna Hart Wines. | Credit: Tymari LoRe

Though they’ve mostly been behind the scenes since planting the iconic Mt. Carmel Vineyard atop the Sta. Rita Hills in 1990, Ron and Nancy Piazza are critical contributors to Santa Barbara County’s wine reputation. After decades of mostly selling pinot noir and chardonnay to producers like Longoria, Au Bon Climat, and Brewer-Clifton — not to mention being partners in the top-shelf Mail Road Wines since 2012 — they’re finally putting their own name on labels to showcase a Ballard Canyon estate that they took over in 2017.

Formerly known, and well-respected, as Harrison-Clarke Vineyard, which was planted in 2001, the rechristened Bella Vista Vineyard sits on the northern edge of the Rhône-focused appellation, overlooking Stolpman, Jonata, and the Beckmen family’s Purisima Mountain Vineyard. The 14 acres of vine consist primarily of syrah and graciano, with a growing contingent of Italian varieties and cabernet sauvignon. Piazza Family Wines produces various versions of those estate grapes, as well as pinot and chard from Mt. Carmel every vintage.

To do so, the Piazzas enlisted the winemaking services of Gretchen Voelcker, known for her small Luna Hart brand, with the managerial backbone of Tymari LoRe, who previously helped launch both Kitá Wines and Folded Hills. Together, the team forms an energized front of experience and experimentation who are exploring what wine can taste like when handled with open minds and honest processing.

“The best thing I ever did was interview and hire Gretchen,” Ron Piazza tells me as we saddle up around a picnic table to sample Voelcker’s earliest explorations. To which Voelcker explains, “If I was going to jump in with both feet, there were plenty of things to do here. There’s so much potential.”

When she was hired in 2019, Voelcker was wrapping up her job at Martian Ranch near Los Alamos, which ended operations that year. (The vineyard remains, but the facility is now home to Joey Tensley.) By then, the Philadelphia native — who was raised on a family farm, fell for wine while living in Brussels during high school, and attended both Georgetown and UC Santa Cruz — had worked at both Rideau and Roark wineries and launched Luna Hart Wines, a small-batch label focused on sauvignon blanc, grüner veltliner, and cabernet franc. 

Credit: Tymari LoRe

With her Martian job about to evaporate, Voelcker was talking to winemaker Matt Dees about a job with Jonata. But any role there would have been a step backward on the winery ladder, so Dees — who had helped the Piazzas with their first vintage in 2018 — connected her to this project.

“Being a garagiste winemaker is what I strive for,” said Voelcker, who makes both Piazza and Luna Hart wines in the small but well-stocked estate winery. “Now I’ve got a garagiste winery with all the best equipment.” 

During my visit, we tasted 13 different wines across the two labels, starting with the Piazza Mt. Carmel chardonnay. Then came Luna Hart’s grüner veltliner from Spear Vineyard. “It’s just the weirdest wine grape ever, with its big, loose clusters,” said Voelcker, who loves to cook Asian and spicy foods, which align with the grape’s refreshing character. “I felt it was my perfect match.” 

She fermented 25 percent of the Luna Hart sauvignon blanc from Grimm’s Bluff on the skins, employing a technique not common for the grape. “I’m super excited about my first baby orange wine,” said Voelcker, whose sauv blanc is very aromatic and grippy in texture due to that skin contact. “It was a leap of faith to give it a go, but it’s one of my favorite wines, so I’m gonna stick with the program.”

Piazza’s Mt. Carmel pinot noir kicked off the reds, and then came the graciano and a blend of co-fermented graciano and syrah called Nancy’s Cuvee. “I am a purist with varietals, and even my blends show that,” said Voelcker. “I love being able to show off the intricacies of the different components in the wine.”

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Luna Hart’s cabernet francs — one from Honey Bear Orchard in Los Olivos, the other from Martian Ranch — were both bright and peppery in style, thanks to Voelcker’s early-picking strategy to ensure natural acidity and more savory rather than fruity flavors. “She’s always the first to pick almost everywhere,” said LoRe.

2019 was the first harvest for the vineyard’s cab and Italian varieties of sangiovese and montepulciano, which they blended into Dominic’s Estate Red, named for a grandson. “It literally smelled like an Italian dinner,” said Voelcker of the blend’s fermentation. “It brought a tear to my eye.” 

Luna Hart’s syrah comes from Hinnrich’s Vineyard, located at the southern edge of Ballard Canyon. “It looks like a syrah jungle,” said Voelcker of that steep and wild vineyard planted in sandy soils, providing a stark contrast to Bella Vista’s more manicured vines planted amid limestone on the appellation’s northern extreme.

Credit: Tymari LoRe

While the 2018 Piazza reserve syrah was completely destemmed, the 2019 involved 40 percent whole cluster fermentation, which exhibited more telltale spice from stems. The Piazzas enjoy the whole-cluster style. “I always thought American syrahs were too syrupy,” said Ron. 

We finished on a 2020 graciano that underwent carbonic fermentation, an increasingly popular technique in California winemaking that produces gluggable wines. “This was created to take the place of an estate white,” said LoRe, who’s helping the family decide on which white grapes to plant on the estate and the 20 acres next door. (Ugni blanc? Chenin blanc? It’s always a fun thing to ponder.)

I’ve loudly championed the recent rise of carbonic wines, as they’re approachable, usually more affordable, and tend to make wine-drinking more fun than serious. But there can be a sameness to the style, with bubblegum-flavored carbonic grenache tasting like carbonic syrah tasting like carbonic zinfandel, and so forth. Voelcker’s Piazza bottling is far more complex, loaded with layers of pepper and sagebrush that can’t be found in other attempts.

Though they may not serve you all 13 wines, anyone can replicate much of my experience at Bella Vista Vineyard by reserving a private tasting. “It’s really intimate and always an educational piece for people,” said LoRe. And the views are among the best in the Santa Ynez Valley. 

The estate represents a many-decade search for the Los Angeles–residing Piazzas. They’ve wanted a place to stay in the region ever since buying Mt. Carmel, but they found the Sta. Rita Hills too remote. With their team assembled, the Piazzas can now focus on their five kids and nine grandkids a bit more. 

“If I hadn’t met Gretchen, there is no way I would have taken this on,” said Ron, who’s excited about all of the experiments and ideas that Voelcker and LoRe are pursuing. “I just gotta hang on to this place for dear life and see where they take me!”


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