It's just like Santa Barbara to name a location Happy Canyon without an iota of irony. The thing is the location -- the westernmost, and therefore warmest, part of the Santa Ynez Valley -- is ungodly gorgeous. There aren't many folks to clutter up the scenery of rolling hills and horse ranches.
It's in this location (and American Viticultural Area, or AVA, since 2009) that the Grassini Family purchased 104 acres of undeveloped land in the late 1980s. "At the time, there was a lot more cattle than vines dotting the landscape," says Katie Grassini, daughter of founders Larry and Sharon, and current CEO of Grassini Family Vineyards and Winery. "Our land was used for grazing cattle until 2001, when my parents decided to plant 35 of our 104 acres with five Bordeaux varietals. As a child, my father spent years gardening with his grandfather, Articondo, who had emigrated from Pisa. It was his fond memories of tending the land with his grandfather that first inspired him to plant the vines. As an homage to Articondo's influence on Dad's green thumb, we named our red blend wine 'Articondo' -- I think he'd be very proud!"
Originally the family business was simply named the Grassini Family Vineyard, for as Katie says, "My parents planned to sell all of the grapes we grew to local vintners. However, after a few years of selling grapes, my parents decided that they wanted a more lasting legacy, and began planning to build a winery on our estate and start crafting small-production estate wines that would proudly bear the family's name."
The facility is a perfect fit for Happy Canyon. "It was really important to my parents that they leave as small a mark on the land as possible, so the land would remain healthy for future generations," Katie says. "To that end, they designed everything with sustainability in mind. The vineyards are farmed sustainably -- we make as small an impact on the earth as possible. We built in a water reclamation system so that any water we use during the winemaking process gets reclaimed, processed, and cleaned. The water is then re-used for irrigation. Solar panels were installed when we built the winery, and we recently doubled the number of panels to further decrease our reliance on purchased energy. We've installed a night-air cooling system to take advantage of the cooler nights in Happy Canyon to keep our caves cool. I could go on and on, but those are the major points."
All that care leads to some stunning wines, particularly sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons. "While I agree that we're producing cabs as impressive as those in Napa Valley, it's so hard to compare one area to another," Grassini asserts. "Happy Canyon is its own beast -- I certainly wouldn't say one is better than the other."
Napa and Happy Canyon share long hot days and mineral soils, but there are some differences. "The cool fog that we get in the evenings help preserve the acidity in the fruit, so we get very nicely-balanced wines," Grassini says. "This gives our wines elegant acidity levels without having to add acid back into the wines, as some Napa winemakers do."
One ruffle of discontent in Happy Canyon is a NIMBY fight that's emblematic of all of Santa Barbara wine country. It's peaceful, beautiful, and bucolic, and the folks who aren't in the wine business will do anything to keep it that way. When Grassini opened its winery for operation in 2010, it had hoped to allow for visits by appointment only, but that desire was quickly dashed. "An 'anonymous neighbor' filed 22 completely baseless complaints against us. We were told that under the reinterpreted ordinance, tastings by appointment only were forbidden at a Tier 1 winery [in the county's three-tier system, Tier 1 is the smallest of wineries]."
Grassini stopped hosting people at their estate and tried to respond to the complaints. "The local elementary school approached us and asked if about fifteen 8th grade students could visit our winery for an hour for Career Day to learn about possible agricultural careers in their own hometown," Katie recalls. "Shortly after the kids' visit, we were slapped with a complaint stating that this was an 'un-permitted event' and that we should have sought a special event permit before allowing their school bus to enter our gates. The County threw this one out quickly; I'm sure they didn't want the taxpaying parents of the aspiring vintners to think they were squashing their children's dreams of one day working in the county where they grew up."
Eventually, all 22 complaints were either thrown out completely or were found to be without merit.
The good news is there is a public Grassini tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara as part of the Wine Collection of El Paseo. "People love being able to taste great estate wines while avoiding the 45-minute drive into Santa Ynez," Grassini says. "Someday, I should write a letter to that nasty anonymous neighbor and thank him -- if he hadn't caused such a ruckus, we never would have opened our tasting room, and we wouldn't have nearly the number of fans and wine club members that we do today."