Michael Larner: Larner Vineyard and Winery


shareShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard and Winery tells us about how he deals with Nazi gophers and how the new Ballard Canyon AVA is like giving birth to a third child.

Other topics in this unfiltered conversation include:

  • balancing his own winemaking with supplying fruit to other winemakers
  • significant losses due to frost in previous vintages
  • recent rains helping with initial shoot growth via cover crop and beneficial insects
  • freezing temps, frost alarms, and sprinklers

Host Gabe Saglie pulls from the Dirt Don’t Lie question grab bag, asking Michael Larner about:

  • the most frustrating part of being a wine farmer
  • the grape he identifies with
GABE
This is the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast, unfiltered conversations with Santa Barbara, County wine farmers. I’m Gabe Saglie and on today’s show how Michael Larner deals with Nazi gophers and how the new Ballard Canyon AVA is like giving birth to a third child. All that coming your way right now on Dirt Don’t Lie.Well, it’s hard to think about Ballard Canyon without thinking about Michael Larner. Michael, welcome to Dirt Don’t Lie.

MICHAEL
Thank you.

GABE
I’m assuming you came from Ballard Canyon.

MICHAEL
Yeah.

GABE
The newest AVA in Santa Barbara County. Gosh, that must’ve been a labor of love for you. It takes years to get an AVA to get that rubber stamp from the federal government and what a glorious day when that news came in.

MICHAEL
I think that’s the definition of a once-in-a-lifetime event for us. The idea of getting an area designated that’ll be sort of in the books forever is something that is almost like having a third child for us. We have two and now we have a third one technically, but based on land and what we do for a living so it’s kind of neat because at the end of the day it’s something that we’re going to share with everybody. AVAs are amazing because of the fact that we’re going to get some notoriety, and to us it’s a pedigree. So hopefully that’ll translate in the wines and what’s out there in the market.

GABE
And Ballard Canyon we’re talking Syrah, first and foremost, right?

MICHAEL
Yeah, I mean, that is our champion. If you look at the total AVA 7,600 acres. If you look at planted it’s about 600 acres. If you look at what’s planted we’re above 300 acres to Syrah, so the de facto champion is Syrah, but we all know that it is out there because it does so well, and it’s sort of like, the best way to describe it is we don’t have to work too hard to make good wine out there. We have some neighbors that grow Cabernet Franc that do well, but they work really hard to do it. With Syrah it does well whether we’re paying attention or not, essentially, and that to me is indicative of why that region is good for Syrah is because it will be consistent. That’s the thing, you look for why are Grand Crus in France? Because year after year they’re consistent of high quality. The same thing for Syrah in Ballard Canyon, year after year it’s consistent in high quality.

GABE
Now Larner Vineyards was launched in 1999.

MICHAEL
Correct.

GABE
And you sold grapes for10 years, basically a decade, before you started making wine with your own grapes.

MICHAEL
Yeah, so that’s why our name is so. It’s Larner Vineyard and Winery because we were initially Larner Vineyard, and then in 2009 we started making wine for ourselves so that’s when we became the “and winery,” but technically we still sell 85 percent of our fruit, so I’m only keeping 15% for myself, equates to like less than a thousand cases a year.

GABE
Yeah, but tell me it’s the best 15 percent. (LAUGHS)

MICHAEL
You know, actually, it is not. It’s all good.

GABE
Yeah, of course.

MICHAEL
Sometimes I get leftovers from what my clients have either downsized or we move–luckily, our vineyard over the years we figured out the best way to farm it is to go on per acre basis so that we can work with the clients directly as to their needs. When you’re on a per ton there’s always like, “Hey, am I dropping too much fruit? Am I losing money?” All those kinds of things. When you’re on a per acre it’s very straightforward. You’re not penalized for doing work for them. So for us it’s always been–we’ve always done anything per acre, left a few rows for here and there spot market stuff so when in, actually ironically 2008 was supposed to be our first vintage which 50 percent of it was lost to frost overnight.

GABE
Overnight?

MICHAEL
Overnight.

GABE
You know, I’m blown away by just how devastating a couple of hours of frost can be.

MICHAEL
All this took was 15 minutes of below 32 degrees. I was out there on the tractor driving with a spray rig trying to move air, running sprinklers, and just couldn’t keep up. The frost went all the way past 600 feet which is our highest block, so we lost 50 percent of the crop, and this was late May, so at that point–if it’s early enough you might get burned, it’ll grow back. You won’t get as much crop, but you’re not losing your shirt. Well, if it’s late May, you lose shoots that are 12 inches long you’re done for that vintage. So you’re going to get a secondary push, you’ll get a quarter of the crop. We really couldn’t–and since our business is dependent upon our clients we really couldn’t call them and say, “Hey, first of all you lost 50 percent of what you’re normally going to get. Second of all, I’m keeping some to make some,” so we skipped 2008 which was kind of a bummer because that was the year I got married so it was supposed to be this whole, “Oh, I’m going to make wine for the wedding,” but actually it was really nice because a lot of the clients let me go and take back some wine from each client and I made my own blend for the wedding, GSM blend. So 2009 was our official production or Larner, but ironically in the wine business you don’t see it 2011, 2012 as you sit on it for two years in a barrel.

GABE
That GSM blend for your wedding, any of that still left? Are you going to be opening up a bottle every year? That sounds like a plan to me.

MICHAEL
Yeah, we actually do on our anniversary.

GABE
Nice.

MICHAEL
And we bottled large formats, and then we gave out to everybody at the wedding we gave them 750 in a wood case, so I don’t know what they’re doing with it, but we kept a few for ourselves.

GABE
I’m going to check eBay. You never know. You described the AVA, American Viticultural Area of Ballard Canyon as having a third child although it was a labor process that lasted well beyond 9 months. How long did it take for you to finally get that recognition?

MICHAEL
I think from start to finish we were looking at just a hair over three years, so the first year was basically all the research, the collecting climate, soil data, looking at the weather patterns, getting all the acreage, getting everything put together–

GABE
With the idea that you have to prove that this is unique, it is one-of-a-kind unlike whatever exists on the other side of these boundaries that are established.

MICHAEL
That’s exactly correct. I mean, it’s a legal document. You’re creating a legal document and you’re creating it based on cartography, looking at sort of geographic points that you can easily describe to anybody so it’s locked in, and because it’s a defendable document. My friend, Wes Hagen’s looking at this right now with Santa Rita, they’re defending the boundaries, and so for us going into it we want to make sure that every i was dotted and every t was crossed.

GABE
Some people say that sometimes we get a little too concerned with AVAs. Ballard becomes AVA number 5, Los Alamos comes to mind, obviously Las Salidas is in the works, and we could see, the potential for several more AVAs in Santa Barbara, but are we too concerned with the definition of place? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about just making great wine or is there something that allows you to make better wine or at least for consumers to drink in a better way by coming up with these AVAs?

MICHAEL
For me, one of the advantages is that it starts to bring, hopefully a connect that if somebody is looking for a good Syrah they’re going to look at Ballard Canyon, and if somebody looks at Ballard Canyon they’re going to look at good Syrah. So that’s what I hope the parallel is initially. My fear is people in New York barely digest what Santa Barbara is.

GABE
Yeah. Now you give them Ballard Canyon.

MICHAEL
Yeah, then you can say, “Hey, by the way, we’re Ballard Canyon.” So I can see that being an issue and I think that’s why it’s important for us–and I think all of us agree in Ballard Canyon, that we have to show up with our champion and say it’s Syrah and start to get people aware of the fact that because it sort of goes retro at that point where you say, “Oh, that’s Syrah. Where’s that Syrah from? Oh, it’s from Ballard Canyon? Where’s that Ballard Canyon? Oh, it’s in Santa Barbara.” And so it goes full circle for both us going in–

GABE
I see that, yeah.

MICHAEL
And then coming back, and that’s our hope.

GABE
So an estate Syrah from Ballard Canyon soon enough will have its very own bottle?

MICHAEL
Yes.

GABE
Glass bottle?

MICHAEL
Yeah.

GABE
How early do we see that?

MICHAEL
We’re going to be bottling all this in August, so the mold is done.

GABE
Wow, to the 2014 vintage.

MICHAEL
2014 vintage.

GABE
All right, let’s talk about 2014 then.

MICHAEL
Sure.

GABE
Because I know that we’re supposed to be getting rain. How do the grapes in Ballard Canyon, how are they doing? How are they reacting to what has been an unusually warm season so far?

MICHAEL
Well, I think they’ve been joining you enjoying that heat. They’re about a week-and-a-half early, especially in our vineyard we saw a bud break early. Our shoots are–everything seemed to be even, but it seems to be, to me, the calculations are one-and-a-half week early compared to most normal vintages. But I say most normal vintages kind of jokingly because, honestly, I’m getting a lot of interviews right now with, “Oh, how’s the drought affecting–” and I said, “How are the droughts affecting California,” because if you really think about it 2012, 2013, 2014, all of those years were relatively low rain totals. So, going into it we know we’re already predisposed for lower winter rains, so we irrigated aggressively throughout the winter. If we didn’t have a cover crop that was fine, we just wanted to protect the vines. Now we’re getting a cover crop, ironically, so I’m actually kind of happy that we got a little bit of late rain because this actually pushed whatever small cover crop there was, it pushed them at the same time we’re seeing shoot growth, so I can now move my beneficial insects out of the vineyard and onto those shoots to protect them. In the last couple years we’ve had so much drought that we hardly got to that point.

GABE
Frost worries are not a thing of the past for you.

MICHAEL
Oh, no, no, that’s our primary concern right now. We realize once we started not seeing rain in January, “Okay, that was our concern.” Now we’re getting bud break, and push and so we’re at the point where, “Okay, I’m not worried about the drought anymore because that’s already happening, I’m more worried about where we’re going,” and the good thing about these later moisture events is it generally brings the temperature up, sometimes warm, or at least it just keeps it out of the frost zone which is our big concern. But 2012 and 2013 on the same exact date, it was April 7th we had frost events in the valley that were significant. So we’re not by any means–and I remember that because of someone’s vineyard festival and there I am like freaking out about sprinklers. So, by any means we’re at the beginning of April now so it doesn’t mean it’s going to not be a problem. A bigger concern, obviously, is going to be a May event which is not off the table.

GABE
Right, right, it’s not out of the question. Michael Larner seems so composed and collected, I mean, I can’t imagine you freaking out, but does that happen when you’re out in the vineyard and there’s the potential for temperatures dipping below 32? Describe your reaction to that kind of a thing and how do you deal with it?

MICHAEL
Well, you know it’s always going to happen about 5:35 in the morning–

GABE
Sure, of course.

MICHAEL
We have a frost alarm system that calls you to the point where you tell it to stop which is great because you’re groggy, but usually–and I have to say honestly the last couple of frost events you kind of have a hint going into it. You know when you’re walking in your house, taking your jacket off, and see your breath at 9 o’clock that it may be an issue and so you don’t really sleep well anyways. Everything sets it off, any alarm or anything in the distance you hear. So when the telephone rings you know it’s pretty serious and the thing, for me, has a very ugly computerized voice telling me, “Frost Alarm Conditions.” And I’ve set it in the worst case scenario, I’ve set it at the lowest point of our vineyard in a dip so it’s giving me not only ample time to react, but enough of a time to gauge it because if it’s doing that right when the sun’s coming up more than likely by the time I turn on the system the sun’s already up and the potential’s gone. 2008 it called me at 9:30 at night, so I knew I was hosed. That’s one of those nights that I was definitely freaking out and I could not sleep the whole night.

GABE
So that 3am call that politicians talk about it really is the wine makers that are making those 3am calls on frosty nights, right?

MICHAEL
Yeah. Yeah, so then you just have to run out and gauge it and then you’ve got to turn on the system and let it run for a long time. Actually, you have to let it run past because essentially it forms icicles which is kind of–it seems counterintuitive, you go down there you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got frost and then I’m freezing everything,” but actually it’s great because it’s an exothermic reaction, it insulates the green tissue and then you run those sprinklers till it melts off so then at the end of the day you’re fine because all that frost is doing is sucking moisture out of the tissue. As long as you can avoid and you know last year we had a small frost event and it’s amazing, you have to be on top of everything. Even sprinklers can get clogged because earwigs climb in their little orifices.

GABE
Sure, yeah.

MICHAEL
So, one of the sprinklers got clogged because there was a plethora of earwigs in there so you can actually see one little section that was slightly burned because that one sprinkler wasn’t able to put out its full dosage.

GABE
So, every sprinkler?

MICHAEL
Every sprinkler.

GABE
It plays a role?

MICHAEL
Yeah. So usually right after we turn on the sprinkler system I take out a big, high candle watt light and try to drive out there with the truck or ATV and just check everything, make sure it’s still running.

GABE
Yeah. Well, I’ve got, as you can tell, the Dirt Don’t Lie grab bag in front of me and I’m going to throw a couple of questions your way, Michael, just to see what’s really going on beneath the surface. What part of your job do you hate? Obviously you love what you do, but an aspect of it that you just wish you did not have to contend with.

MICHAEL
That’s a great question. There’s a couple of things here and there that are frustrating. I think one of them, and it’s kind of ironic for us as a family because it’s gophering. It’s going out and getting rid of gophers. They’re just these little varmints that live under the ground, they seem innocuous–

GABE
You don’t find these guys cute?

MICHAEL
No, so the reason I say it’s kind of ironic is my dad, he was a cinematographer before so one of his claim to fames was that he shot Caddyshack.

GABE
Right.

MICHAEL
So we always laugh, “It’s the gophers.” They’re nerve wracking because we classify the gophers into two types, there’s just the general feeders that go out and make berms and they feed on roots. Then there’s these other ones we call the S.S. Gophers where basically they somehow were able to destroy an entire vine without you even seeing them, so you can’t go out and trap them. You can’t do these things. We throw out a lot of energy at trying to eradicate them and the best means that we have now since we’ve gotten their populations down is when we plant our vineyards it’s virgin land, so the gophers and cows are symbiotic, but when we started preparing the land they just come out of the woodworks because there’s water, and so they sniff the water, they go for the water, and where there’s water there’s obviously a plant so they eat everything. But they also seem to find a way to get into your drip hoses, the mandibles eat through PVC, you’re like, “Thanks, guys.”

GABE
Wow. Suffice it to say Michael Larner’s white whale is a gopher.

MICHAEL
Yeah, is a gopher, yes.

GABE
I may know the answer to this one. If you were a grape which grape would you be?

MICHAEL
If I were a grape, obviously, I would like to say a Syrah for sure, and I think the reason is because they’re thick skinned on the outside, they can take temperature fluctuations, so I can take different situations and keep my, hopefully, calm and collective self no matter what Mother Nature’s throwing at you. Syrah likes to be picked early or late. Same thing with me, I can operate day or night. I’m not super excited first thing in the morning, but what I found amazing about Syrah is that it grows everywhere and expresses different wherever it grows, and that’s the same way I am. I’ve lived in many parts. I’ve lived in France, I’ve lived in Italy, I’ve lived in LA, that’s a whole ‘nother country, so I express myself differently when I live in there. So when I moved to Sauvignon I had just come out of Colorado, the land of recreation. I was playing ice hockey, it was mountain biking, you come out here and it’s like, “Okay, this is not quite cow tipping, but it was a little bit of an interesting situation, but I still flourished,” and I think that’s why I would probably consider myself a Syrah is because no matter what environment I will still find a way to flourish.

GABE
Yeah, I figured Syrah was going to be a safe enough answer.

MICHAEL
Yeah, it’s all right.

GABE
Finally, let me ask you, if Michael Larner picks his last batch of Syrah, his last harvest, he goes up to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter says, “You can come in, but before you do you can have any wine ever made with anybody who’s living or not.” What would you drink and who would share that glass with you?

MICHAEL
You know, the one wine–you always talk about ah-ha moments with wine, and I think I’ve had many of those early on, but I have to say mine was actually more recent, 1997 Sperss which was a Cabernet from Gaja. I loved it because of the fact that I was drinking a Piedmont wine that was not a Piedmont special and it knocked my socks off because I didn’t expect it to. You know Cabernet in Verona country, but it also was a ’97 and I was drinking this in 2009 and it was still vivacious, and that type of wine is the one that gives me hope that one day I’ll make a wine that will knock the socks off of people, but also be just as good at that age. So who would be sitting there with me? Of course, my dad since he couldn’t be there for my wedding, he couldn’t be there for my children’s birth, but he’s still with me in my heart, so I would love to be sitting down with him and I’m sure my mom would be there as well.

GABE
Yep, it’d be a family affair.

MICHAEL
Yeah, for sure.

GABE
As is your life now, isn’t it?

MICHAEL
Yeah. No, I would hesitate to bring my sister, she’d probably want to score. (LAUGHS)

GABE
Because we should mention that Monica Larner reviews Italian wines for Robert Parker’s publication, right?

MICHAEL
Yes.

GABE
So, keep it in the family. Well listen, Dirt Don’t Lie, and neither does Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard and Winery. Good to talk to you, my friend.

MICHAEL
Thank you.

GABE
This has been the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast where we like to keep conversations with Santa Barbara wine farmers totally unfiltered. I’m Gabe Saglie, your host, Senior Editor for TravelZoo.com and wine columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. This podcast was recorded live at Erickson Sound Labs in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. Our executive producer is Wil Fernandez, and our original music is by Jacob Edward Cole. Want more? Check out DirtDontLie.com. Cheers.