Growing Cabernet Sauvignon
in Santa Ynez Valley
by David Dascomb
I wanted to tell a little about the history of East Valley Vineyard and growing Cabernet Sauvignon in Santa Ynez. I’m not a writer; I’m an engineer and winemaker, so bear with me if the story doesn’t flow at times. Pretty sure I make better wine than I write.
In the late 60’s early 70’s local farmers experimented with wine grapes as an alternative crop as several wineries were operating then. Two popular grape varieties that were planted then were Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, no surprise since they were popular wines. Unfortunately they were not planted in the best area within Santa Ynez for them, Cabernet Sauvignon was planted too far west and Chardonnay planted too far east. Most of Santa Ynez Valley is too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon. Also the vineyard canopy style at the time was the “California Sprawl” found in central California valley and was really all that was known. This style with a big shaded canopy and wide spacing was better suited for table and raisin grapes and not so good for wine grapes. These vineyards with their less than ideal canopy and cooler temperatures made for unfavorable Cabernet Sauvignon, flavors of cooked green beans and bell pepper which I distinctly remember in the early 80’s. Fortunately there were some people who had done some homework and knew best to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir closer to the ocean where it was cooler so Santa Maria Valley and Lompoc (Santa Rita Hills) became more popular areas. Santa Ynez is better suited for Rhone varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, and Roussanne, but that did not come about until the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The vineyards in Santa Ynez that were planted with Cabernet Sauvignon have been replanted with other varieties. Syrah, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc dominate the plantings. Cabernet Sauvignon became mostly forgotten and not sought after.
My family planted East Valley Vineyard in 1974 and we were not immune to the lack of knowledge regarding viticulture or what to plant where, we did what everyone else at the time was doing. My father, Don Dascomb, had purchased 5 acres in the east end of the valley in the Happy Canyon area. My family always enjoyed some wine with their meals and loved to go wine tasting on vacations. He contacted Charlotte Young who had planted 10 acres of cabernet sauvignon about 5 years previous on Roblar Ave. My dad purchased cuttings in the winter of 1974/1975 from her and she helped us get started. Regarding Charlotte, I don’t know her story as why she planted wine grapes, which winery she sold her grapes to, but I remember that she was passionate about her vineyard and that stayed with me. Her vineyard still exists today and is know as the Ibarra-Young vineyard and is producing grapes for Louisa & Bob Lindquist and yes the Cabernet Sauvignon was grafted to other varieties. My Dad had chosen to plant Cabernet Sauvignon by sheer luck in the Happy Canyon area. We had some interest from local winemakers in 80’s and 90’s; Rick Longoria, Mike Brown, Brian Babcock and Tom & Steve Beckman all helped or purchased grapes from us. They wanted Bordeaux varieties from the east end of the valley.
Our vines had a good start but because we are small and the poor reputation that Cabernet Sauvignon had, we stayed unknown. A portion of our original vines of have survived. We are not sure what clone they are and they have viruses. But at the time there was little concern of such things. I am not sure the history of the plant material, but now it really doesn’t matter. In 1998 I returned to the area and started helping my Dad again with the vineyard after raising my family. In 2000 I began making with my first commercial vintage. In 2009 the new Happy Canyon AVA was established with the focus on Bordeaux varieties. There is a resurgence of interest in Cabernet Sauvignon in the Happy Canyon area.
OK, well how do you make a great Cabernet Sauvignon wine? You must have ripe grapes with good acidity. Even in east end of the valley, where it’s the warmest, it can still be too cool. We are 5-10 degrees cooler during the day than Paso Robles and considerably cooler at night. This contributes to the balanced acidity that we get. With the introduction of better vineyard management practices such as vertical shoot positioning (VSP), higher density plantings and managed watering, the wines have became much better. Being patient through harvest is important and takes courage. I don’t like to rush the grapes to ripen (contrary to the vineyard grower) and I prefer to keep the vines green with some water; too much stress means no fruit ripening. It’s not uncommon for me to pick in November. The area determines the style of the wine, and I like to describe them as more Bordeaux like with cassis and cedar, layered with character and subtleness. They have deep color and complexity with soft tannins.
Our vineyard and winemaking practices have changed dramatically from the 70’s. All the Bordeaux varieties are now grown in the Happy Canyon AVA. I have learned that blending Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc can makes an exceptional Meritage wine. I have been on this journey for the last 40 years and it’s been both challenging and very rewarding.
Enjoy the wine and share the journey with me!
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