In Search of Chardonnay: 8 Wines in West and North Ventura County, CA

NOTE: Heading to the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara? Here’s a quick intro to a few wineries in Ventura County that folks on the way to WBC14 might want to try…Also, the first winery mentioned, Labyrinth, will be pouring in the red speed tasting.

On Chardonnay Day, which is the Thursday before Memorial Day every year, Pineapple Helen and I made a plan, and in the early afternoon, we hit the road in West and North Ventura County search of Chardonnay.

I know there’s a lot of naysayers out there about chardonnay these days, those ABCers –Anything But Chardonnay folks.

Fortunately, Helen loves Chardonnay, and she was available to come tasting with me. Helen has a great palate,  especially for Chardonnay, and we often like completely different wines or the same ones for different reasons.

Last year, some 20,000+ people participated in Chardonnay Day, producing 25,000 tweets and reaching over 100,000,000 accodring to organizer Rick Bakas.

So we wanted to do our part!

While Chardonnay (the grape and the wine!) was born and raised in the Burgandy region of France (check out this video of the village of Chardonnay), it’s alive and well in southern California. Chardonnay is grown all over the world in every grape growing region, and it is one of the top wine grapes in cultivation. Most of the Chardonnay that is made in Ventura County comes from Santa Barbara County, with some from regions beyond like Lodi and Paso Robles.

In France including Champagne, and in the US and throughout the world, a lot of Chardonnay gets made into bubbly…and a lot of it gets made into still wine and blends because it is a versatile grape that responds well to terroir, oak and winemaking practices producing a wide variety of expressions depending on location, vintage, and winemaker.

We thought we’d start  our Chardonnay Day search south of Ventura at Cantara in Camarillo, head north on the 101 a few miles to Herzog in Oxnard, then  to the new California Welcome Center in the Collection in Oxnard, followed by Four Brix in Ventura, then Vino V and Old Creek Ranch on the way to the grand-daddy of Ventura County Wineries, Ojai Vineyard. Yes, six tasting rooms–and we’d only be tasting Chardonnay.

But of course our day didn’t go much like that at all! Here’s the day in tweets with a few notes too.

Instead of heading south, our first stop was right in downtown Ventura, at Labyrinth Winery on Main near California Street. We got there at 3pm just as she was opening up.

(Please note that my tweets used the WRONG spelling! Their Twitter handle is actually

Haka offers pineapple nose lemon curd palate pear long finish balance $26 will sell out soon!

Labyrinth Winery: 607 East Main Street, Suite D; Ventura CA 93001

Next we headed a few block north on Main to Paradise Pantry, a foodie and vino paradise for sure. Owners Kelly and Tina have an amazing talent for pairing wine and cheese (wine and everything actually!).

Not only does Paradise Pantry have quite the case for cheese, that day they were pouring two Chardonnay and we could compare how the two different styles went with a different cheese (we also got enough cheese to gnaw on later and a loaf of crusty French Bread!

#ChardonnayDay in Paradise Ventura starts with Sarapa 2011 from Sonoma Coast light fresh apples

— Gwendolyn Alley, MA (@ArtPredator) May 22, 2014

As you can see Paradise offers a few wines by the glass… The ambiance at Paradise is really fabulous. It’s in one of the older brick buildings in downtown right across from the historic Mission San Buenaventura.

Tin Shack Crawford for #ChardonnayDay in Paradise Ventura pairs: tomme de savoie raw cow milk is fab together

— Gwendolyn Alley, MA (@ArtPredator) May 22, 2014

Paradise Pantry 222 East Main Street, Downtown Ventura.93001

With our cheese and bread in hand, we caught the 101 N to the 33 and headed toward Ojai, stopping first at Old Creek Ranch where winemaker Michael Meagher had been bottling all day.


Michael is the winemaker for both Old Creek Ranch and his own label, Vino V. The past few times I’d been to Old Creek Ranch –which is an actual working ranch located next to a scenic creek–I’d just missed Michael or he was busy so we were lucky to catch him–exhausted but excited by the day’s activities.

Michael  trained at UC Davis, where he learned how to manipulate wine to achieve particular results, but he got his real education working under wine makers like Adam Tolmach of Ojai Vineyards. These days, Michael is more inclined to let the wine go, let it be more on its own, and discover what it has to say.

We actually got to taste three Vino V wines: first, the 2011 Chardonnay which is a super exciting, sleek, almost austere and fascinating wine to my palate. Sur lies, no ML, the wine reflects the vintage, says Michael: crisp and clean with a lot of acid, low oak.

The 2011, however, lacked the “chubbiness” and richness and plushness that Helen desires…but which she found and loved in the second wine, the 2012, which is more bold and buttery reflecting the warmer year, and the second ferment makes it softer compared to the acid of the 2011. Lots of fruit, this wine is “grapey” even, but with a sharp middle. It will be interesting to see how this wine develops in the bottle–after all, this was the first day in it! We also liked how this wine really keeps its character as it warmed in the glass. You wouldn’t want to drink it warm, certainly, but it doesn’t need the chill of a more acidic chardonnay.

Third we tasted Vino V’s white wine blend Confundida (“confused” or “confusion” in Spanish) an experiment of sorts this year made of chardonnay, chenin blanc, and gruner and which is much more wildly aromatic and complex than the chardonnay alone. The grapes all come from Santa Barbara County: the chardonnay comes from Solomon Hills, the Gruner adds a fullness and is from Paragon, and the  Chenin comes from Jurrasic and brings a strangeness. It’s thoroughly an unexpected and unusual combo that is fun in the nose, and sweet in the middle.

The wines retail at around $35; the 2011 is released and available now in very limited quantities, and the 2012 and Confundida will be released soon.

These three wines offer a real education in how different chardonnays can be–even when made by the same winemaker–but depending on factors of vintage, and, to a smaller extent, terroir.

Vino V Wine  Sharing with Old Creek Ranch Winery 10024 Old Creek Road, Ventura, CA 93001

Time was running out but we dashed up the rest of the way along 33 and then at the Y we went right to Ojai proper to Ojai Vineyards.

Where we were able to taste–but they weren’t pouring any Chardonnay! How could that be? Fortunately friends in high places took us net door to the old tasting room to check out the NEW tasting room and to chose a Chardonnay from the library to open and taste. The new tasting room is beautiful, simply beautiful. Well crafted, elegant, yet rustic too–much like their wines.

So entranced was I that I just let someone else choose the Chardonnay: 2012 Bien Nacido vineyard with exquisite minerality; sorry folks, but this one is sold out except in tasting room so I won’t antagonize you with more descriptors… We probably should have chosen the Solomon Hills to compare with Michael’s (and it is one of my favorites too!)

And then, because we weren’t meant to live by white wine alone, we finished off the day with three reds.

The Ojai Vineyard 109 S Montgomery St, Ojai, CA.Open daily 12 to 5 pm.  805.798.3947

We stopped by the house for dinner, fully planning on getting to the California Welcome Center before they closed to add the Cantara Chardonnay to our collection of tweets and tasting notes as well as a white blend they have on their enomatic machine. However, I opened two Chardonnay samples, one from Burgandy which we didn’t care for, and one from Josh Wines which we did.  Then Helen decided to open the Ojai Vineyards Puerta Del Mar 2012 which was chubby and well rounded pleasing Helen’s palate and paired well with the fresh wild Copper River salmon my husband grilled…and then we ran out of steam.


All in all, it was a great day, and next time you’re on the 101 North to SB wine country, I strongly encourage you to get off on California Street in Ventura, check out Labyrinth and Paradise Pantry, then cruise the 10-15 minutes up the 33 toward Ojai for a stop at Old Creek Ranch where you can taste wines made by Michael Meagher, and finally, go another 10 minutes or so further on 33 and into Ojai to taste at the Ojai Vineyards. If you’re still bound and determined to go to SB, you can cut over on the 152 to the 101 by way of Lake Casitas where you can see some of the vines planted by Manfred Krankel.

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