Ventura County Barrel Weekend 2017 Highlights


This past weekend I attended a barrel tasting organized by the Ventura County Winery Association which  “promotes the production and appreciation of fine wines grown or produced in Ventura County. Member wineries produce more than 250 different white, rosé, and red wines using grapes grown in Ventura County and throughout California. They range in size producing less than 500 cases annually to more than 200,000, with most members producing between 1,000 to 5,000 cases. Located less than an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, Ventura County is short drive for visitors to enjoy an easy getaway to enjoy the region’s urban wineries, beautiful beaches, and fine dining.”

And while I only made it to three wineries, I had an absolutely awesome educational experience!

The story goes that Mike Brown, winemaker at Cantara Cellars, was preparing for bottling in a few weeks and thought it would be fun to taste through the vintages he had in barrel — and to share that experience with wine club members. And if he was going to do that, he might as well open it to the public. And heck, maybe some of the other vintners in the association would like to join in so he made some phone calls and next thing he knew, a Ventura County Barrel Tasting Weekend was on the calendar! So of course I went to Cantara Cellars in Camarillo first, plus Sue was working — and that’s where I could pick up my press pass.

Sue and Chris Brown greeted me, and I headed back into the barrel room which was set up with two rows of three barrels– one row with Malbec and the other with Petite Sirah. Mike and Jesse both had wine theirs in their grips and a crown huddled around for the sacred juice.

Jesse got me started then Mike took over, teaching me as well as others about his barrel program and how the oak and time tames the juice.

If you ever had any wonder or doubt, participating in a vertical tasting like this introduces your palate to how the grapes taste at different stages of development — and more than anything, you come to appreciate time in the barrel and the bottle.

On Sunday, I took another break from my weekend chores to taste at Four Brix and Plan B, both wineries in the Ventura industrial area.  First I stopped at Four Brix where Gary Stewart had a table and chairs set ups so folks could relax and taste while he explained how and why he uses different types and sizes of barrels for two very different wines.

This was partly because Gary had recently bottled wine so he didn’t have as many in the barrel to choose from which led him to decide to focus on the kinds of barrels he has and the impact that size of the barrel has on a wine. As you can see from the photos in the tweets, a few barrels are not like the others: they are MUCH larger!

Four Brix is using larger barrels with the grenache to maintain the fresh fruity character while mellowing it out a bit and allowing it to complete fermentation.

In addition to tasting one Grenache in the barrel, we tasted two in the bottle — the recently bottled 2015 which will be released in about one year (spring 2018) plus the 2011 from the one love project which showcases a particular grape growing in a particular vineyard.

The 2011 Grenache is a beauty! Very limited production — only a few left!

From the Grenache we ventured into the land of the very tannic Nebbiolo. A native of Italy, very few vineyards outside of Italy try to grow it and California is no exception, Ventura County has one of the rare vineyards, and this grape has been carefully and lovingly tended in an area of California that is frequently troubled by Pearson’s disease. Gary explained that he used the large barrels for the Nebbiolo to take the tannins in this intense wine.

From Four Brix, I headed a few blocks west to Plan B where I taste Syrah and Mourvedre in the barrel and from the bottle.

While there was no formal plan between the wineries, each one had a different  story to tell. At Plan B, the focus was on the differences between vintages but also the impact of oak from same size barrels. Plan B mostly uses neutral oak barrels but also puts wine in new barrels and then combines them to make the finished wine.

Overall it was a very enjoyable and educational weekend. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to visit all of the participating wineries because we were in the midst of remodeling our washroom/bathroom plus summer baseball! But I am very glad that I was able to visit the wineries that I did in between coats of paint!

Check your favorite wine region for news about barrel tastings! It’s really a special experience you don’t want to miss.

Read about my barrel tasting at Kessler-Haak in Santa Rita Hills AVA in April.



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