Until December 2017’s Thomas Fire that struck Ventura County with a vengeance making it the largest fire in California’s history, most people didn’t know where Ventura County was. I’d tell people we were located north of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara — two well known regions, and one of them, Santa Barbara, very well known for wine.
But Ventura County has a long history of flowers, seeds, citrus and more agricultural abundance — including wine grapes.
Unfortunately, the factors that created ghost wineries up and down California — including Prohibition and the Depression — hit Ventura County’s wine industry hard. Even worse — a tendency toward Pierce’s disease caused by the pesky Sharpshooter — kept wineries from starting up again. It’s just too painful to watch all of that hard work go down in ruins.
How much ruin? According to this report from the Wine Institute,
“For over a century, California winegrowers have dealt with Pierce’s disease. It decimated vineyards in the Los Angeles Basin in the 1880s, and again in the 1930s and 1940s. In the last five years, Pierce’s disease has been responsible for the replanting of 775 acres of vines in California’s North Coast, caused by the blue-green sharpshooter. A new, more threatening insect vector, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, has spread in Southern California and has already impacted 25 percent of Temecula Valley’s 3000 vineyard acres in Riverside County, resulting in an estimated $13 million in damage in that county alone.”
The sharpshooter spreads a bacterium, Xylella Fastidiosa that feeds on infected vegetation and then injects the bacterium into the sap of nearby grapevines: “The bacterium lives and multiplies in a plant’s xylem, eventually blocking the movement of water and killing the vine,” says the report. “There is no known cure for Pierce’s disease. It affects only plant physiology and the vine’s ability to produce a crop, and does not affect wine quality and or pose a health risk to wine consumers.” Pierce’s disease thrives in the US in southern states with mild winters suggesting “that the bacterium cannot survive the low winter temperatures of areas further north.”
So instead of growing fruit locally, Ventura County wineries generally import their grapes from nearby regions: Cantara Cellars gets fruit from Lodi, Four Brix mostly from Paso Robles, The Ojai Vineyard from Santa Barbara.
A few folk persevered in the vineyards to fight off the sharpshooter. At Broccoli’s in Ojai, while well-known for their Italian food, tomatoes, and idyllic setting, they also grow grapes and make wine on their property in upper Ojai. A visit in fall is such for families — with their pumpkin patch and hay rides — although that may be on hold as the vehicles were destroyed in the Thomas Fire along with a number of other assets. Also in upper Ojai, Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard has made wine from viognier and syrah from Roll Ranch, also in upper Ojai. These vineyards were few and far between until Bruce Freeman of Clos de Amis came on the scene and started planting on both sides of the Santa Clara River in Santa Paula, and encouraging others to plant.
Now it seems like vineyards are popping everywhere around Ventura County, particularly Ojai where a long, dry hot summer and fall is the norm.
Topa Mountain Winery, which lost 1500 vines to the Thomas Fire, has wines made from estate and Ventura County grapes. The new owners of Old Creek Ranch Winery pulled out cherry trees to replant white wines like albarino and pinot gris where riesling was historically grown below the tasting room; pinot gris goes in this August while syrah, petite sirah, and grenache will go in on a hillside up a hill from the tasting room after the whites.
People with as little as half acre are growing grapes to make their own wines or to sell. Even Manfred Frankl, famous for his Sine Qua Non brand, set up shop and planted vineyards in Ventura County above Lake Casitas and the Ventura River only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean in Ventura.
Because of the huge economic bite to wine grapes as well as other agricultural resources, local, state, and federal agencies are committed to fighting Pierce’s Disease — picking off the vines sharpshooter by sharpshooter if necessary. Other programs include:
- CDFA is inspecting nursery stock and bulk grapes
- A statewide monitoring, trapping and reporting program
- Biological control that introduce parasitic wasps that lay eggs in the glassy-winged sharpshooter eggs
- An educational outreach program
- Targeted ground spraying
- Other practices to curb Pierce’s disease. These include “selectively removing vegetation around vineyards and replanting with vegetation that will not carry the disease. Severe pruning of infected shoots also has had some success. Because the smaller blue-green sharpshooter feeds on the succulent new shoots, the diseased portion of the vines is cut away during normal winter pruning. The glassy-winged sharpshooter is more dangerous in that it can feed on the permanent woodier parts of the vine.”
This past Thursday, July 12, Sue and I went on a “under the radar regions road trip” in our backyard. With ambitious plans to “do the triangle” from Ojai to Santa Paula and back through Ventura, we visited three wineries and came up with our menu and tasting plans. We also saw first hand destruction by the Thomas Fire — and recovery.
We met up at Old Creek Ranch Winery to check out all of the changes under the new ownership. In addition to planting vines, they’ve added lots of nice new landscaping, a HUGE tasting room, places to lounge under a grape arbor, and more. We talked with the owner’s daughter Marie as well as her husband, property manager Franz. By chance, Marie’s dad dropped by and we chatted with him for a bit. Currently, they are getting grapes and making wine in Paso Robles. In a few years, they will be producing estate wines. You can’t really tell much from these photos, but the Thomas Fire came right up to the edge of the property and firefighters created controlled back fires to protect it.
Next, we drove the back way following the creek, and amongst the sycamores and between the burned mountainsides to Ojai along Creek Road to Topa Mountain Winery located near downtown Ojai and the Ojai Valley Inn.
This was only my third visit here but Sue’s a regular there and a member of their wine club. We tasted through the lineup and then by chance, owner Larry dropped by for some cider with a friend. We chatted and made plans to come up to see the vineyards sometime soon.
We bypassed The Ojai Vineyard’s tasting room — we’re both members there and we wanted to visit vineyards! But when we stopped by Bocalli’s and Star offered to take up through the line-up, well, we ran out of time
It’s been too hot in Ojai lately, so hot many of the grapes shriveled…
and even though it was substantially cooler by almost 30 degrees this Friday than last it was still really hot at Sue’s on Friday night when a group of us gathered for tasting and the dinner that Sue prepared and that Marshall grilled (omg it was hot for him on that grill! Poor guy, he took a nap after work and I promised him he didn’t have to cook if we went up there…)
- cheese plate –
procuitto, Point Reyes Bay Blue Cheese, Coeur de Chèvre organic garlic and herbs fresh goat cheese, Stepladder creamery, Big Sur goat and cow milk ash coated triple cream
- various sausages from a local market
- grilled peach salad
- roasted potatoes
- grilled zucchini
- grilled lemon chicken
- strawberry trifle
WINES: These wines were all purchased with a wine club or industry discount.
OId Creek Ranch Winery: tasting room between Ventura and Ojai off HWY 33
- 2017 – Pinot Gris (not Ventura County fruit yet)
Four Brix: tasting room in Ventura’s light industrial park
- 2015 – Riesling Cani Amante – 13.5% alcohol
- 2014 – Block 4 Blend Cani Amante – 14.3% alcohol
Bocalli’s: tasting “booth” on highway 150 near Dennison grade
- 2017 – Pink Moment Rose Syrah – 14.2% alcohol
- 2015 – Rustic Red – 15% alcohol
Topa Mountain Winery: tasting room near downtown Ojai on 150
- 2015 – Red Table Wine – 13.9%
- Chief’s Peak
The Ojai Vineyard: tasting room in downtown Ojai on Montgomery off 150
- Barbera Rich Vineyard
- Syrah Roll Ranch
OId Creek Ranch Winery:
2017 – Pinot Gris Rancho Real Vineyard – Santa Maria Valley – 14.1% alcohol SRP $35
(NOT from Ventura County yet — estate fruit in a few more years!)
- Color: Very clear palest of yellow, platinum
- Nose: Subtle. White peach and honeysuckle, lemon rind.
- Palate: Light enjoyable undemanding, nothing offensive about this wine. Sue found citrus, tart lemons. lemon rind.
- Pairing: Angie said, “I should not have had the spicy sausage before I tasted this wine, it can not handle the spice.” Great with triple cream brie on a slice of pear.
We’re excited to try wines from their estate fruit!
2015 – Riesling Cani Amante – 13.5% alcohol SRP
- Nose: Distinctive petrol, earthy baking spaces like cinnamon, white flower and carnation notes, menthol, not overly aromatic in the glasses available.
- Palate: Pine, grass.
- Pairing: Nice with the arancini as it brings out more aromatics. The Stepladder Creamery Big Sur cheese brought out the fruit in the wine. The Riesling went beautifully with the strawberry lemon trifle for dessert.
Sue says “We love this wine with Asian food! When I make a stir fry we pull out this wine.”
2014 – Block 4 Blend Cani Amante – 14.3% alcohol SRP
- Color: dense purple
- Nose: Like putting your nose in a basket full of fresh fruit including blueberries, boysenberries, blackberries, black cherry, eucalyptus, mint.
- Palate: Tannins, herbs, bright fresh blue fruit, salted melon, wonderful complexity from the blend where all of the elements mingle together
- Pairing: Great food wine. It really opened up nicely as the evening progressed. Sue wants to try making lava cakes when she opens up her next bottle of this beautiful wine.
Bocalli’s: At $30, these wines are an amazing value for a wine at a restaurant!
2017 – Pink Moment Rose of Syrah – 14.2% alcohol SRP $30
- Color: Bright intense color, pink red rose, like a bojeleau neauvo
- Nose: Hard cheddar, earthy element of garlic, reminds Sue of making a spaghetti sauce in the kitchen. After opening the hard cheddar backs off.
- Palate: Cherry, rhubarb, orange rind. Everyone agreed it has a bit of sangria element to it. Shelagh got a sweet red onion on the palate.
- Pairing: Great with the procuitto, cured meats, pizza with ham and mushroom. Surprisingly enough, it likes the herbed goat cheese: the herbs in it tames the funkiness.
2015 – Bocalli Rustic Red – 15% alcohol SRP $30
- Color: Ruby red
- Nose: Red stone fruit, cherry and cranberry
- Palate: Cherry. So much better with food! Sue says “This wine for me is what I go to when I go to Boccalis, it goes so well all of the foods that they make there.”
This wine really got people enthusiastic; it was the first red we tasted after the whites. Other comments included:
- a sipping wine
- warms up the belly
- can definitely taste the alcohol
- this is what you give a starving man
- is this is what you give a st barnard on a rescue mission?
- if he’s lucky!
- it quenches your hunger
- you could be staring somewhere and you’d no longer be hungry no longer thirsty
- a steady job and this wine and you’d be happy
- if in the desert and given water or wine you’d choose this wine
- this is like a a christmas wine
- I’d like it so much more on a cold winter day
- it reminds me of Christmas on a cold day
- you want a wine that’s going to warm you up, warm your soul from the inside out
- good bbq wine: a rare steak would be lovely ribeye with blue cheese, rich fatty yumminess with this wine.
- It can take rich hardy flavors. portobello stuffed with sausage.
2012 Boccali Topa Topa Syrah SRP $30 14.5% alcohol
- Color: Rich red velvet curtains as well as dense.
- Nose: Sue found a funk on the nose almost like overly ripe fruit, then a bit of eucalyptus, menthol.
- Palate: The funk is gone on the palate, fills the mouth with bright rich fruit, some of the group was catching the high alcohol, which brought out the fruity sweetness. Quick finish.
Topa Mountain Winery
2015 – Red Table Wine – 13.9% SRP
- Color: Red velvet drapes
- Nose: Red stone fruit particularly dark ripe plums that aren’t too not sweet but more like free run juice
- Palate: Baking spice, black pepper, rich berry notes. While a fresh, bright wine, there is a mellowness to it.
- Pairing: Easy going from picnic to steak.
Top Mountain Winery Chief’s Peak SRP $38 13.4% alcohol
Grenache Syrah 50/50
- Color: Red velvet drapes, but not that dense –bit of translucency to it, color of a red rose with a bit of pink to it.
- Nose: Cranberry, rhubarb, cherry, spice
- Palate: Bright red fruit, nice medium body, complexity. Freshness like right off the vine, fresh, woody, nicely balanced, easy to drink.
- Pairing: Several agreed that it blends nicely with the sweet potatoes.
The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Roll Ranch 14.5 alcohol
- Color: Rich red velvet curtains
- Nose: Bell peppers and boysenberry
- Palate: This wine has the velvety feeling that you want in a wine with a long lingering finish, red fruit with sage and eucalyptus roll across the palate from the bright front end to the silky lingering finish.
- Pairing: This wine would be great with grilled vegetarian meals, it was fabulous with the grilled zucchini making Sue believe it would be fantastic with a grilled stuffed Portobello mushroom. It also loved the prosciutto. We imagined it would also be great with grilled meats
The Ojai Vineyard Barbera Rich Vineyard
- Color: Deep rich, more purple than red.
- Nose: Bright fruit, almost Jolly Ranchers cherry, sage.
- Palate: Bright, tart red fruits like cranberry and cherry, herbs
- Pairing: Pair this with a wide range of foods from big red meats, hearty red sauced pasta dishes, grilled smoked brisket, burgers.
What are some of the other “Under the Radar Wine Regions” you should discover along with us? Check out these posts — and our hashtag #WinePW! We will be live on twitter Saturday at 8am Pacific talking about our wines and the regions.
- Jade from Tasting Pour is sharing “Cauliflower Rice Risotto and Brandborg Gewurztraminer”.
- Cam of Culinary Adventures with Camilla has “A Few Firsts with the Infinite Monkey Theorem: From Colorado + From a Can”.
- Lori of Dracaena Wine talks about how “Bi-coastal Life Gets Confusing.. Thank Goodness for Wine”.
- David over at Cooking Chat shares “Slow Cooker Honey Mustard Chicken Thighs with Wine Pairings”
- Nicole at Somm’s Table is “Cooking to the Wine: Scallops and Mint Pea Risotto with Macari Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc”
- Lauren, The Swirling Dervish answers the question “What Pairs with New Jersey Wine? Everything!”
- Jill of L’Occasion is talking about “Midwestern Gardens and Missouri Wine: America’s First AVA”.
- Jane from Always Ravenous says “When in Georgia Drink Frogtown Wines”
- Cindy of Grape Experiences tells us to “Go Greek; Cinnamon Lamb Stew and Limniona/Xinomavro from Karditsa”
- Host Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm is “Chilling Out with Green Barn Winery”.