September 2019 in Ventura County Vineyards: Focus on Grenache


Gorgeous grenache grapes from Rich Vineyard, Upper Ojai, Ventura County came in on Grenache Day to Santa Paula’s Clos des Amis.

Harvest continues this September in Ventura County, with both reds and white grapes coming in — and when the heat spikes, like it did a few times this month, many grapes come in at once and it’s all hands on deck!

And on Grenache Day September 20, 2019 wouldn’t you know that a few bins of grenache of the upper Ojai Rich Vineyard arrived to be sorted and processed!

Clos des Amis owners and winemakers Bruce Freeman and Gretel Mays Compton and I celebrated Grenache Day by opening and tasting three bottles of grenache/garnacha: a 2017 from California’s Clos des Amis (of course!), plus a garnacha from old vines in Spain, and a grenache blend from France. Unlike our usual wine pairing extravaganzas, we tasted the wines outdoors at the picnic table near the crush pad under the pepper, then later that weekend paired them with lamb chops grilled with lots of garlic and rosemary.

In Ventura County, Grenache went though verasion in mid-July. We were in the vineyard doing some leaf pulling and I took some pictures of Gretel in the Grenache:

Every year has its challenges. In January of 2019 I made my first visit to this vineyard to help with pruning, then later in the season, it was about managing the canopy. After years of drought, we had lots of rain, making the road muddy and hard to get to the vineyards, but making the vines very happy.

Rain continued unusually late in the season which made the vines stretch toward the weak sun. The moisture in the soils and the fog in the air made powdery mildew a real issue in Santa Paula, but the grapes in the upper Ojai were magnificent, robust and plentiful — so robust that the crusher/destemmer couldn’t manage and finally Bruce decided just to do partial whole cluster.

Bruce rarely enters his wines in competition, but he did do the the LA International Wine Comp where the 2014 Grenache was awarded 91 points and received a Gold and Best in Class Award.  It’s an intense and powerful beauty — clocking in at over 15% alcohol.  I stopped by the winery yesterday to pick up wine to take to France and to check out the progress of the grenache — which is merrily bubbling along — you can hear it sing!  Bruce had one open so we tasted it, and decided I should bring a bottle with me to France to share along with a 2013 Riesling and a 2018 (!) Syrah all from the South Mountain, Santa Paula vineyard.

Proyecto Garnachas de Espana’s La Garnacha Salvaje at 14% alcohol is not overly extracted, but focused on bright red fruits of cranberry and raspberry with chocolate notes. Instead of oak, it’s fresh with the taste of the grapes front and center with leather and musk. It very much overdelivers for a wine that retails for around $12, and for a wine that is older, it still has a nice finish with plenty of acidity– its still very much alive with balanced tannins that don’t overpower the fruit. The finish is a bit metallic. Overall, rich and intense and the perfect foil for lamb.

Bruce said this wine is like a gal in a red miniskirt. As the wine opened up, Gretel and I agreed it reminded us of red hibiscus tea.

Since I am preparing for France and the World Wine Tasting Championship, we talked about how this wine looks like and tastes like a grenache/garnacha but I wondered whether I’d be able to tell that it was from Spain. On consideration, we agreed it was old world and that it didn’t taste French so default answer would be Spain. There’s also a lovely textual quality and complexity that I think of from older vines — and there’s still plenty of them in Spain which this project showcases and highlights, so I’d like to think I’d get this one right. But Navarra? We’d probably get the region wrong… but with this tasting review, perhaps I wouldn’t go with the knew jerk — oh it’s a red wine from Spain must be rioja and remember Navarra.

Freshly picked grenache grapes from Ojai — these will go back into the bin, a combination of whole cluster and pressed/destemmed.

Unlike the older wine made of older vines of the Garnacha, the 2017 Clos des Amis is a younger wine made from young vines. It’s very typical grenache to me — but then I’ve been drinking this one pretty regularly this year during lunch when I’ve been helping out in the vineyard and in the winery and it is a favorite of both Gretel and I.

The nose is complex and vibrant, bright fruit shines of cranberry and fresh strawberry with deep fruit flavors. The finish is cinnamon red hots and the 14.8% alcohol is well integrated. The neutral oak barrels means that the fruit is foremost in the experience of this wine, but the marine soils contribute to the palate with a fascinating minerality. The 2017 vintage was marked by drought — and after the crop came in, by the Thomas Fire which impacted the owners much more than the winery.

I’m pretty sure I’d guess this was a New World grenache but I’d probably guess California’s Central coast and not south coast.

Michel Chapoutier’s Bila-Haut is the name you want to know for affordable red wines from the south of France. I looked through my collection of samples and in my cellar but when I couldn’t find a French grenache, I went with this knowing that it would have a substantial amount of that grape in the blend, and I was curious if we’d figure it out.

The wine is refined and integrated…

…a gentleman fresh from a ride with a faint whiff of leather, horse, and barn

and soft elegant tannins, but some astringency on the finish.

We agreed that we thought we’d know this was French and somewhat young. We’d guess from the Rhone (and be wrong) and grenache, at least 50%, and get a few points for that.

This wine is widely available in the US — watch for it around $15.

A few final words from the US: We leave Wednesday night for France! As much as we’d love to visit the south of France where the Rhone varietals we love dominate, it doesn’t look like that will happen on this trip.

Instead, we are planning on several days in Champagne to start, thanks to our expert host, Caroline Henry, and several days in the Loire and Paris at the end. The middle is still a muddle — or an opportunity! We are leaning toward Alsace since it is not far from Champagne and so picturesque plus a great place to hone our tasting skills. We’re also inclined to spend more time in the Loire — Sue loves Cabernet Franc and I love the whites there! It makes sense to use our time tasting and getting to know fewer regions better — even though I’d LOVE to see as much as possible and go as many places as possible, it just doesn’t make sense to spend 24 hours flying then another 24 hours traveling by train or car when there is so much to see, do and taste just in Champagne and the Loire!

Wish us luck! The competition is Sat. Oct. 12 starting at 9am!




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