November in Ventura Vineyards: Dormancy and Grateful for Syrah, Old and New

Baby it’s cold outside!

And that is just fine for the vines!

At the end of the harvest cycle, the vines stop sending energy to the leaves and they turn from vibrant greens to browns, golds, and reds, and by late November, most of the leaves have dropped, and the vines rest in a period of dormancy which helps them manage the colder temperatures.

The vines survive on reserves of energy and they continue to respire as well, and while they look “dead” they definitely are not! Just like bears, they are in a deep sleep waiting for warmer temperatures to rouse them. And just like humans, this period of rest is as important to vines as sleep is for us.

A week or so ago, three dogs and I went up to South Mountain to visit the vineyards of Clos des Amis — specifically to see the syrah, which I am featuring this month: a 2018 from Clos des Amis and a 2007 from The Ojai Vineyard’s Roll Ranch in upper Ojai. Photos above: Syrah vines in South Mountain Vineyard, Santa Paula. Below: The winery.


Why these two wines? One, the 2018 is tasting REALLY GOOD, and two, the 2007 is one that Bruce Freeman helped make: he worked at The Ojai Vineyard from 2005-2010. Plus Sue and I were doing a Carmenere wine dinner at Gretel and Bruce’s house and I could ask him about it while we tasted! Photos below: Upper Ojai, home to Roll Ranch and the library room at the Ojai Vineyards tasting room.


To learn more about that time when Bruce worked at The Ojai Vineyard, I interviewed Fabien Castel, who is currently General Manager there. He met Bruce around 2002 through Adam Tolmach (founder and winemaker at The Ojai Vineyard) and he worked closely with Bruce during his tenure at Ojai.  “I immediately liked him,” recalls Fabien, “and we slowly became friends.”

In 2005, Bruce joined the winemaking team with Adam and Fabien where he did a little of everything from cellar and lab work to renovation of the buildings. “He applied his great creativity to create a beautiful space to harbor our Lab and workshop,” says Fabien. “His passion and creativity are at play everyday.”

Fabien was impressed by how Bruce’s backyard in Ventura developed into an art piece that included “art studio, a wood fired hot tub, nestled in a bamboo forest, a yurt as a lover’s nest, overlooking a tight and well curated vegetable garden. He built a small barrel room disguised as a garden shed, a wood fire oven, a fish pond and many features that turned this small piece of land into a heaven of hedonism and friendship. This is where I got to really experience Bruce’s love for gathering friends around pressing grapes, bottling wine, cooking a meal and tasting his various productions.”

During Bruce’s tenure at The Ojai Vineyard, Fabien noted that it was a time “of constant exploration of taste, fragrance and techniques to create them. Under Adam’s guidance we would taste many wines from all over the world and discuss the ways to include our favorites into our own production. Bruce is always extremely curious but also very funny and self deprecating. How many times would he hurt himself with a piece of equipment and marvel at his own clumsiness.”

In addition to being a winemaker, Bruce is a printmaker, an artist, a fabricator of museum exhibits, and on the art faculty at Ventura College so I asked Fabien about his thoughts on the relationship of Bruce’s work as an artist and his work in wine.

“We have had this running debate between us, on whether winemaking is an art or a craft,” says Fabien. “The debate became heated many times and in the process he always defended the freedom that makes art. The need for it to be unshackled, expressed in its genuine form, without the weight of academic correctness. He always defends winemaking as an art. And quirky, prolific and dedicated artist he is. His relationship to it is complete, with risk taking, unconventional approach, relentless work and love of beauty. He taught me a lot about art and convinced me to be more confidant in being an artist.”

When I asked Fabien about Bruce’s contributions to Ventura County winemaking, and it came back to art: “Being an artist who put his creative mind to wine,” says Fabien. “It is often that people come to wine as a business opportunity or pursuing a romantic vision of the lifestyle but few come at it as a purely artistic pursuit.”

Finally, I asked about Bruce’s legacy in Ventura County as a winemaker:

Bruce was “the first one to fully embrace the beauty and identity of this land, of this county, and working tirelessly to find and express that unique voice,” Fabien replies. “The Ventura County Wine voice.”


2018 Syrah – Clos des Amis – South Mountain Vineyard – 14.7% alcohol – $24

When I think Syrah, this is what I want it to taste like and this is what I want it to smell like. Hearing me say this, Bruce Freeman commented that “This wine is very approachable.” That’s an understatement! It’s super friendly and easy to enjoy.

Color: Pretty and bright, maroon with a fuchsia rim.

Nose: Peppers and spice, blue fruit and bramble berries, anise, black pepper.

Palate: Viscous, mouthwatering bright fruit, blue fruit, blackberry.

Pairing: This syrah with the osso buco is amazing; the dish brings out the lovely blue fruit in the wine. What a perfect combination. The stewed meat, the root vegetables, the polenta, and OMG the fresh gremolata. It all works so well together. It was also nice with the squash and spinach gratin, but not the best pair of the evening. With the meat, the wine is so sweet and juicy. It has the caramelized part and a little bit of rough spinach, but there is a richness of the cheese and the squash. If you get a bit of everything on the plate, it is so divine.

This dish is full of a richness of flavor and complexity of flavor; the young wines might do better with the pairing because of the brightness in the wine.

“Beautiful essence in a glass”

If you were going to pair anything with this wine, pair it with braised meat or stew some parsnips. I tried it on a subsequent evening with leftover lamb daube and loved this pairing even more than the osso bucco. Tonight I paired it with ham and split pea soup with some leftover Thanksgiving dressing– another really great pairing.


Bruce says he wants the fruit to speak, but he really wants the terroir to speak.

2007  – The Ojai Vineyard – Syrah – Roll Ranch – Ventura County – 15% alcohol

Fabien recalls that “2007 was a hot year. One of those classically intense California vintage where ripeness comes fast and sugar rise higher than you expect. The Roll was particularly intense and dark that year. There was a lot of sweating, cussing and laughing that year as we worked hard in the full sun… Bruce is the first one to work hard but also  to complain about how hard it is to be him (” It is hard to be Bruce!”).”

 Color: Super dense and cloudy, mauve rim, surprisingly bright.

Nose: Cranberry and pomegranate, sage and chaparral, dry dirt and oak leaves, chamise. A bit like incense, sandalwood, Gretel felt like it was a bit like a wild meadow — and yes it is evocative of the wilds of upper Ojai. The complexity of the nose keeps you coming back for more.

Palate: Very smooth wine, very nice structure, balanced tannins. More fruit and less of the black pepper spice associated with syrah. Sue felt that there was a minty herbaceous finish on the back. It made me think of pennyroyal. So much fruit for a 2007 vintage.

Pairing: While the wine was not as nice as the younger wine with the food, however it is still fantastic with the wine. The Osso bucco is rich and decadent, and the wine is rich and decadent with nice acidity that cuts through the richness. The meal needs a wine that will stands up to it: The fat in the food stands up to the acidity in the wine, bringing forth a chocolatey goodness. The wine was so fabulous in the glass. On the following night, I paired it with leftover lamb daube — and I much preferred this pairing.

The 2007 Roll Ranch Syrah is a wine for contemplation, a reflection of its terroir and the drought that happened that year. It is a wine that you want to sip and enjoy and contemplate the meaning of life– and facing challenging situations with resolve and tenacity.

It is eloquent, and it speaks to the artist in Bruce that gravitated toward the artist in Adam who made this wine.

In this 2019 series about Ventura County Vineyards and my experiences at Clos des Amis:

November: Dormancy and Syrah
October: Final Harvest and #MerlotMe 
September 2019 in Ventura County Vineyards: Focus on Grenache
August: Harvest
July: Verasion
June: Etiolation
Ventura County Vineyards: May Gray
April: Leaf Pulling
March: Gretel Mays Compton
February in Ventura County Vineyards
January: Pruning




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