Harvest Conversation at The Ojai Vineyard about the new hybrids with winemakers Adam Tolmach and Fabien Castel #WinePW

The Ojai Vineyard’s General Manager Fabien Castel

“To make great wine you can’t be greedy,” says Fabien Castel, General Manager at The Ojai Vineyard.

Sue Hill and I are standing with Fabien Castel and winemaker Adam Tolmach in the The Ojai Vineyard estate experimental vineyard planted in 2017 with special UC Davis Pierce disease resistant hybridized vines — two reds and two whites– that will be blended into an as yet to be named wines. The white was just bottled and I’ve been promised a shiner– no label yet because they don’t know what they will call it.

Although the vineyard was harvested between two intense heat waves– 48 hours before this area of Ojai’s Ventura County reached 120 degrees– there’s still lots of ripe fruit for us to snack on.

And it’s good.

“Don’t you tire of eating grapes?” I ask Adam as he almost greedily enjoys handfuls of purple fruit. Clearly he still relishes this aspect of the business, forty years after he planted his first vineyard here along Creek Road, a route which leads to Ojai proper and The Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room on Montgomery Street which opened in 2010.

The Ojai Vineyard’s Fabien Castel with founder Adam Tolmach; Fabien has worked with Adam for 20 years now.

We’re near the end of a two hour conversation about the pressures of climate change on winemaking in the central coast during which we’ve sampled two kinds of experimental white grapes, one that reminded us of Sauvignon Blanc and South African Chenin blanc, even though it’s a hybrid of mostly red grapes and doesn’t include either. The other white is more chardonnay like and includes 12.5% of that grape along with red grapes. One of the reds is a hybrid that’s actually 50% Sylvaner, a white grape.

Strange times we live in. The increased heat has changed weather patterns; the seemingly ceaseless and dependable summer fog is less dependable, crops now come from more coastal, cooler areas, and the ever present threat of Pierce’s and other disease vectors is worse with the stress of global warming and increased intense heat in the vineyards along with drought conditions.

Fire is not an abstract threat: the 2017 Thomas Fire encroached on the winery property, singeing and causing leaf drop on some of the upper oaks. Neighboring homes burned; a friend of mine lived nearby and she lost everything in the fire. In 2018, a rogue heat wave hit the region but the young Pierce disease resistant vines survived and thrived. In 2019, a damp year where powdery mildew impacted other area vineyards, these vines suffered little and produced their first crop which was made into the bottle I’d be taking home with me, making Sue and I some of the first people in the world to taste this wine.

The question really is, as a farmer and a winemaker, how do you mitigate against possible disasters imposed by fire, drought, pests, weather?

Producers must be attuned to the varietals and climate in order to make the best possible wine, says Fabien. No two years are the same.

“Here every year is different and the wines taste different because of that,” says Adam referring to Southern California, and then specifically to Ojai:  “Here we obviously are going to have more hot days but there are grape varieties that do well.” A bonus, grapes will always ripen here.

As a winemaker that has made his name on Pinot Noir, it’s a challenge that this grape “doesn’t do well where it is warmer” but “one saving grace of the Sta Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County is there’s a huge ocean influence. We used to have more foggy miserable days in Lompoc.”  In this windswept AVA just a few miles from the coast, the fog settles over night for cool mornings. By afternoon, heat from the Santa Ynez Valley inland blows through the vineyards, and then at night the Pacific breathes its cool air back. Three of my favorite vineyards in the state are here: Kessler-Haak for Pinot Noir, Sebastiani for Syrah (see below) and Grenache (read more here), and Duvarita for biodynamic Syrah.

Generally coastal Santa Barbara and Ventura have mild climates with occasional heat spikes and cool nights. Even with dry summers, there is still a cool influence from the Pacific, so it’s important as a winemaker to react to the weather as opposed to following a formula, says Adam.

Much of California is basically a desert because of the low rainfall and dry condition; it’s a paradoxically, says Fabien, because we here are in “somewhat at an advantage because here it is already a desert sun intensity climate.” 

The aesthetic pursuit for Adam has been to find subtle delicacy in a climate that is in essence quite warm and hot especially at the time of harvest.

In the experimental vineyard, they were able to start from scratch: they planted a high trellis with vines close together to create a high canopy for shade so the vines have less exposure to morning and afternoon sun.

The Pierce’s disease hybrid vineyard on a smoky September day

“It makes a huge difference,” says Adam.

While some wineries are addressing drought by placing vines further apart than standard practice or old school California sprawl so there is less competition for moisture, this method keeps the vines and the soil between the rows cooler. The canopy provides indirect, even, sun exposure in contast to other methods where some of the fruit is well hidden and others bunches so exposed that they turn to raisons. This method is also more efficient with water.

Other interventions that Fabien and Adam described to us include

  • Trimming clusters
  • Trimming the canopy
  • Selecting the shoots for even spacing

While “there is the desire to maximize the yields” Adam’s strategy is to minimize yields to get intensity. However, says Adam, “You have to make a living” which means finding a balance between quality and price. 

While Fabien grew up in France, he’s been working with Adam here at this site for over 20 years, and the comfort and respect between them is palpable.

Adam grew up visiting this property as his grandfather bought it back in 1933. In 1981, Adam planted a vineyard but lost it to Pierce’s disease so he took it out in 1995.

With the advent of new grape varieties resistant to Pierce’s disease developed by Andy Walker over the course of twenty years, the time was ripe in 2017 to try again to have an actual “Ojai Vineyard” for “The Ojai Vineyard” winery so 1.2 acres were planted with these 1800 of hybridized (not genetically modified) cuttings.

The resulting five hybrids contain 3% of a grape native to Arizona, Vitus arizonica that resists Pierce’s. Two reds and two whites are now at The Ojai Vineyard estate.

One of the whites is more like a Sauvignon Blanc, while the other reminds Adam more of chardonnay. One of the white wine grapes is a hybrid of:

  • 62.5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 12.5 percent Carignane
  • 12.5 percent Chardonnay

plus 3% of the Arizona grape according to this article on The Ojai Vineyard website.

That’s mostly what we would think of as red wine grapes!

And yet the red wine wine grape is a hybrid of mostly grapes usually in white wines:

  • 50 percent Sylvaner
  • 12.5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 12.5 percent Carignane
  • 12.5 percent Chardonnay

While you’d think this would be the grape that’s more like Sauvignon Blanc, according to this article, this is a “red wine grape… dark red purple color, complex fruit with herbs and earth, plum, big wine, dense, rich middle, tannic yet balanced.”

These are unique and new but not that different from what’s out there naturally, agrees Adam and Fabien. However, as global warming increases, so will diseases like Pierce’s which doesn’t like cooler climates. After several years of mild winters and drought, it’s steadily marching north. 

It’s up to pioneers like Adam and Fabien to prove these grapes will make worthy wines. There’s not a lot of incentive as people generally reach for wines with familiar names and grapes they already know.

While some of the vineyards where The Ojai Vineyard sources grapes are organic and biodynamic, it’s not a deal breaker.

“I’m interested in organic because I’m interested in not poisoning the land and poisoning the people,” says Adam. “Biodynamic has good practices but deep down there’s religion.” A pragmatist, he says, “I believe in science. We embrace all the good things.”

The new vineyard, while not certified, is basically organic and does not use any synthetic pesticides or herbicides. “When they started using herbicides it was like a miracle but there were consequences.

“I’ve embraced organic,” says Adam.  

2019 The Ojai Vineyard “UC DAVIS Hybrid PD RESISTANT White Wine Blend”

Color: Very pale yellow, clear, very light

Nose: If someone handed this wine to me blind, I would think it was from South Africa. Lemon lime, jalapeno jelly, acacia flower, meadow grass, chaparral, dry sage, mint, fennel blossom, flower pollen, banana. The wine expresses more as it warms a bit in the glass.

Palate: The first thing Sue noticed was the mouthfeel. Viscous and mouthwatering. Lim. leaf, jalapeño jelly, This is a very clean well crafted wine. Crisp dry, really nice and enjoyable. We don’t know the alcohol, but it is very balanced.

Pairing: Heavenly with oysters– it brings out stone fruit and nectarine in the wine that is not there without the oyster. Great choice for linguini and clams. This wine sings with the ocean influences.

We love oysters, and this wine is now on top of the list for an oyster pairing.

The Mossy Bay oysters were so perfect with the wine which brought out a sweet cucumber and melon freshness. Loved the wine with the oven roasted cherry tomatoes in garlic and olive oil over a fresh baguette topped with fresh goat cheese. We also had a bit of rosemary smoked salt chevoo. While a creamy brie might not be Sue’s best choice for a clean fresh wine like this, she was surprised that a herbed brie was a nice match for the wine. The wine cut the creamy richness of the cheesse and was enhanced by the herbs in the brie. Excellent pairing with spicy tuna sushi dipped in soy sauce which brings out a round mouthfeel in the wine.

2011 The Ojai Vineyard Special Bottling Syrah John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
ABV 14.0%
purchased many years ago as a wine club member

Three Barrels Made

Color: Very dense in color, garnet with a blood red rim.

Nose: The nose is so subtle and complex with sage, plum, bramble fruit, blackberry, pepper, eucalyptus.

Palate:  Black pepper, silty earth, muskiness, big bold bramble fruit up front, the tannins are there as well, balanced acidity carries this wine through to the back of the palate leaving you with such a clean bright fruit finish. Amazing that this wine is so fresh when it is almost ten years old.

Pairing: When paired with the roasted tomatoes in garlic and olive oil over fresh baked bread there is such and intensity between the wine and the food. The intensity of the wine is enhanced by the sun dried tomatoes. I was a bit overwhelmed and Sue was in heaven. When taking a bite of the  squash torte I was overwhelmed with joy. The sweetness of the squash, the tartness of the cheese, the richness of the potatoes was so amazing with the wine. The rich grilled rack of lamb and the rich wine matched well; what joy to experience. Because of the semolina flour in the crust of the tart which makes it crunchy and dry, and the  tartness of the elderberry fruit. this pairing works so perfectly. There is a chewy textural quality that the wine embraces.

For another Ojai special bottling from the John Sebastiani Vineyard  check out this Grenache for Grenache Day 2020.

Sue’s Harvest Squash and Chard Torte
  • 1 T Olive oil
  • 1 lb small winter squash, peeled, cut to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness
  • 4 cups chopped chard or  kale
  • 1 to 2 medium potatoes
  • 6 to 8 oz grated cheese
  • 1 to 2 tomatoes sliced
  • 1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
  • Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Oil a 9 inch spring form pan
  • Arrange half the squash in the bottom of the spring form pan in concentric circles
  • Cover squash with half the chopped chard
  • Drizzle with half the olive oil and season with salt and pepper
  • Layer the potato slices in concentric circles on the chard
  • Add 1/2 the provolone cheese
  • Cover with the other half of the chopped chard
  • Drizzle the remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper
  • Add a layer of tomato slices
  • Cover with the other half of the squash
  • Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese
  • Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour
  • Remove foil and bake until the top is brown, another 10 to 15 minutes
  • Remove from oven and let cool for about 15 minutes
  • Remove the sides of the spring form pan and serve

Super healthy and super good!

As I said in the preview post, climate change is in part responsible for the current waves of intense heat, fires, and generally erratic weather which make for additional challenges to agriculture these days compounded by diseases like COVID which strike workers and Pierce’s disease which impact the vines. Harvest times are earlier and earlier with less hang time while in other places bud break is early and then threatened by frost. Areas once viable for grapes may become too hot while other areas may be better.

Join the Wine Pairing Weekend group of wine writers as we explore the theme of climate change and celebrate harvest with wine and food pairings from around the world.

Read the invitation to re/consider harvest here. Between now and Saturday Sept 12 at 8am Pacific, the following participants will be publishing their posts including:

Everyone is invited to join our twitter chat this Saturday Sept. 12 at 8am Pacific by following the hashtag #WinePW. Here are the discussion questions:

    1. 8am Welcome to the #WinePW chat about #harvest2020 around the world including #wine and #food pairings as well as impacts of #climatechange on #viticulture. Introduce yourself, tell us where you are, and share a link to your website if you have one.
    2. 8:05am Let’s celebrate #harvest2020! First, tell us about the winery you are sharing with us today. Where in the world is it? Have you visited it? Share photos please! Why did you choose this winery?  #winepw
    3. 8:10am Red, white, sparkling, rose, dessert! Tell us about the wine or wines you’re featuring for our #harvest celebration. What makes this wine special to you? Tasting notes? Share photos of the wine/s! #winepw
    4. 8:15am Describe for us the #harvest meal you made to pair with your wine/s. Did you grow any of the food yourself? Was it a successful pairing? And changes?  Share photos and a link please! #winepw
    5. 8:20am Fall is so full of flavor! Do you have favorite #harvest #food and #wine pairings? Tell us and share pictures or a link if you have one! #winepw
    6. 8:25a #Harvest is such a special time in the vineyard. Have you visited a vineyard or winery at #harvest? Do tell! Share photos or a link please! #winepw
    7. 8:30a As September is #CaliforniaWineMonth, do you have a favorite #California #wine pairing you’d like to share? Drop the link if you have one! #winepw @CalifWines_US #HarvestAtHome
    8. 8:35a Let’s talk #Climatechange. Impacts include increased temperatures and conditions conducive to #wildfires, like on the US west coast now, AUS last year, in Iberia in 2018. Is #fire a factor in #harvest for the winery you wrote about? What did you learn? Link? #winepw
    9. 8:40a #Harvest2020 report! What did you discover about the winery you wrote about and #Harvest2020? Any iImpacts from #climatechange to discuss? #winepw
    10. 8:45a How is #climatechange shaping decisions today in the vineyard and in the winery you featured? What are some of the factors and practices they are using to mitigate climate catastrophe? Changes in grapes used or blends? #winepw
    11. 8:50 Are the wines you’re writing about #biodynamic, #organic, from vineyards using #regenerativeagriculture or other noteworthy viticultural or sustainable practices? Is this important to the winery? To you? Why? #winepw
    12. 8:55a What else did you learn about this month’s #harvest topic or about #climatechange that you’d like to share? Any wise words from winemakers? #winepw
    13. 9a Thank you for joining our #winepw chat about #harvest2020 with host @artpredator. You’ll find links to our posts here: https://wp.me/pj3XZ-6dV  Next month we celebrate #merlotme with host Jeff of @foodwineclick. Cheers!

10 thoughts on “Harvest Conversation at The Ojai Vineyard about the new hybrids with winemakers Adam Tolmach and Fabien Castel #WinePW

  1. Pingback: Robert Biale: Petite Sirah & BBQ, A Perfect Match – avvinare

  2. Wow, what a description on that white wine! It sounds like they’re doing some really great work there. I hope their success continues and that that white grape takes off…I really want to try it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful interview. These new hybrids are fascinating.

    I have only briefly visited Ojai (for a visit to Earthtrine Farm, which is a piece of heaven). This is such a gorgeous area. I need to get back.

    What fantastic wines! An all-new white wine and that 2011 Syrah, that is a rare and special thing. Thank you for sharing the experience.

    Tell Sue I will be picking up squash on my next trip to market and I’m inspired to make this Torte!

    Liked by 1 person

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