Ventura County Harvest 2020: Perspective from Clos Des Amis, Pacific View, Topa Mountain, The Ojai Vineyard

Pacific View Dolcetto and Olive trees

The big news this harvest in Ventura County isn’t COVID, but it’s definitely related to FEVER — FIRE and HEAT.

While an early harvest wine grape overall, the 2020 wine grape harvest is looking good so far according to owners and winemakers in Ventura County at The Ojai Vineyard, Clos Des Amis, Topa Mountain and Pacific View. By late September, just about everything was in with only some grapes destined for late harvest wines are on the vine; I’ll be out picking the Riesling at Clos des Amis on Wednesday.

With the heat spikes, 2020 harvest came early, but with a mild winter, it wasn’t a problem. Dominic O’Reilly, winemaker at Topa Mountain and Pacific View explains that “We had a very long ripening.” The mild winter, spring and summer provided the grapes a long hang time to developed flavors and complexity in the grapes, and helped the vines as well. In contrast, in 2019, powdery mildew was a problem in some Ventura County vineyards and in 2018, many Ventura County vineyards were decimated by a July heat spike that turned the grapes into raisins.

One young vineyard handled the spikes in 2018 and 2020  just fine: The Ojai Vineyard in 2017 planted four experimental hybrids developed to be Pierce’s Disease resistant. In 2019, they harvested their first crop and made their first wines from the reds and the whites. The still unnamed white was bottled before harvest, and it’s good! Sue and I visited the new vineyard and chatted with The Ojai Vineyard founder and wine maker Adam Tolmach and GM Fabien Castel in early September, and came home with a shiner to taste which you can read about here.

Before the second heat spike of 2020 over Labor Day, they harvested all of their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from cool climate areas of Santa Barbara near the coast. The Syrah came in a month later. Overall, they are quite happy with the vintage so far.

Santa Paula’s Clos Des Amis harvest started off with a CHAMBANG on Sat. August 1 at the Mitchell vineyard located at the edge of Ventura in the foothills with views of the ocean and the islands. These chardonnay grapes are destined for Chambang, a sparkling wine made in the traditional method– the only wine handmade this way in Ventura County from county grapes. Grapes for sparkling wines are always picked early so they have plenty of acidity. The traditional process typically adds a dosage that includes sugar and since you don’t want it to sweet, you start with grapes that are plenty flavorful but a bit tart.

While unexpected, growers were prepared for the heat spikes: “I obviously pay a lot of attention to the weather,” said Dominic dryly. “We were in a sweet spot with sugars. Just so happened everything ripened after the first heat wave.”

“I’m pleased with it overall,” says Dominic about the 2020 harvest. “I was concerned about the heat spells but we brought in the fruit before anything might have been damaged.” His crop yield is average or slightly lower.

Dominic O’Reilly with the Topa Mountain Estate Grenache; he also makes wine for Pacific View and his own commercial cider with his wife Anna.

Dominic grew up among the vines and following his dad around in the cellar; vintner David Reilly of Owen Roe in Oregon guided his son who made his first wine at 13.

“I love the craft aspect,” says Dominic.

Instead of studying wine making in college, something that was already second nature, at 18 he went to small Thomas Aquinas just a few miles away on 150 on the way to Santa Paula. There he studied philosophy and met his wife Anna; together they started Anna’s Cider.

Dominic O’Reilly in the Topa Mountain Estate Grenache

But Dominic wasn’t away from the wine world for long. In 2010, just as Bruce Freeman of Clos Des Amis was leaving, Dominic joined Adam Tolmach’s team to make wine at The Ojai Vineyard. He stayed there for about five years; toward the end of his tenure in 2013, he helped Larry start Topa Mountain. Today they make 2-3000 cases of wine with 5-6% of their grapes sourced from Ventura County from mostly the estate vineyard and the remainder from Santa Barbara.

Dominic was tapped by Pacific View owner Patti Mitchell to also make her wine: she has one acre of Dolcetto growing just a few windy dusty miles and a thousand or two feet above the Topa Mountain vineyards and winery.  Right now she has one experimental acre planted in 2009, but with the success of its first few vintages, she has plans to add five more acres of Italian varietals. There’s plenty of room: she. has 50 acres on her property total and the new vines will flank the slope of the pool house. A fan of Nebbiolo, she hopes it will take to her high elevation terroir — land that was once undersea.

Patti Mitchell with her Dolcetto growing at 3,000 above the Pacific Ocean.

Like Dominic, Patti is pleased with the 2020 harvest. Her grapes were picked by Martin Ramirez and his crew on August 23, in between the two heat spikes.

“I didn’t want a high alcohol wine,” she said. “I was concerned for that and the sugar was right.” This she knew by the old fashioned method of sampling the grapes:

“Oh my gosh you should go taste your grapes!” said her vineyard manager Martin Ramirez. “They’re fabulous!”

She tasted them, and knew they were ready. This was followed up with lab work that showed 24.5 brie and 3.31 ph. Last year, her grapes produced about two tons, but this year only about one ton. Pacific View averages about 35 cases a year. That’s very very small.

“I’m pleased because we caught them before the second heat wave,” she said.

The high elevation of her vineyard moderates the high temperatures found in The Ojai Valley. The vines absorb the heat during the day but the cool nights mean a diurnal fluctuation that ensures acidity and complexity in the grapes. If it gets too hot and dry, she has tanks of rainwater that she has stored from the previous winter that she can use to irrigate the vineyard.

In addition to the heat spikes of 2020, smoke taint threatened the harvest when the region was inundated with smoke from nearby fires. Unlike 2017, which threatened all four of these wineries and damaged property as well, the 2020  fires so far have not been a problem with regards to smoke taint or losses.

With the grapes in, it’s time to relax and let the grapes to do their magic, and for winemakers to relax!

So let’s open a bottle and celebrate!

For more about the surprising 2020 harvest, stay tuned for a link to my article in the October 2020 issue of Ventana Monthly. On news stands and in mailboxes on Thursday. Oct. 15!

Photo by Helen O’Neill


  • Oysters
  • Cheese Board with cheddar and brie
  • Pear and Mozzarella Salad
  • Tuscan Sauce with sausage on the side with fresh fettuccini
  • Spinach Pesto with fresh fettuccine

We were set to pair these wines with recipes that Patti and her daughter shared on the Verovino website but when my husband called me to tell me about an amazing Farmers Market he and Helen went to, we pivoted, because that’s what we do in 2020, right? We pivot!

Perfect for poolside, porch, or picnic pivots…

2019 Topa Mountain Rose of Grenache Santa Barbara County
SRP $28

Topa Mountain sells almost all of their wine through their tasting room, to their wine club, and online. We wrote about a previous vintage as well as a full line up of wines with pairings in March which you can read here.

Honest, simple, but with plenty of pizzazz.

Color: Apricot blush, ballet pink, champagne iPhone.

Nose: Stone fruit both cherry, apricot, peach and rose.

Palate: Very much reflects Grenache — not too sharp, bright, while not super exciting that’s not a fault — it’s engaging and easy going, but not demanding. Would make a great vice president.

Pairing: Has enough going on for a cheddar or other cheeses — even jalapeño or pepper jack says Helen. We loved it with the pear salad. Complex enough to work with the Tuscan sauce with spiced sausage and fresh pasta. Excellent picnic, porch or pool wine. Not a red wine or a white– rose straddles them both.

2017 Pacific View Vineyards and Winery Dolcetto, Ojai
SRP $25

Tiny but mighty Pacific View makes about 35 cases of their estate Dolcetto a year. You can find it at a very few select stores in Southern California or order it online from Verovino.

Color: Bright ruby, medium minus density, catches the light like a sapphire ruby. super pretty and honest, not manipulated.

Nose: Cherry, cherry cola, carnation.

Palate: Tart cherry, light, bright, tannins, well structured, elegant, a bit bitter on the finish, but not unpleasant.

Pairing: A bit too tart with the Tuscan sauce on its own but when the spicy sausage comes into the picture, it really works really well. Surprisingly, it paired well with the spinach pesto and even the pear salad. The next night it paired really well with salmon.

Note: This is post #101 for 2020, post #972 overall, and post 5 of 5 for the Blogtober challenge.



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