Works of Art: Open That Bottle Night and VeroTalk with Clos des Amis Winemakers Bruce Freeman and Gretel Compton

Clos des Amis winemaker Bruce Freeman shows a label during a February VeroTalk.

“The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.”
Joseph Campbell, in A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

For Bruce Freeman and Gretel Compton of Clos des Amis, art is life, an avocation and a vocation. Both have worked as professional artists and teachers of art throughout their long careers, with Bruce teaching at Ventura College and designing/fabricating Ventura County Museum exhibits while Gretel worked at the Ventura County Office of Education as a graphic artist and taught figure drawing at Studio Channel Islands. Many years ago, Bruce started making wine on the side, moved on to assisting Adam Tolmach until 2010, then served as winemaker at Casa Barranca where he helped them get their organic certifications. For over 10 years he’s been making wine at his own label, Clos des Amis, with Gretel by his side for most of it. 

At Clos des Amis, for Bruce and Gretel, wine is an art form that allows us to smell and taste the rapture of life, and the life of a specific place.

And that place is Ventura County. 

Bruce Freeman and Gretel Compton during a 2/11/21 VeroTalk Zoom

Between Pierce’s disease and Prohibition, the fledgling wine industry in Ventura County floundered, and most of the vineyards failed. But with the help of Bruce, as a Johnny Grapeseed who believes in the local terroir, Ventura County as a wine growing and making region is making a hearty comeback– regardless of COVID. 

While Bruce has made wines from grapes all over Ventura county as well as areas north, “we’ve got a sweet spot here” on Santa Paula’s South Mountain, said Bruce during a February 11 2021 VeroTalk organized by Verovinogusto’s Sheila Donahue. Ventura County has always been important agriculturally, especially on the Oxnard Plain which is thousands of feet deep and which has some of the best soil in the world. But wine grapes don’t really want “the best soil.” While the vines might thrive, the grapes will lack character which derives from adversity, from struggling to find water and minerals. 

Ventura County’s location along the Pacific Ocean between (to the south) Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (to the north) means the region has a temperate, Mediteranean climate where the rain falls almost exclusively in the late fall, winter, and early spring months concentrating moisture from November to March with warm days and cool, foggy nights with a diurnal shift on South Mountain and in upper Ojai during the summer that’s often 30 degrees going from the 90s during the day to the 50s at night.

Wine grapes love this. 

California and the Transverse Range which run east west: the Channel Islands point toward the Oxnard Plain and South Mountain where the Estate vineyards grow.

But what makes this tri-county area most unusual is the Transverse Mountain Range which goes from west to east from the Pacific Ocean toward the desert. Ridges in these National Forests average in height of 3,000–8,000 feet criss crossed by young, steep streams with swift winters water and low flow rate the rest of the year creating intense topographic relief.

These east-west mountains channel the flow of air, earth and water westward, as well as winds eastward which bring in the cool air from the coast.  

“The wind cools the weather. Find the right canyons and the right valleys. Find the clones,” said Bruce during the ZOOM. “We have a great grape growing region. We have the heat for the day and it cools off at night. It’s perfect.”

But not everywhere in Ventura County: “Other parts it’s too hot or the soils aren’t right.”

California is famous for earthquakes, and it’s these earthquake faults that created this dramatic landscape which juxtoposes various soil types in one vineyard so that different blocks right next to each other can have different vines. According to Wikipedia, “Most of the ranges in the system are fault blocks, and were uplifted by tectonic movements late in the Cenozoic Era.” In our area, west of Tejon Pass which often closes due to snow in the winter and is the primary connection between southern Caliufornia and northern, there’s a mix of sedimentary, volcanic, and metamorphic rocks.

Bruce and Gretel at the picnic table outside the winery on a cold February day during the VeroTalk.

The Estate vineyard on South Mountain above the Santa Clara River is two acres of eight acres with citrus surrounding and between the “old” vineyard and the “new.”  In part of one vineyard, “Diatomacous earth used to be part of the seafloor but got uplifted. Next to it is clay loam,” said Bruce.

There’s lots of fossilized shells including nautilus, and they even found a whale bone.

The old sea floor is great for the Sauvignon Blanc and albarino: “The Sauvignon Blanc does great on that soil,” said Bruce. “Great acidity, minerality.” With time, he’ll be able to figure out what grape will grow best on which soil.  

These focused mountains, great rivers, protected lands, and diverse geology make this such a sweet spot for growing wine grapes, according to Bruce:

“We’re on the west coast here and it’s dynamic so our soils are all mixed.”

Bruce discussion the soils on South Mountain during the VeroTalk in February.

Artists are often asked how long it took to create a certain work of art.

The answer is an entire life.

And this is true for Bruce too– it’s taken him his entire life to find this sweet spot and to make these wines the way he does: “What’s fun is the learning curve is steep and so is making the best wine we can. We keep experimenting.”

“Bruce’s passion is making wine from Ventura County grapes,” says Gretel. “We let the wines speak for themselves.”

“All our wines aren’t done by the numbers but express a year, a place, a time,” says Bruce. “I don’t want my wines to taste like anyone else’s.”

Thank goodness!

The final Saturday of the month in February is “Open That Bottle Night.”

Participants are encouraged to stop holding on to “that bottle” and to go ahead and open it and enjoy it. In the past I’ve written about a bunch of Ojai Vineyard wines, including some that Bruce had a hand in making,  a Champagne Bollinger,  and a Ranchita Canyon vertical.

But in 2020, I, like many others, opened “that bottle” and more during the pandemic as we wrote about here where we opened two wines from France’s St-Joseph in the Rhone.

Clos des Amis 2016 Chardonnay

This year, we had fresh scallops. And the one wine I wanted to open was the 2016 Olivelands Chardonnay from Clos des Amis (SRP $18). I wanted the fresh Meyer lemon notes and crisp minerality. I have some amazing bottles in my cellar that would go well with scallops– Champagne, Condrieu, Burgundy,  a 2011 Kistler Napa Chardonnay, other California Chardonnay, even an Oregon Chardonnay (which I LOVE).

But when I told my husband what I was considering, he was all over the Clos des Amis– that’s what he wanted so that’s what I opened. And that’s we enjoyed together. No notes, just conversation.

Sometimes “Open That Bottle Night” isn’t about opening the most expensive bottle in the cellar. Or the oldest. Or the one that you really should drink before it’s past its prime. 

“The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.”
Joseph Campbell, in A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

And wine is the way we drink life in! Cheers!

Clos des Amis 2016 Chardonnay with fresh seared scallops

Read more about Clos des Amis where I’ve been learning the ins and outs of vineyard management, bottling, and more since January 2019:

November 2020: Local Love –wines and vines  

October 2020: Harvest 2020

September 2020: Music in the Malbec–Harvest 2020 

July 2020: Birds and the Bees and the Zinfandel Trees 

July 2020: Verasion: Heading toward Harvest 

June 2020: ZOOM BOOM 



and more:


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