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Ventura County Wine Trail – Exploring grape country across the county line

By GABE SAGLIE, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

October 3, 2010 9:39 AM

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series exploring burgeoning area wine trails just in time for harvest.

Ventura County is renowned for its agricultural strength. Citrus fruit — lemons and Valencia oranges, mainly — thrive here, as do strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, avocados and peppers. Agriculture here is palpable, with farms, fields and orchards visible from any of the highways that cut across this diverse county.

In recent years, though, another ag industry has thrived. At first, it was comprised mainly of individual ventures; singular efforts, but with a singular goal: to make and sell wine in Ventura County. A more concerted effort was launched earlier this year, and now the Ventura County Wine Trail is generating buzz. “The Trail’s been around, officially, for three years,” says Dottie Kelley, director of the Ventura County Wine Trail. “But, technically, the ball didn’t get moving until they created my position.”

Trail members hired Ms. Kelley in March, investing in a full-time post to spearhead marketing. The publicity approach, which is funded by yearly dues paid by each member, is two-pronged. First, the distribution of wine trail maps. A high-end, glossy map is handed out in tasting rooms, hotel lobbies and restaurants throughout the county; a second, fold-out map, showcasing tasting room locations with driving directions and lists of suggested restaurants and hotels, is featured at 665 tourism locations throughout the state.

Ms. Kelley’s other task is to produce wine-tasting events, where she pours the reds and whites of Trail members. Many take place in Los Angeles, a consumer mecca, to which the Trail is marketed as an easy day trip. “For people in L.A., our tasting rooms are something special in their own backyard,” Ms. Kelley tells the News-Press. The yearly dues also get members placement on the group’s official website www.venturacountywinetrail.com.

Diversity may be the Trail’s greatest attribute. It boasts 15 members, one of which is kosher, two of which produce certified organic wines, half of which farm their own vineyard and almost all of which have tasting rooms that are open to the public. And membership is expected to double in the next year. But in Ventura County, that largess in diversity also translates to a largess in distance. There’s no denying that the Trail’s biggest challenge is that members are widely spread out. The Trail covers more than 50 highway miles from the quaint town of Ojai to the beaches of Malibu. For consumers, that means this is a Trail best experienced in stages. “We do have these pockets along the way, like groups of tasting rooms in Malibu, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Oxnard and Ojai,” says Ms. Kelley. “Our next marketing efforts will focus more on highlighting those individual areas.”

The Malibu angle obviously gives the Trail a dash of sex appeal. Good wine can hardly hurt an image already oozing movie stars and secret beaches; in fact, serious wine is not new to the Malibu hills, whose vineyards were officially recognized with their own American Viticultural Area — Malibu Newton Canyon — in 1996. Four Malibu wine ventures are part of the Ventura County Wine Trail. “To umbrella them with us even if they’re technically in L.A. County gives them exposure,” explains Ms. Kelley. “People want to go to Malibu and they will travel to do wine tasting.”

Rosenthal – The Malibu Estate makes estate wines from estate vineyards located about a mile from the L.A.-Ventura County line, on the Malibu side of the hill. Their big reds — cabernet and merlot — consistently earn high marks. They also market a second label, Surfrider, with grapes sourced from Santa Barbara County and the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo; proceeds benefit ocean cleanup efforts, including the Surfrider Foundation. Both wines are available for tasting at the Rosenthal tasting room, a marker of sorts that opened six years ago along an especially groovy stretch of Pacific Coast Highway. “Being on the Trail gets us working with other wineries in the area to get into some of the best tasting events in L.A.,” says director Neil McNally. “But it also lets us target people from throughout Ventura County and Santa Barbara.” Rosenthal offers two tasting flights: four wines for $12 or eight wines for $15; you get to keep the glass.

Nearby, Malibu Wines’ tasting room features its two proprietary labels, Semler and Saddlerock, and is located along Mulholland Highway. Four miles down the road is the tasting room of Cornell Winery, which sources its fruit from more than 50 vineyards in and around the Santa Monica Mountains. Sip Malibu, situated just off Kanan Road, features several upscale wines from the Cielo Malibu Estate; some of their popular reds retail for $100 to $175 a bottle.

Two stops along the trail bring you to Thousand Oaks. The few vineyards here tout heat during the day but cool ocean breezes driven inland at night from the shores of Malibu. Los Robles Hills Winery is a new venture; their certified organic vineyard was planted in 2005 to merlot, sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, and their first release, two reds from the ’08 vintage, are on sale through their website, www.losrobleshillswinery.com. Los Robles Hills Winery does not currently have a tasting room; winery tours are by appointment.

Four Brix Winery has its tasting room inside The Wine Yard, a popular wine bar located next to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza along East Thousand Oaks Blvd. The joint venture by three families — the Simonsgaards, the Stewarts and the Noonans — started pouring for the public in May. Four Brix sources grapes from throughout California and produces five wines, including a blend of Paso Robles-sourced zinfandel and Sonoma-sourced petite sirah dubbed Zeductive.

On the other end of the Conejo Grade, north along Highway 101, Camarillo Custom Crush Winery is where many wine dreams are born. The facility offers a comprehensive winemaking approach for many a winemaking enthusiast. “They help you acquire grapes, do crushing, bottling, labeling, they’ll even provide the winemaker, and they can ship wine for clients internationally,” says Ms. Kelley. “And they provide marketing through the tasting room, where their wines can get poured.” The tasting room on South Lewis Road is open to the public weekend afternoons.

At Cantara Cellars in Camarillo, owner and winemaker Mike Brown is happy with his spot on the Ventura County Wine Trail map. “We know from our Web traffic that we get 30 percent of our referrals through the Wine Trail website,” says Mr. Brown. “That tells me our name is getting some traction.” What’s more, Mr. Brown sees Ventura County as a viable wine stop for Southern Californians. “Not everyone has a whole day or weekend to allocate to wine tasting in Santa Ynez, so we are a nice day trip for those in county and people in Los Angeles, which is a prime market for us.” Mr. Brown is a sixth-generation Californian from Lodi, and that’s where he sources almost all of his grapes. His parents’ farm provides chardonnay. Business has grown steadily since the tasting room on Wood Road, near the Central Avenue exit off the 101, opened in 2007; 600 cases when they started will make way for 3,200 cases this year. A tasting of five wines (plus one or two barrel samples) costs $7.50. Frankenvine, an admittedly quirky proprietary blend of cabernet, petite sirah, zinfandel and old-vine zinfandel, is a hot seller at $36 a bottle.

Bella Victorian Vineyard in Camarillo sources its grapes from private vineyards in the city and runs a tasting room, bistro and retail boutique along East Ventura Blvd. One of the most active stops on the Trail is Oxnard. No doubt, Herzog Wine Cellars’ presence here is a key element to the Ventura wine industry’s visibility. Perhaps the most celebrated kosher wine producer in the world, the state-of-the-art winemaking facility along Camino del Sol also houses a lavish tasting room, an elegant boutique and Tierra Sur, considered one of the county’s most celebrated eateries. “We see people come in with the map in hand pretty often,” says Herzog’s marketing director, Monica Agyekum. “The map helps bring people who are looking for us because of the quality of the wines we make, not just because we are kosher.”

Rancho Ventavo Cellars has its commercial winery nearby, inside an industrial park. But their tasting room is on Oxnard’s Heritage Square, a picturesque city block where homes built near the turn of the 20th century were transferred in 1990 to be preserved. “Our tasting room is inside a 1902 home,” says owner and tasting room manager Faye Hawes. “We were wine lovers — winos, really — and home winemakers who turned a hobby into a passion.” The tasting room, which is adorned in a homey blend of hardwood floors, oak paneling and wood-burning fireplace, opened in June 2009 and it features red wines exclusively. “It’s all we drink,” admits Ms. Hawes, whose husband, George Gilpatrick, makes all the wine. “Visiting us can be a whole afternoon experience,” touts Ms. Hawes, who regularly refers clients to the popular Italian restaurant, La Dolce Vita, next door and the movie theater down the street.

Oxnard’s Magnavino Cellars, which produces 10 wines, opened up its tasting room along North Rice Avenue this summer.

The Trail ends in the picturesque Ojai Valley. Here, Old Creek Ranch Winery, founded in 1981, sources grapes from Santa Ynez to Napa and opens its winemaking facility on Old Creek Road off Highway 33 to the public daily. Bring a picnic. And idyllic downtown Ojai is home to two tasting rooms on the map.

Casa Barranca pours certified organic wines at its East Ojai Avenue location Wednesday through Sunday.  Much of its fruit is sourced from throughout the Central Coast, from Santa Ynez cabernet franc to Arroyo Grande pinot noir.

The biggest thing to hit the Ojai wine scene, though, may be the opening of The Ojai Vineyard’s tasting room on Montgomery Street. This venture has been making wine in the Ojai Valley since the 1980s under the auspices of celebrated winemaker Adam Tolmach, who co-founded Au Bon Climat with winemaking rock star Jim Clendenen. The Ojai Vineyard sources most of its grapes from some of Santa Barbara County’s most celebrated vineyards, like Presidio and Bien Nacido. It also has exclusive access to Ojai’s Roll Ranch, whose fruit Mr. Tolmach uses to make an intense syrah. The Ojai Vineyard’s tasting room opened in July. Simple and bright, it pours half a dozen high-scoring wines, including a viognier ice wine; these grapes are harvested and put into a commercial freezer in Oxnard for 10 days before they’re crushed and turned into a wine that, even while being 29 percent sugar, delivers bright flavors of flowers and honey. “The tasting room allows us to bring our wines to the public when we think they’re ready,” says assistant winemaker Fabien Castel. He appreciates the attention to Ojai that the Ventura County Wine Trail brings. But he admits that an Ojaiexclusive trail — marked with tasting rooms and eateries — may not be too far away. “It would build on the village aspect of our town,” says Mr. Castel, “while challenging the overall sprawl of Ventura County.”

e-mail: life@newspress.com

1. Rosenthal — The Malibu Estate, 26023 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; 310-456-1392

2. Cornell Winery & Tasting Room, 29975 Mulholland Highway, Agoura; 818-735-3542

3. Sip Malibu and Cielo Winebar, 2598 Sierra Creek Road, Agoura; 818-865-0440

4. Malibu Wines, 31800 Mulholland Highway, Malibu;818-865-0605

5. Four Brix Winery, 1948 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks; 230-2773

6. Los Robles Hills Winery, Thousand Oaks;info@losrobleshillswinery.com or www.losrobleshillswinery.com

7. Camarillo Custom Crush Winery, 300 S. Lewis Road, Suite C, Camarillo; 484-0597

8. Bella Victorian Vineyard, 2135 E. Ventura Blvd., Camarillo; 383-8800

9. Cantara Cellars, 126 Wood Road, Suite 104, Camarillo;484-9600

10. Herzog Wine Cellars, 3201 Camino del Sol, Oxnard;983-1560

11. Magnavino Cellars, 961 N. Rice Ave., Suite 5, Oxnard; www.magnavino.com

12. Rancho Ventavo Cellars, 741 S. A St., Oxnard; 483-8084

13. Old Creek Ranch Winery, 10024 Old Creek Road, Ventura; 649-4132

14. Casa Barranca, 208 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai; 640-1255

15. The Ojai Vineyard, 109 S. Montgomery St., Ojai; 649-1674