Ojai Vineyards is located in the small city of Ojai, California, hard against the sprawling Los Padres National Forest and less than 25 miles inland from the coastal city of Santa Barbara. Adam Tolmach is the founder of Ojai Vineyard, and his wine journey began after earning a viticulture and oenology degree in 1976 from University of California at Davis. After graduation and a stint at Zaca Mesa Winery, Tolmach met budding wine entrepreneur Jim Clendenen. Together they founded iconic winery Au Bon Climat in 1982 and worked together until 1991.
After selling his share of Au Bon Climat to Clendenen in 1991, Tolmach concentrated his efforts on making wine from grapes grown in a family vineyard planted in the 1980s.
Recently, we met with Fabien Castel, a native of Paris who is general manager and who has been an apprentice winemaker to Tolmach for the past 13 years. Fabien has no formal training in viticulture or oenology -- he earned a degree in biology and advertising in France. Fabien’s bio describes his relationship to wine as visceral, growing up in an environment where wine was a common experience from a young age.
Our past experience with wines from Ojai Vineyard was quite different from the wines that we tasted with Fabien. The Ojai Vineyard wines from the 1990s presented massive, very ripe fruit that wine writers of the time praised. An Ojai Vineyards' grenache from that time is particularly remembered for its singular dedication to hedonism.
Fabien acknowledged the previous style of winemaking and said that today's Ojai Vineyard wine is more refreshing with balanced fruit, acidity and tannin.
The area around Ojai and Ojai Vineyard were devastated by the December fires, but according to Fabien, “The fires circled around us but with the amazing help of many firefighters and sheer luck we came out unscathed.”
After tasting a sampling of Ojai Vineyard's 26 current wines, we were impressed with the balance of ripe fruit but a leaner, more European style of acidity and body. Fabien told us that grapes are picked earlier than in the past, harvesting when physiological maturity is achieved instead of maximum brix/sugar.
Following were our favorite wines from the tasting:
Ojai Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc “McGinley Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley 2016 ($30). This sauvignon blanc is for wine drinkers who have been put off by the grapefruit and herbal qualities that have dominated a generation of wines from this varietal. Ripe tropical fruit and peach elements along with light citrus notes. Barrel fermentation and aging help provide a very appealing roundness to this wine.
Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay Puerta Del Mar Vineyard Santa Barbara County 2016 ($32). Produced from grapes from the coolest Ojai vineyard, this wine is beautifully balanced with pear notes and a creamy, almost buttery, mouthfeel.
Ojai Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County 2015 ($38). An assemblage of four different parcels in Santa Barbara County, this wine is the real deal -- very appealing wild cherry and spice package that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Ojai Vineyards Grenache John Sebastiano Vineyard 2014 ($34). Entirely grenache, this wine is still a baby that shows promise. Cherries and plums are just emerging in this ample wine that offers balanced acidity and pretty good tannins. Purchase but wait at least 3-5 years to drink.
Ojai Vineyards Syrah Santa Barbara County 2014 ($34). This is a wonderful syrah with intense plum spice notes and a Northern Rhone like gaminess. A lovely creamy mocha finish completes the package. Delicious!
Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($78). Winemaker Christopher Tynan shows what Stags Leap vineyards can produce in both power and finesse. Generous red and black fruit character with a bit of cassis, leather, and mineral. It's the classic iron fist in a velvet glove.
River Road Mills Cuvee Chardonnay 2016 ($30). From the Green Valley of Russian River Valley this complex chardonnay has elegance and richness with stone fruit flavors and a creamy, oaky finish.
Rodney Strong Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($35). This easy-drinking cabernet, blended with a dash of malbec, is always reliable for the price. Deep color, ripe plum, and blackberry flavors with hints of mocha and spice.
La Crema Arroyo Seco Chardonnay 2015 ($30). Exotic flavors of extracted papaya, apricot and tangerine make this a delicious complement to seafood dinners or just sipping.
Columbia Winery Red Blend 2015 ($14). This is a good value from Washington's Columbia Valley. Merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec combine to deliver a forward, soft combination of berry fruit flavors and hints of vanilla and spice.
Ruca Malen Argentina Brut N/V ($28). We don’t often see sparkling wine from Argentina but after tasting this beauty maybe we should. Made in the traditional “method champenoise” perfected in the Champagne region of France, this 75 percent pinot noir, 25 percent chardonnay bubbly presents lovely pear and apple fruit notes with a bit of a brioche nose and flavor, and a long, creamy finish.
Le Vigne Winery Sangiovese Estate Paso Robles 2014 ($37). This is a deep, rich sangiovese with a complex mélange of plum, cherry, and blackberries. Some spice notes along with a bit of oak complete the very appealing package. Drink with spicy barbecue or roasted meats.