Do you remember Napa 20 years ago? (YES! I realize I’m dating myself.) Do you long for the days when winemakers themselves welcomed you into their tasting rooms and seemed happy to see you….when (before GPS) you could actually get lost, all by yourself, on the backroads…and, most importantly, you could sample wines that were down-to-earth, of-the-earth — not over-manipulated, extracted, concentrated, over-oaked — mostly just plain good!

If you’d like to go back in time, visit Ojai. Once you’re out of the sprawling LA traffic and congestion, it’s a quick 1 1/2 hour drive on 101 – the Ventura Highway. You’ll find the landscape suddenly deserted, filled with vast farms and canyons. The Village of Ojai is tiny, just under 8,000 residents. There are no Michelin restaurants or 5-star hotels. But it’s drop dead gorgeous. The Ojai Valley backs up to the Topatopa Mountains — a spectacular range, with elevations of 5,000 feet. Lake Casitas, 254,000 acres of sapphire-colored water, sits at the base of the mountains.

The Ojai Valley backs up to the Topatopa Mountains — a spectacular range, with elevations of 5,000 feet.

Within this marvelous time capsule, you’ll find the wines of Ojai Vineyard. Proprietor Adam Tolmach began experimenting with grapes in 1983 on property he inherited from his grandfather. Prior to that he graduated from UC Davis and worked with Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat.

By 1994, Tolmach had negotiated a number of grape contracts and was able to purchase by the acre rather than the ton. This arrangement enabled him to direct the farming practices for his wines. He implemented sustainable farming and more recently has moved into organic practices.

Over the years, Tolmach noticed that cooler climates produced better balanced, more expressive wines. Gradually he abandoned the warmer climate vineyards to focus on the sites in higher elevations. Currently, Tolmach mostly works with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. He selects his grapes from 14 different properties.

As for his winemaking style, Tolmach says: “In business, it’s really easy to produce something universally appealing…but if you’re really into craft, you don’t do that. You have to fight that.”

Below are a few of our favorite Ojai Vineyard wines along with tasting notes. We strongly urge you to sample these unique vintages — or better yet visit this extraordinarily lovely area while it’s still under the radar.

 

2012 Pinot Noir Kick On Ranch
$44.99 – 24 bottles available
MTW 95, Antonio Galloni – 93
Why the name “Kick On”? — The owner of Kick On Ranch, who produces for Adam Tolmach, is an avid fox hunter. Kick On is a hunting term meaning to persevere. Why persevere? Simply because the Los Alamos area is challenging for wine growing: wind, fog and the funneling effect brought about by the three river valleys (Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez) are the culprits.

The 2012 Kick On Pinot was fully destemmed and picked on the early side. Antonio Galloni calls the wine “soft and caressing, but also exceptionally striking and bright in its purity.” He also awarded the wine with a 93-point rating.

 

Fabien Castel, General Manager at Ojai Vineyards. Photo by Marla Norman.

2014 Ojai Pinot Noir Santa Barbara
$31.99 – 24 bottles available
MTW 92
Ojai is renown for its Pinot Noir, thereby Tolmach’s appreciation for Burgundy. Fabien Castel, General Manager at Ojai Vineyards, shared with us that during both the 2010 and 2011 harvests, the fruit was picked when the temperatures were quite cool, resulting in lower sugar levels. Consequently, both vintages are very aromatic, with remarkable freshness and liveliness. That experience was enough to convince the team to move in that direction.

We found the 2014 to be quite juicy and fleshy. Its color was gorgeous and although the wine was still very young, it exhibited a pleasant complexity and was the perfect accompaniment to a selection of Burgundian cheeses. (delicious!)

The blend for this wine mostly comes from the Kick On Ranch Vineyard with additional fruit from Bien Nacido, Puerta del Mar and Solomon Hills

 

 

2015 Ojai Pinot Noir Bien Nacido
$41.99 – 24 bottles available
New release, no ratings as yet.
Adam Tolmach began making Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido in 1991. He says: “I chose this section years ago after observing that the vines there were endowed with a natural evenness of vigor, which is important for maximizing flavor from the crop. So our rows couple great soils with the site’s virtue of being just 14 miles from the cold Pacific Ocean. The slope here has the vines facing the full force of the westerly wind and fog, and the Pinot Noir here boasts a distinct character and fine balance from year to year.”

This particular vintage comes after a three-year drought. Berries in 2015 were small and dense. The result is a unique expression with structure and density, ripe cherries and fresh strawberry flavors.

2014 Ojai Syrah Santa Barbara
$28.99 – 24 bottles available
Antonio Galloni – 92
We didn’t sample this vintage, but Antonio Galloni rates this Syrah as “a superb appellation-level wine from Ojai. Black pepper, lavender, menthol, licorice, cloves and sage abound in a deep, fleshy wine bursting at the seams with character and personality. Expressive blue and purplish-hued fruits and grippy tannins leave a lasting impression.”

And Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate describes the wine as “possessing lots of cool climate characteristics in its peppery, blackberry, violets and mineral-laced aromas and flavors, the 2014 Syrah Santa Barbara is fresh, elegant and medium-bodied on the palate, with nicely integrated acidity and fine tannin. It’s a classy, easy drinking Syrah that has real character.”

2014 Ojai Solomon Hills Chardonnay
$29.99 – 24 bottles available
MTW 94, Robert Parker – 93, Antonio Galloni – 93
We found this Chardonnay to be an absolute treat! Doesn’t at all exhibit tropical aspects, but a lean style, more adapted to food, with beautiful minerality. The winemaker notes mention lemon curd, wet stones and a touch of nutmeg. All those flavors marry each other very well and the saline component that is present throughout is a nice break from the usual rich, ripe feeling. Great mouthfeel, reminiscent of the better Hamilton Russell Chardonnays from South Africa.

The vineyard is located in the Westernmost side of the Santa Maria Valley appellation and the salinity comes from the nearby Pacific coastline. A side note: the vineyard is named after Salomon Pico, celebrated 1850s bandit, who many believe inspired the legend of Zorro!

Finally, from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: This Chardonnay “offers ample apple, brioche, flowers and spice characteristics with a beautiful saline quality on the finish. Medium to full-bodied, layered and perfectly balanced, enjoy this classic Santa Barbara County Chardonnay over the coming 5-7 years. I always love my visits with Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Fabien Castel, and it’s always an educational and enlightening tasting as I’m able to taste through a multitude of different sites spread throughout Santa Barbara County.”

Call 850-687-1370 or write [email protected] to order.