Wine and Wisdom

Joe Hurliman of Herzog Wine Cellars shares some perspective on the Ventura County wine industry.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by T Christian Gapen


oe Hurliman has been a major player in the Ventura County wine scene since its inception. Joining Herzog Wine Cellars as head winemaker in 1998, he was instrumental in establishing its state-of-the-art winery in Oxnard, and has watched as other wineries blossomed throughout the area. He sat down with Ventana Monthly to discuss the local wine industry and what he envisions for the future.†

When did you first come to Ventura County?
Iíve always made wine in the Central Coast. After eight years helping establish Alban Vineyards [in San Luis Obispo County] and being the assistant wine maker, I needed a new, dynamic challenge. Iím an adrenaline junkie ó I needed a new opportunity to fulfill that personal urge for being excited about a project. [With Herzog] I thought, ďIt would be great to evolve kosher wine to the next level.Ē I moved them to a facility in Santa Maria in 1998; that was my first real project. We were there for eight years, and I knew the Herzog family was interested in doing a winery of their own. That was another thing that was exciting to me.

So you helped establish the Oxnard winery, which opened in 2005. What were you picturing during the planning?
First and foremost, the breadth of what we do. We designed this facility to produce value-priced wine but also small-lot winemaking. By doing that, you give the community the ability to come in and appreciate an $8-10 bottle of wine, but also experience a reserve wine. It also gives customers a chance to see a stainless-steel cellar, a barrel room, and understand the importance of temperature, humidification, French versus American oak. . . . We can also provide many different varietals. We can cover many aspects of what the wine industry has to present. Itís something of an education.

Speaking beyond Herzog, how do you think the Ventura County wine industry as a whole is different from other winemaking regions in California ó Santa Barbara, for example?
Santa Barbara is interesting because you have the urban area thatís very different from Santa Ynez or Los Alamos. That drives the experience. In Ventura County, itís really driven by the entrepreneurial aspect. You have so many wineries that have really evolved from an entrepreneurial aspect from peopleís love of wine. Entrepreneurs are bringing wine tasting and the whole winery experience to an area that historically did not have that many wineries. Thatís exciting! People from different worlds and backgrounds are opening up wineries.

How are local wines different?
You have a real blend and mix of producers doing historically Italian varietals, or Rhone varietals. Maybe itís the kaleidoscope aspect of whatís available in Ventura County ó because the majority of grapes are outsourced. The beauty is that itís in its infancy. Youíre getting all these styles coming out of one small winemaking area.

How has our wine industry changed over the last 10-15 years?
People in the community have come to understand that there are wineries here. What they bring to the area, in terms of entertainment (events and tastings and so on) has continuously grown.

And what do these wineries bring to the area, in your opinion?
Hopefully itís an opportunity to mingle with a variety of people in a situation where you can get so much give and take about wine or food. Itís a way for people to come together and have an enjoyable time. Itís what life should be about.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Ventura County wine industry?
Ventura Countyís wine industry is still very much emerging. We may have award-winning wines and recognizable brands, but as a county, we havenít yet established roots as a nationally known wine destination.†

How are these challenges different than those faced by vintners in Napa/Sonoma, Paso Robles or Santa Barbara?
These regions have spent decades operating as growing regions and tourist attractions. This has allowed them to offer older vintages and cultivate long-established partnerships. A commonality of nearly every winery in Ventura County is that itís less than 15 years old ĖĖ compared to Napa Valley, which was establish in the 1960s. Because of this, most of the support for Ventura Countyís wineries come from locals and neighboring cities.

What, in your opinion, is the key to overcoming these obstacles?
Time and awareness. Iíd love for locals seeking wine country to know that itís right here in their backyard. Iíd also love for the wine enthusiasts planning a summer vacation to know that they can visit a number of wineries and taste a wide range of varieties while staying in a beachfront hotel for likely far less than a trip to Napa would cost them.†

What changes do you think will take place in the local wine industry heading into the future?
I would think that the successful wineries that have been established here in Ventura County will continue to grow. They may branch out into different varietals. I would also think that . . . some individuals that have gone to work at these wineries will branch out. That is how you may see a real snowball effect in what this area can be.

What do you personally hope to see in Ventura County? What do you think would be good for the local wine industry?
A continuation of local wineries producing great wine and pleasant experiences!†

For more on Joe Hurliman, visit

The handsome tasting and barrel rooms at Herzog Winery in Oxnard were designed so that ďthe community [has] the ability to come in and appreciate an $8-10 bottle of wine, but also experience a reserve wine. It also gives customers a chance to see a stainless-steel cellar, a barrel room, and understand the importance of temperature, humidification, French versus American oak. . . . Itís something of an education.Ē Photos by Michael Moore.


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