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The Grapes of Shangri-La

Two decades after a disease decimated the region’s vineyards, a growing cadre of winemakers is again asking the question, “Can the Ojai Valley become a world-class wine growing spot?”

By Matt Kettmann—Principal Photography by Gaszton Gal

At Manfred and Elaine Krankl’s “home ranch” in Oak View, Scottish Highland cattle graze while the new winery produces legendary cult wine Sine Qua Non – and now, Next of Kyn, a red blend made exclusively from grapes grown on the property.

Thirty years ago, the future of wine grape growing in the Ojai Valley was almost blindingly bright. Old Creek Ranch Winery had planted about 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc while, across San Antonio Creek, a young UC Davis-educated winemaker named Adam Tolmach decided to plant five-and-a-half acres of syrah and sauvignon blanc on land his grandfather purchased in 1933. “There was good potential,” recalled Tolmach of his first vintages in the mid-1980s. “Some turned out quite well.”

Martin Ramirez has planted upwards of 15 vineyards in the Ojai Valley.

But in the early 1990s, both Old Creek and Tolmach’s Ojai Vineyard were being strangled by a vine-suffocating louse known as Pierce’s disease, and the hopes for Ojai Valley as a world-class wine region were nearly dashed on the wings of the sharpshooter bug that spread the plague. Though his property’s last harvest was 1995, Tolmach managed to keep the Ojai experiment alive by suggesting two years earlier that a vineyard of syrah be planted upon the Roll Ranch in Upper Ojai, far away from the creek beds where sharpshooters preferred to hang out. The pests didn’t come, and the syrah grapes grew as they should in a warm climate: full of juicy, fruit-forward goodness, but with enough balance to make excellent wine.

Martin and Adam Tolmach check the progress of grenache and barbera grapes at one of the Valley’s young vineyards.

“There’s something magic about the Roll,” said Tolmach, who’s gone on to become one of California’s winemaking legends, in part for his Ojai gamble but mainly because of the cooler climate wines he sources from Santa Barbara County. “We are able to catch all of that exuberant fruit before all of the acidity is gone.”

Many of Tolmach’s wines, handcrafted in Oak View since 1983, are made from grapes sourced in Santa Barbara County.

Such disease-free, award-winning success over the past 15 years at Roll Ranch has steadily inspired others to plant grapes in the Ojai Valley, and today there’s even talk of petitioning the federal government to list the region as its own appellation. It’s still way too early to declare Ojai the next Napa—or even the next Westside Paso Robles, which more closely mirrors its warmer growing conditions—but with six commercial vineyards now in production and a dozen or so more popping up with regularity in backyards from Casitas Vista to Dennison Grade, it might not be too long before tourists and locals alike start thinking seriously about tasting rooms and vineyard tours in this already epicurean-minded corner of Ventura County.

The tasting room at Old Creek Ranch. Kristine Ellison Photography

Roll Ranch may have never blossomed if it weren’t for Martin Ramirez, the day laborer-turned-viticulturist who Tolmach calls “a genius with the farming.” But it’s 100 percent certain that the current Ojai Valley vineyard explosion would have never sparked at all if it weren’t for his Johnny Appleseed-like role in planting grapes throughout the region. Ramirez, meanwhile, attributes the proliferation of local vines to Tolmach’s success. “Everyone wanted to grow grapes for Adam’s syrah,” he said. “That was the dream.”

As owner of The Vineyards of Ojai, Ramirez—who took over at Roll in the mid-‘90s—has planted and cares for more than 15 Ojai vineyards, from small backyard plots of private homeowners to the certified organic vineyard of syrah, grenache, semillon, and viognier grapes at Casa Barranca. (He’s actually spread the vineyard trend to backyards in Camarillo, Agoura Hills, Carpinteria, and other spots as well.)

Morning light at Boccali Vineyards & Winery. Kristine Ellison Photography

“What we find with the grapes here in Ojai is that they are really fruity because of the warm weather,” said Martinez, who’s constantly expanding the region’s palette of varietals, from the known Rhônes (syrah, grenache, viognier) and popular Bordeauxs (cab, cab franc, sauvignon blanc) to riesling, nebbiolo, sangiovese, barbera, and tempranillo. “We’re trying a lot of different stuff, and leaning toward Italian grapes because they tolerate heat and hold their acids very well,” said Ramirez, who is also seeking to start his own winery with his friend Bruce Freeman. The winery, called Clos de Amis, or “Circle of Friends,” will source from the numerous vineyards he manages around town.

DeWayne Boccali draws on his five-plus decades of farming experience to grow wine grapes in Upper Ojai. Kristine Ellison Photography

The folks at Noble Oaks, located near the Ojai Valley Inn, are also exploring slightly more obscure varietals. “Originally it was just a malbec vineyard,” said Anne Cuthbert of her family’s one-acre plot that was planted in 2002, “but two years ago, we decided to switch some of it over to tannat.” Her dad, John Cuthbert, a retired mechanical engineer, quickly admits it’s an unusual grape, but one of the most intense reds available. “Not many people have had it,” he said. “But once people try it, they’ll like it.”

The new Sine Qua Non winery’s straight lines and contemporary style hint at avant-garde tendencies.

The Cuthberts are also leading the charge to get the Ojai Valley listed as its own American Viticultural Area, or AVA, which is federal-speak for appellation. The application is about 90 percent done, but no one’s sure what the government will do. “Until you submit,” said the elder Cuthbert, “you don’t know how they’re going to react.”

Manfred and Elaine Krankl.

“We’re definitely supportive of the Ojai Valley AVA,” enthused Ojai Ridge owner Mark Dufau, who planted six-and-a-half acres of syrah and cabernet sauvignon atop 1,400-foot-high Sulfur Mountain in 1999. “It’s great syrah country. It has a lot of potential to be a destination for wineries.” A third generation Ventura County resident whose dad is a farmer from Oxnard, Dufau uses only Ojai grapes for his wine and says the results are consistently nice each year. “If someone wants to taste something that’s truly locally grown, try us,” said Dufau, noting that other winemakers tend to source grapes from other regions as well. “That’s how we really distinguish ourselves from the rest of the people making wines in the county.”

Wineries typically number barrels. The Krankls “name” them, identifying vintages by theme. In 2010 they used some of their favorite artists. Here, a painting by John Currin. “We love art,” Manfred explains, “and art and wine are very much – or should be very much – in synchronicity.”

Although perhaps best known for Boccali’s Pizza & Pasta restaurants in Ojai and Oak View, the Boccali family has been in the agriculture business for 60 years, and started their vineyard operation in 2003 by ripping out their yuletide crops. “We basically got out of Christmas trees and put in wine grapes,” said Joe Boccali, who makes the wine that his dad, DeWayne, grows beneath the Topa Topas, including syrah, cab, zinfandel, viognier, and grenache blanc.

It was no surprise to the Boccalis that the grapes are doing well, for the property was home to a vineyard from the 1890s until it petered out after Prohibition. “The original homesteaders of the land knew what they were looking for and it worked for them,” said the younger Boccali. But best of all, they can now serve their homemade wine to the masses who have come to love their home-style food. “We’ve always been local farmers, and people are finally starting to realize that locally grown is as important as organic,” said Boccali. “We’re excited to be able to taste wines that are truly from Ventura County.”

Probably the most promising thing about grape growing in the Ojai Valley is that it’s home to one of the modern wine world’s most worshipped icons—Manfred Krankl, whose limited production Sine Qua Non wines have attracted a cult following around the world. The Austrian-born former Los Angeles restaurateur had been making wine out of a dusty warehouse on Ventura Avenue since the 1990s, and recently completed a stunning, contemporary-styled winery on the 205-acre ranch next to Lake Casitas where he and his wife, Elaine, have lived for nearly two decades.

Manfred Krankl is famous for huge Rhône-style reds.

The June 2010 cover boy of Wine Spectator magazine whose ridiculously sought after wines sell for hundreds of dollars, Krankl planted six acres of syrah, grenache, and rousanne on his Oak View property in 2004, adding another six or so acres of mourvedre, petite sirah, touriga nacional (a Portuguese grape usually used in port), and petit manseng (a French white) along the way.

“The terrain is so different and the climate is so different than anything else we have,” explained Krankl, who also owns Santa Barbara County vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills and Los Alamos. “We wanted to make something exclusively from the site.” So in June 2010, he put together a package called Next of Kyn—wine made at the new winery with grapes grown exclusively on the ranch—that included three bottles and one magnum of his Oak View wine, bound together by the hefty price tag of $1,100. Then he sent an email blast to his aficionados, both the 1,500 members of his wine club and the “multiple thousands” more who are waiting to be, some for as long as six years, and offered the package as a first-replied/first-served sale. “The whole thing sold out in less than three minutes,” he said, his casual laugh belying what was definitely the loudest Ojai Valley wine advertisement in history.

Adam Tolmach (left) is known for crafting delicate, refined wines.

As the most well known vintners to plant wine grapes in the Ojai Valley again, the Krankls have fended off questions about Pierce’s disease for years, and happily report that they’ve never seen a sharpshooter in their traps, which have been out since day one. But Manfred is quick to argue that, even if it were to strike again, the folks like him who are meticulously growing small vineyards would be able to manage it properly.

For Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard, he’s got his fingers crossed that the scientists at UC Davis will come up with a safe cure for Pierce’s disease in the near future, allowing him to plant his home vineyard once again. But until then, he’s still having a blast fermenting juice in his Oak View barns and offering sips at his new tasting room in downtown Ojai, three decades since he began.

“You don’t ever achieve perfection—it’s striving toward perfection that’s the fascinating thing,” he explained. “Every harvest brings you new problems, and hopefully you grow as a person. I don’t ever get tired of it.” ­­

07-01-2011

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