Wine Tasting, Ventura County, California Style

You have to love a wine tasting adventure that is nestled between a national forest and the sparkly Pacific Ocean. A destination that doesn’t get the proper respect it deserves yet continues to strive to showcase its fine wineries, classic beach culture, and amazing culinary scene. When you can just hop in the car for a short drive from the LA, Inland Empire, or San Diego area, experience year round temps in the 70’s, and take an easy, breezy 2 -day break… what could possibly be keeping you back? My stay was an eye-opener to say the least, and you’ll see why when you read on about wine trippin’ in Ventura County, California.

A traveler friend of mine actually encouraged me to check out the wine scene in Ventura County. I, being the opened minded individual I think of myself as, thought, “Are you kidding me – what could that area possible offer that I couldn’t find to the south in Temecula, or to the north in Santa Barbara.” I take it all back; Ventura County is a great place to visit for some unique wine tasting opportunities, a romantic or energetic walk on the beach, and noshing on some great food. I started my research on the Ventura Visitors Convention & Bureau Web site which lead me to the perfect wine adventure – the Wine Trail Tour. Offered Saturday and Sundays this six-hour tour is an inexpensive way ($85.00 per person) to get to know 4 wineries and have a gourmet lunch. Transportation is included which makes it easy to sit back and enjoy the scenery and wines.

My husband and I arrived at the Ventura Visitors Center on California Street at 10:45 AM. We were welcomed with a big smile by greeter Donna Frances and introduced to Jose our limo driver. We were immediately whisked off to our first destination, the Rancho Ventavo Cellars tasting room located in Oxnard’s Historic Heritage Square. This is a small lot, family owned winery featuring high quality artesian red and white wines produced from exceptional vineyards throughout California. The wines are divided into the Cream & Black Label Series. The Cream Label Series wines bear the characteristics of the terroir from hand selected vineyards. Wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo and Zinfandel. The Black Label Series is inspired by the unique opportunities that come from an array of small lot, unusual varietal wines. Each wine reveals layers of flavors and subtleties that come from skilled winemaking and attention to detail. The varietals in this series include Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Pinot Noir and our special Majecc.

Our visit included a knowledgeable and delicious guided six-taste wine tasting with owner Faye Gilpatrick. I loved that Faye accompanied the tasting with a small plate of complementary cheeses, crackers and chocolate. Every taste was a winner, but I especially enjoyed the 2008 Sierra Foothills Late Harvest Zin. Done in a light port style, it’s an elegant $29.00 treat on its own or will pair well with dark chocolate, sharp cheeses and believe it or not... popcorn or caramel corn. Barrel aged 11 months, 16.2% alc. Definitely a great place to start my exploration of Ventura County wines.

Back in the limo we listened to Smooth Jazz as Jose took us to the next stop about 10 minutes away, Herzog Wine Cellars. This winery, tasting room, and restaurant is located in an industrial park, which in no way diminishes the trendy look and feel of the Herzog experience. Herzog may best be known for its stylish 4-levels of Kosher wines (every day to library selections) and the yummy Tierra Sur restaurant. It’s a spacious welcoming place that could easily take up a couple of hours of your time. Ask for a tour to learn about the fascinating history of the family and its winemaking efforts. We enjoyed a light pre-fixed lunch of melon gazpacho soup and lima bean pasta with venison pancetta at the restaurant. The restaurant was busy, and for good reason. Chef Todd Aron’s fare is smartly served and tasted delicious. My wine pick for this property is the totally affordable 2007 Baron Herzog Central Coast Merlot. This $13.00 beauty is soft and approachable, fruit-forward and nicely showcases strawberry jam and berry aromas. It had a rich mouth feel and finish.

About 30 minutes away, our third stop was the Casa Barranca tasting room in Ojai’s downtown area. Casa Barranca specializes in boutique wines handcrafted from organic grapes. They believe in, ", natural, and sustainable practices" as they continue to strive for optimal balance in their approach to wine making. Their organic tasting menu includes Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, and red blends, including a no sulfites added Arts & Crafts Red. I enjoyed the feel of the tasting room with its plein air paintings by Ojai artist Jennifer Moses, tables, murals, mosaic planters and decorative tiles from RTK Tiles, and inspired murals by artist Michael Brown. Retail offerings include Laguiole corkscrews, Eisch breathable glass stemware, wine accessories, and unique, environmentally friendly gifts . The best time to visit this tasting room is on Saturdays when most of their offerings are available to taste.

Our last winery stop was the fabulous Old Creek Ranch Winery. Another family owned, small lot winery, it overlooks the entrance to an old cattle ranch at the end of Old Creek Road at the bottom of the Ojai Valley. This was probably our favorite stop of the day. These guys are making serious wine, sourcing grapes by leasing portions of premier vineyards such as Branham Obsidian Vineyard (Napa), and from Santa Barbara County, Stolpman Vineyards, Sanford Benedict Vineyard, White Hawk Vineyard, Vogelzang Vineyard, McGinley Vineyard (formally Westerly), and Estelle Vineyard. Owner John Whitman spent over an hour with us explaining his wine philosophy and letting us taste numerous barrel samples. This is WOW city folks. Their beautiful, well-structured wines sell out for a reason. I generally know I’ve met a master, when the owners and winemakers express a definite interest in letting the grapes tell the story of the wine, just helping it along a bit to let, “The attributes of the wine be all it can be. “ My favorite of the tasting was the 2007, $24 Santa Barbara County Syrah showcasing aromas of berries and spices and flavors of plum and blueberry. The OMG wine – the ’08 Pitite Sirah – is not yet released, but when it is sometime next year you MUST get it to experience the big gorgeous aromas of berry fruits, earthy smoke and coffee. Expect big blackberry and blueberry notes with firm but supple tannins. All in in all, make sure you visit this winery to see a rock-star in the making.

Returning from the six-hour wine tasting tour, we pulled into our nearby accommodations for the evening, the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach Hotel. This is a classy beach front property that typifies the best a beach community hotel has to offer: excellent service, direct beach access, gorgeous views, a trendy lobby bar, glass windows everywhere, and spacious rooms. What a treat to be within walking distance of the downtown area, AMTRAK, and have bike rentals outside the front door. Adjacent to Ventura’s Historic Pier, there is something very very special about gazing out your view window, or throwing open the balcony doors to hear the soothing sounds of waves crashing against the white sand beach. This is stunning property from the moment you wake up to the time your head touches the pillow for the night. And hey, be sure to at least visit their Web site , so you can hear the beautiful sounds of the ocean! Book on their Web site and you’re guaranteed the lowest price available anywhere.

After a short rest and change of clothes, on a recommendation from the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau, we were off to The Sidecar Restaurant on E Main St near downtown Ventura. The Sidecar Restaurant is located in a historic 1910 Pullman Car. The setting certainly makes for a fun, interesting setting and sets the mood for great things to come. Award-winning chef/owner Tim Kilcoyne produces a farm-driven menu that shouts elegant comfort food. He has won praise for his environmental efforts and amazing cuisine. His agricultural roots play a big part in his fresh, simple local menu offerings. This is a restaurant where you can come as you are and expect a first class dining experience featuring white table cloths, professional attentive servers, and a serene upscale atmosphere. It’s hard to believe that most if not all items are under $30.00 making this an affordable night out. My husband ordered the braised short ribs and I ordered the Sidecar Burger. Both were cooked and served to perfection. This is farm fresh, comfort food at its best. Expect an extensive wine list featuring local wines and a fresh dessert menu based on seasonal ingredients. If you are lucky enough to be in town on a Tuesday night, FOR SURE, check out their Grilled Cheese and Jazz Night.

My recommendation is to explore this sun-splashed artsy, organic and eclectic beach community ASAP; not just for its emerging wine region, but for adventurous hiking on the Channel Islands, shopping treasures , art galleries, magnificent gardens, ghost hunting, harbor exploration, and the historic Ventura Theatre. And if that’s not enough, there’s Saturday night dining and dancing July-September at the historic Olivia Adobe where you can enjoy top recording artists performing an array of live music from zydeco to swing, and everything in between. Fall, winter, spring, or summer this is a special place. I’ll be back.

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