Ventura County Wine 101
Locals and visitors go behind the scenes at local wineries
By Allison Costa 10/08/2009
Wine Trail Tours
(includes four wineries, gourmet snack box and transportation)
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” And, boy, today was I happy. I spent the day traveling around the county, visiting a variety of local wineries and cellars in the area. I got to taste more than 20 different wines, meet wine makers, and learn about the wine making process. No, I wasn’t dreaming. I was on one of the Ventura County Wine Trail Tours. The tours, put on by the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau, started a few months ago to introduce visitors to the bounty of local wines. Given my true love of wine and my desire to learn more, this tour and I were a match made in heaven.
After meeting at the Visitors Center, our group of six piled into the van, along with our tour guide, Alex. This former Club Med hostess, turned artist and art teacher, and now wine trail tour guide, was at ease in her role as guide and facilitator; and with her help, the initial silence in the van quickly evolved into boisterous chatter.
Within a few moments, we arrived at Old Creek Ranch Winery in Oak View, a beautiful ranch only 10 minutes from downtown Ventura. We started our tasting with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay; and since I usually pledge my allegiance to red wine, I was struck by how much I liked them. The former was fruity and light, but with the latter, I struggled to taste the green apple and toast from the oak barrel I was told to look for. I felt discouraged, but like a good therapist, the winery folks reassured me that this would come with practice and that the oak was hard to taste because this was a lighter chardonnay, aged for only 11 months in neutral oak. Visiting the barrel room, we discovered that great care goes into selecting the wood for the wine barrels; we heard about the aging process; and we got to taste freshly picked Albariño grapes and watch as they were pressed.
Our next stop was historic downtown Camarillo, where we did more tasting and enjoyed lunch at Bella Victorian Vineyard’s bistro and tasting room. There we learned about the art of pairing food with wine. As Kevin, bistro manager and resident wine expert, explained, “When paired well, food makes wine taste better; and wine makes food taste better.”
We tasted a syrah with a sampling of dark chocolate. After sipping the wine, which Kevin explained “takes the oil away from the palette” and then tasting the chocolate, we got pure chocolate taste; and when we tasted the wine again after the chocolate, it tasted even better. I was starting to grasp this intricate dance of flavors. Next, Kevin brought out their Kimberly Cuvée, a full-bodied award-winning red blend, with a dish of tiny blue cheese crumbles. The lingering blue cheese flavor allowed the pluminess of the wine, as Kevin called it, to come to the forefront, changing the experience of the wine in our mouths.
After a brief stop at the McGrath Family Farm Center, we made our way to Cantarra Cellars in Camarillo. Owners Mike and Chris Brown greeted us warmly and explained that they started by making wine in their garage, naming it Cantarra after the name of their neighborhood. After tasting a selection of reds and whites, we got to go behind the scenes, where we learned about the importance of yeast in the fermentation process. We tasted what they called a newborn merlot — basically a thick, sweet grape juice fresh from the press — and a sangiovese, straight from the barrel and six months shy of being fully aged.
Our final stop was Heritage Square in downtown Oxnard, the home of Rancho Ventavo Cellars. Owners George Kilpatrick and Faye Hawes greeted us in this beautiful historical home finished with dark oak-paneled walls and stamped tin ceilings. One member of the group commented that it was like doing a tasting in someone’s home; and given that we were weary from the long day of wine drinking, it felt nice to end in such a warm and inviting environment. Among others, we tasted and loved the 2005 Tempranillo, a feisty red from grapes originating in northern Spain.
On the ride back to Ventura, lulled by the hum of the van, I sleepily reflected on the day. After my initial stress about not tasting the oak in the chardonnay, I had learned not to take wine tasting too seriously. It is supposed to be fun, there are no right or wrong answers, and only I can decipher what tastes good to me. I discovered that wine tastes better in good company, and that six strangers can become friends in a short period of time, especially when wine is involved. And most importantly, I had decided that I just need to keep on practicing. Maybe practice won’t make me the perfect wine connoisseur, but practice will at least make me happy.