PICTURED: Jimmy Earl (left) and Mitch Forman at The Grape on Aug. 22, 2022. Photo by Seth Brandes
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
2733 E. Main St., Ventura
The life history of The Grape is a convoluted one. From Camarillo to Ventura, from winery to nightclub, shifting ownership, changing spaces, shutdowns and remodels and a years-long-delayed reopening, its story is full of twists and turns, as tangled as a mature vine.
It was first planted, if you will, in Camarillo in 2003, when Carolyn Taylor and Gwen Ripplinger opened a make-your-own-wine shop that they called Squashed Grapes. Josh McNutt, a home winemaking hobbyist, started working there and eventually purchased the shop. One day, shortly after taking over ownership, an East Texas native named Adam Randall walked in, “trying to sell me insurance,” McNutt recalls with a chuckle.
The chance meeting yielded both a friendship and a business partnership that has flourished through the years.
Randall came on as a co-owner around 2009, and the two moved the enterprise to Midtown Ventura (near the corner of Main and Seaward) a few years later. It was here that the venue would truly take root, as a small but dedicated fan base began to grow.
“We started as a winery,” Randall confirms. Small batch, locally made wines were its stock in trade, designed to be consumed sooner rather than later.
One day, opportunity came knocking when local musician Dano Marino walked through the door. He was looking for a gig and thought that Squashed Grapes would be the perfect spot for a weekly acoustic set. He started playing on Fridays during happy hour wine tastings, and was an immediate hit.
“People started coming for the music,” Randall recalls.
So McNutt and Randall started booking local acts — largely jazz, since that seemed like the best fit for a winery. Before long, Squashed Grapes became a local hot spot, known more for the bands than the beverages. In short: Music became the driving force.
“Once it started to build . . . we decided to build a stage,” says Randall. “It just kind of morphed into a jazz club.”
Hot spot for hep cats
On the one hand, you could say that this winery-turned-nightclub offered an experience that duplicated what many people think of when they hear the words “jazz club”: small, crowded, low tech but deliciously atmospheric. And Squashed Grapes’ small, narrow footprint definitely lent itself well to that. The wine barrels used as tables weren’t just for the aesthetics, but a pragmatic choice for two winemakers that had limited space and a growing clientele.
And in that environment, where the tunes were as searing as the indoor temperature, some of the best names from near and far came to play. The late, great Hans Ottsen, of course, was a regular from the beginning, as was Karl Hunter, sax player for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy; flamenco guitarist Tony Ybarra; Oxnard’s own musical prodigy Rachel Flowers; drummer Danny Carey (Tool, Carole King) and local hot jazz act Barrelhouse Wailers. But world-renowned musicians found their way to Squashed Grapes, too, including Don Randi (who played with everyone from the Beach Boys to Frank Zappa), Mike Garson (David Bowie’s pianist) and David Liebman (Miles Davis and Chick Corea).
So how does a tiny little wine bar in a small beach town between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara land so many giants of jazz?
According to McNutt, if you build it, they will come.
“They are almost constantly calling us,” he says. “Adam was even getting calls on vacation.”
McNutt explains that Squashed Grapes developed a reputation for treating musicians well, “treating them like they’re the important part of the puzzle . . . because they are.”
And, as Randall notes, “There are so few jazz clubs” — making a place like Squashed Grapes stand out to any jazz musician looking for gigs. “I would say that the majority of our acts come from referrals from other musicians.”
Weathering the storms
Squashed Grapes’ first Ventura location became so popular that McNutt and Randall knew an expansion was in order. So in June 2017, they signed a lease on a much larger space just a few blocks away, at 2733 East Main Street — right next to longtime Mexican restaurant Yolanda’s. The plan was to put in a full bar, offer food and have a much larger space for bands to play and audiences to enjoy.
They were in the middle of acquiring all the various permits for remodeling, as well as obtaining a liquor license, when the Thomas Fire of December 2017 brought everything to a halt. City hall shut down for weeks, city officials were overwhelmed with homeowners trying to rebuild and staffing changes seemed to cause delays for every piece of paperwork McNutt and Randall submitted.
The proprietors did what they could to manage. They offered a music series called Jazz Express at the Hong Kong Inn (now Vaquero Y Mar) for a while, and Squashed Grapes fans organized a benefit concert, too. Things finally started getting back on track in 2019, and McNutt and Randall found a contractor for significant remodeling of the new space.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“All that PPP [paycheck protection program] money — we didn’t get anything,” says McNutt. “We didn’t have any employees, and the business hadn’t been open yet, so we didn’t qualify. We didn’t qualify for a cent from anybody.”
McNutt tried to keep the winery side of the business going. Due to a variety of licensing and legal reasons, the winery couldn’t be housed in the same space as the music venue. So for a time, there was a spot called The Winery off of Market, which offered bottle sales. When outdoor dining and music were permitted in the summer of 2020, The Winery made good use of it’s sizable patio — lots of lights and other festive decorations, well-spaced tables and a stage that was situated safely from diners. But when COVID surges in the fall led to more closures, The Winery couldn’t quite hang on. The landlord got an offer on the building in November 2020 and McNutt and Randall “had to walk away from everything about the winery,” McNutt says.
The one thing the numerous delays and closures offered the two nightclub owners was time . . . which they used to their advantage.
“We had months before we could open,” McNutt recalls, and they didn’t have the funds to pay a contractor . . . so they did much of the work themselves.
Randall, who had learned furniture making during the pandemic, built a beautiful new bar top. Wife Tiffanie, bar manager G and McNutt all pitched in with other tasks: painting, tilework in the bathrooms, decor, etc. The old, smaller stage was replaced with a much larger one, and a state-of-the-art sound system and acoustic paneling were installed. Technical help came via Leon Parkhouse, a longtime friend of both club owners who happens to be an engineer. (Fun fact: Parkhouse is married to Karen Parkhouse, frontwoman of the Barrelhouse Wailers.)
Now named The Grape, the jazz club officially opened on Oct. 1, 2021, with a curated wine list, local brews on tap and a craft cocktail menu. Fans of the former Squashed Grapes were excited to return, as were many of the venue’s regular musicians, like Ottsen and Ybarra.
And just like the old place, the new one has brought a lively energy to Midtown Ventura, an area not exactly known for its nightlife.
“People ask why we didn’t settle downtown,” says McNutt. “But I feel like there people are hopping from place to place. Settling here, we’ve made ourselves a local destination.”
And, indeed, while plenty of customers still show up for the music, there’s a new clientele making itself at home at the Grape.
“We have a lot of new regulars,” explains McNutt. “They live in the area and they come sit at the bar, and we now know their first names . . . we’re their neighboring watering hole. It’s pretty cool.”
McNutt and Randall have made another friend in Alex Martinez, owner of nearby Ventura Sandwich Company.
“He created a menu just for us,” Randall says. “Items you can’t get at the sandwich shop.
It’s not an extensive menu — bruschetta, a charcuterie board, some salads and paninis — but it’s well prepared and perfect for a light bite to have with a glass of wine, a cold brew or a cocktail.
Clearly, this isn’t the same Grape that longtime locals knew and loved. But it’s better — the same local vibe, but in a larger, nicer, more comfortable space with fantastic drinks and, now, some tasty eats, too.
And, of course, first-class jazz, played by amazing musicians that may not be household names, but have worked with many of the bands and musicians you do know.
“The look on people’s faces when the music just completely crushes what they expected . . . I love that,” Randall says, describing why he loves owning a jazz club.
“Everyone thinks of jazz as elevator music,” adds McNutt. “But it is so much more than that.”