The Ojai Vineyard

This past week I had the good luck to be able to attend a lunch tasting with Mr. & Mrs. Tolmach, long-time owners and proprietors of The Ojai Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.

The Ojai Vineyard is a winery whose wines I have tasted on and off throughout the years but never really had the chance to get properly acquainted with. In one of my reference works to the new generation of West Coast wineries (The New California Wine by Jon Bonné) the following is written;

Having decided in the mid-2000s to dial back his winemaking to a more subtle style, Adam Tolmach has again found the beauty that brought him to acclaim in the 1980s.

And subtle it is. All of the wines showed a delicate oak handling and precision of fruit rather than exhibition of power. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most of the talking today was done by Adam, who originally started the winery Au Bon Climat together with Jim Clendenen after their graduation from UC Davis in 1982. To his and his partners minds they were the future of California winemaking. Today, Adam told us, it’s still difficult for him to make peace with the fact that they were part not only of the future of California wine but also of the origins. Winemaking after prohibition didn’t really take off until the end of the 60’s. And in 1982 the 1976 tasting was only six years past, a new generation of winemakers were graduating, and surely California wine must have seemed like one great frontier…

Adam actually met his wife Helen while both were picking grapes for the Au Bon Climat harvest. After courting and marrying it was time for a separation, albeit from his partner Jim and not from Helen. While Jim continued on with Au Bon Climat Adam and Helen turned to a small property in Oakville that had been left to Adam by his grandfather, and founded The Ojai Vineyard.

Even though the winery is located between Ojai and Ventura most of the vineyards are between one and a half to two hours northwest. The grapes are mostly harvested at night and transported to the winery before morning, so there has never really been an issue with the distance. In addition the ripening time between the different vineyards is substantial, so there’s never a question of trying to harvest everything at once.

Now this is definitely not a direct quote, but if one word seemed to define Adams retoric during the tasting it was craft, a word that’s easy to understand but difficult to pin down.

“Craft is all about NOT finding a formula, you always want your wines to be that much better.”

So how does one manage this when one almost exclusively makes wine from bought grapes? According to Adam one of the most important aspects is the fact that they buy the grapes per hectar and not by weight. This way the farmers aren’t lured into trying to maximize the yields, but can focus on helping the grapes perform their best. It’s also a security for the growers in poor years, while the winery can dictate yields and technique in another way.

2014 Chardonnay Puerta del Mar

Puerta del Mar is something as unusual as a vineyard funded with California public employees retirement system money. The vineyard is very closely planted and in a close proximity to the ocean. Ojai Vineyards has been buying fruit from this site just outside of Lompoc since 2011, and it’s actually the coolest vineyard that they work with.

The wine itself is quite discrete and a bit closed. The aging has been done in older French oak barrels to keep the clarity of the fruit. The wine has hints of cold butter and white bread. Nice mouth grip with a fresh, invigorating acidity. A good deal of dry compounds and a good length. A small hint of pear and sage together with reoccurring aromas round up the experience.

2014 Riesling Kick On

This riesling is from a vineyard consisting mostly of soil from old sea bed on Kick On Ranch. The vineyard is quite windy and sand-based. The fruit ripens late, which means the hang-time is very long. Very pale color The nose has carries hints of Tupperware and green melon. High, perky acidity. Short to middle length and quite anonymous aftertaste. It’s nice enough, but not what I would expect from a single vineyard at that price level.

2014 Sauvignon Blanc McGinley

The McGinley area is in quite a warm area. It’s saving grace is the extremely poor shale soils, which causes the vines to grow with a very low vigor. Good balance on the nose with aromas of green melon, spring onions and ramson. Good structure, nice acidity focused to the back of the mouth, lovely minerality. Short to middle length, elegant, with a fruit in the finish more reminiscent of Alto Adige than Loire. Lovely.

2014 Pinot Noir

In the 90’s Adam Tolmach confesses to have aimed mostly towards maximum extraction, but going from 3 punch downs a day to 1 brought out more flowers and elegance in the fruit and thus he has changed his method of operation when it concerns the red wines.

Rose red with thin violet rim. Enticing aroma of ripe raspberries, orange peel and lavender. Mature tannins with finesse. Dry mouth feel, integrated acidity, reoccurring aromas.

2013 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido

Bien Nacido is if anything a cool climate vineyard. The part of this iconic vineyard that goes into The Ojai Vineyard wine is situated on a high hillside above the rest of the vineyard and is a co-plantation between older vines from 1973 and younger ones planted in between the rows. Pink with red center. Quite vivacious raspberry fruit with herbaceous elements and a slight alcoholic whiff on the nose. Dry, slightly twiggy aromas.

I like 2013 for the pinto noir, but all three [2013, 2014 and 2015] are easy going and drinking well young.”

2012 Pinot Noir Solomon Hills

The Solomon Hills vineyard is west of Bien Nacido by a few miles.

Darker than the Bien Nacido. More aromas of mature cherries and quince. Juicy, mature acidity and medium, tongue-focused tannins. Middle length, reoccurring with hints of blood orange.

2013 Syrah

Wide open nose with morels, fresh black pepper, a dash of sichuan and bramble. Integrated and fresh but calm acidity, a notable potassium kick (they’re using more and more whole clusters and stems in their vinification according to Adam). Reoccurring aromas with a welcome addition of pencil. In my layman opinion they would do well to cut down on the stems but keep at it with the whole clusters when it comes to this cuvée.

2013 Syrah John Sebastiano

John Sebastiano is located on the northeastern edge of Santa Rita Hills. The vineyard really catches the wind which has a cooling effect on the grapes.

Somewhat darker, somewhat richer than the regular syrah with dense tears and aromas of liquorice root, home cooked plum compote and lilacs. Good start, but the middle is slightly anemic and leaves one wanting, especially since the finish is slightly unbalanced. It has a good acidity though and big mature tannins made for maturation.

All in all this was a great tasting. Getting to know the wines and the people really helped flesh out the winery for me. It was to my own surprise that I left the tasting with the sauvignon and the regular pinot noir as my highmarks of the day, but to be honest I’m always happier when I can give a medal to the underdog.

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