The Underground Wineletter

John Tilson – October 19th 2011

The Ojai Vineyard was started in 1983 by Adam Tolmach along with his wife Helen. Adam had been a partner with Jim Clendenen in starting Au Bon Climat in 1982. Prior to that time, he was the enologist at Zaca Mesa winery which was one of the early pioneer wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. It was there that he met Jim Clendenen. He remained a partner of Au Bon Climat until 1991 as he continued to develop his winery.

In his first year he made a small amount of Syrah at Au Bon Climat. In 1984 he built a winery on property in Oak View, California left to him by his grandfather. (Oak View is a small hamlet situated between Ojai and Ventura and not far from where I spent the first 18 years or so of my life on Ventura Avenue. So it is fair to say that I was surprised to learn years ago that there was a winery in Oak View. In my youth, a lot of this area had been home to apple and peach orchards. During the growing season we would often visit to buy fruit and apple cider at Rancho Arnaz. It was an apple orchard – over 40 different varieties of apples were grown – and packing house from the 1930s until probably sometime in the 1980s when the ownership changed and the orchards were removed.) Although there were some vines planted on the family property, Adam began by sourcing his grapes from other growers. This has continued to this day. Adam looks for cool climate vineyards in Santa Barbara County (Roll Ranch Vineyard in Ojai – Ventura County – is the sole exception) and buys the fruit by the acre. This gives him the ability to control the yields and pick the grapes at a degree of ripeness that allows him to make wines that are balanced and food friendly. Currently he works with about a dozen different growers. The production of each wine is quite small and most of the wines are vineyard designated. The total wine production has remained around 6,000 cases per year for nearly 20 years. About 20 different wines are made each year.

Adam is a quiet person with a stealth sense of humor. He is humble and down to earth. His old partner, Jim Clendenen, is a bit different being more gregarious and outgoing. But, even as their personalities may not be exactly the same, the style of wine produced by both is very similar. In fact, it seems fair to say that The Ojai Vineyard is very much related to what I have called the Holy Trinity of Winemaking (Au Bon Climat, Qupe, and Chanin). (Click here to read my article).  And, to carry it a step further, Ojai Vineyards may represent the fourth leg, albeit detached, on the stool!  All four of these wineries are dedicated to making wine in a classic style with finesse and flavor, but not overly alcoholic or over the top. Interestingly, the publicity shy Adam got embroiled in a controversy with a big numbers critic and a newspaper over comments he allegedly made about alcohol levels in wine. But, the fact is that he believes that there is room in the world for all types of wines. It’s just that he wants to make wines that are balanced, food friendly, and age well. Following are my notes on wines tasted during a recent visit with Adam and his assistant winemaker, Fabien Castel, at the winery:


Pinot Noir

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Kick On Vineyard Los Alamos. The first year for this wine was 2009 when 2 barrels were made (50 cases). This year there are 10 barrels (250 cases). The wine has a lovely color and exhibits bright fruit in a finesseful style. It is balanced and should make a lovely bottle – Very Good Potential1-barrel

2010 The OjaiVineyard PinotNoir Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa MariaValley. This promises to be a gorgeous Pinot Noir. It has a deep color and a lovely berry perfume with a floral tinge. The wine is balanced with lots of fruit and a subtle floral nuance. It is rounded and very tasty – Outstanding Potential.2-barrels

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Bien NacidoVineyard Santa Maria Valley. Ojai Vineyard has been making wine from this same parcel since 1991. The vines are now 35 years old. Twelve barrels were produced in 2010. The wine is lovely with a deep color and an intense berry perfume showing floral nuances. It has depth and richness with lots of fruit and a long finish – Outstanding Potential. 2-barrels

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard Santa Rita Hills. This vineyard was planted in 1999. I tasted three different barrels with wine made from three different clones. They were very similar with one having a bit more spice. Since the wine is not yet blended, it is not possible to give anything other than a general impression. Suffice as to say, that the wine is balanced and exhibits lots of fruit and lovely flavors. 2-barrels


2010 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Roll Ranch California. Although this wine carries a “California” designation, the Roll Ranch vineyard is actually located in upper Ojai in Ventura County (just south of Santa Barbara County).  Unlike the other cool climate Santa Barbara vineyard sites, this is a rather warm area. Ojai Vineyard has been making wine from here since 1995. The vines are mostly Syrah along with a bit of Viognier. I tasted two different barrels of this wine. The barrels will be blended and the finished wine will contain about 5% Viognier. For now, I can only say that the wine has a dark color and a tremendous amount of fruit that is very pure and balanced. It is rich, full, and flavorful, but not heavy.

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah White Hawk Vineyard Los Alamos. This vineyard is located in Cat Canyon, an area described by Adam as neither a hot or cold climate. The wine is dark in color and has a deep perfume of blackberries and a tinge of spice and smoke. It is full and rich with a firm underlying structure and balanced tannins – Very Good Potential. 1-barrel

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa MariaValley. Grapes for this wine are sourced from a hillside block of the Bien Nacido vineyard. Ojai Vineyard has been making Syrah from this same plot since 1995. This is a very rich, flavorful, and balanced wine. It has a dark color and a deep perfume of berry fruit with a faint smokiness. With heaps of fruit there are layers of flavor that follow through on a long finish –Outstanding Potential.2-barrels

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa MariaValley. This vineyard is located on the western edge of the Santa Maria Valley. The grapes are sourced from a ½ acre plot and production totals only 2 barrels (50 cases). This is the 3rd year that Ojai Vineyard has made wine from here and the grapes were picked at very low sugars. The wine is dark in color and has lots of fruit accented by a faint smokiness and a hint of green olive. It is balanced and flavorful with depth and structure – Outstanding Potential.2-barrels

2010 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Melville Vineyard Santa Rita Hills. This is the last year for the Melville Syrah as Adam says the winery has chosen to use this parcel in their estate wines. And, as has been Adam’s choice, the grapes were picked at lower level of sugar than is the normal practice in this vineyard. It is a lovely Syrah with a dark color and a deep perfume of plums and blackberries with hints of black pepper and a faint smokiness. There is lots of fruit and the wine is flavorful and balanced – Outstanding Potential. 2-barrels



Red Wines

2009 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County. This wine in made from Pinot Noir grapes grown in different vineyards in Santa Barbara County. It has a deep color and a lovely perfume with floral berry nuances. It has lots of fruit and is supple and rounded with a kiss of spice and a nice finish – Highly Recommended.   $342-yellow-stars

2008 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Santa BarbaraCounty. This wine is made from Syrah grown in several different vineyards in Santa Barbara. It is a lovely, balanced Syrah. The color is dark and the wine has a lovely berry tinged perfume with a faint smokiness and a hint of green olive. It has lots of fruit and is very flavorful with good structure and backbone – Highly Recommended .  $28 2-yellow-stars

2008 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Solomon Hills Santa Maria Valley. This is a lovely balanced Syrah with a dark color and a deep perfume. It is rich and supple with lots of fruit and a tinge of spice and a faint smokiness. Rounded and flavorful with a long finish, this is a wine with a lot of early appeal but also with the potential for additional aging – Outstanding.  $40 3-yellow-stars

White Wines

2009 The Ojai Vineyard Viognier Roll Ranch California. This is a very unique Viognier. It is very pale yellow in color and has a subtle floral perfume. It is crisp with hints of green apple and citrus and a very faint floral undertone. Racy in style, the wine finishes very crisp – Recommended.  $26 1-yellow-star

2009 The Ojai Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley. This Sauvignon Blanc was barrel fermented in old barrels. The wine has richness and a faint spicy complexity. It has a light yellow color and a lovely perfume with a faint tropical hint and a touch of citrus and spice. The wine has a lovely flavor with lots of fruit and hints of guava, citrus, herbs, and spice. The finish is nice a crisp with a citrus tinge – Highly Recommended. $282-yellow-stars

2009 The Ojai Vineyard Riesling Kick On Vineyard Los Alamos. This is a lovely Riesling made in a dry style. It is pale yellow in color and has a lovely floral, peach tinged perfume with a touch of citrus. It is fruity and very crisp with a nice floral nuance and a crisp finish – Highly Recommended.  $26 2-yellow-stars

The Ojai Vineyard wines speak for themselves. The 2010 barrel samples have great promise and reflect the style of wine that has finesse and balance. Like his old partner at Au Bon Climat, Jim Clendenen, Adam’s taste was refined in the 1970s by his admiration for the wines of Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. And, like Jim, he has always strived for balance in his wines. In fact, when some of his Pinot Noirs got too big for his taste, he countered by picking the grapes less ripe to maintain the balance and finesse. As Adam has said, he makes wines to suit his taste and the tastes of his customers and not to please the big numbers wine critics. I say “Amen” to that! Adam is a cult figure and a pioneer. But, he is also very serious and dedicated to his craft and is always looking for ways to improve. In fact, he has been quoted as saying that “When you get too old to learn, it’s time to put the nails in your coffin.” Thankfully, for Adam and wine lovers everywhere, that day does not seem to be coming anytime soon! The wines of The Ojai Vineyard are wines to seek out. They can be found in small quantities in wine stores across the country. Also, there is a wine club and direct sales are offered from the winery with discounts up to 20% off the retail prices.

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