North of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara, California’s newest wine-touring region — Ventura County — is coming into its own.
Some of the wineries use locally-grown grapes, while some bring in fruit from other parts of the state. But all are focused on quality, and there now are enough of them that it’s possible to plan a long weekend of touring and tasting.
We suggest dividing your trip into three segments: a three-stop tour of Camarillo, a three-stop tour of Oxnard, and a three-stop tour that takes in the Ojai and neighboring area. Be sure to call ahead for current operating hours, as some of the wineries are open only on weekends.
Bella Victorian Vineyard is a small, family-owned winery that specializes in small quantities of estate-grown wines. Its tasting room is located in historic “Old Town” Camarillo, while its private Victorian estate and vineyard has become a premier wedding venue.
Bella Victorian also is home to chef Gael Lecolley, a native of France who attended one of the top culinary schools in his native country. Intrigued by the United States, Lecolley decided to bring his love of food, culinary artistry and European style to the U.S., working for such esteemed restaurants as BeauRivage, Saddle Peak Lodge and Remi.
Camarillo Custom Crush Winery shines the spotlight on three vineyards each week, and pours three wines from each vineyard for a $7.50 tasting fee — which includes a winery glass.
Cantara Cellars specializes in producing wines made from grapes grown in the Lodi appellation in Northern California — both varietal wines and interesting blends. The wine lounge offers flights, wines by the glass and cheese plates.
Bella Victorian Vineyard
2135 Ventura Blvd., Camarillo, Calif.
Camarillo Custom Crush Winery
300 S. Lewis Rd., Suite C, Camarillo, Calif.
126 N. Wood Rd. #104, Camarillo, Calif.
Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard is housed in a 77,000-square-foot building, where guests can take a self-guided tour during regular business hours. Guided tours also are offered, by appointment, for a $4 fee.
The on-site Tierra Sur Restaurant is chef Todd Aarons’ second incarnation of Mediterranean-influenced seasonal cuisine, this time utilizing California’s local produce. Aarons is a veteran of Zuni Café in San Francisco and Savoy in Manhattan, and now has returned home to California and made Tierra Sur his new abode.
His cooking once again is rustic, unpretentious and ingredient-driven, with menu items such as pomegranate-marinated lamb, aged rib-eye steak and wild king salmon cooked outdoors over an open flame. A high point of the menu is the prix fixe wine tasters’ meal, featuring wine pairings for each course.
Herzog also sells gourmet chocolates and artisan cigars.
Magnavino Cellars is the latest addition to the Ventura County winery scene. Its current portfolio contains six red wines and four whites. Viognier is perhaps the star of the lineup, as Magnavino makes both “regular” and “Reserve” bottlings.
Oxnard’s third winery is the result of wine enthusiasts becoming home winemakers, and ultimately deciding to turn their hobby into a commercial enterprise.
In 1995, George Gilpatrick and Faye Hawes joined a local club called WINO (Wine Investigator Novices and Oenophiles), and after a few years of sampling wine and going on numerous wine-focused trips across California and around the world, they began making wine with a friend. With each passing year, they’d increase the quantity slightly and add a variety or two to the mix.
“In early 2005,” Gilpatrick recalls, “Faye decided I needed a third job — that my time wasn’t being completely used all 24 hours of the day between my full-time day job and working our 40-acre avocado and lemon ranch. So, we made the decision to turn our passion for winemaking into a commercial endeavor. The agreement was: I’d make it, she’d sell it.”
The couple had always referred to their avocado and lemon ranch as Rancho Ventavo, so they named their new winery Rancho Ventavo Cellars. The winery’s tasting room is located in a 1902 Victorian home in downtown Oxnard’s Heritage Square.
Herzog Wine Cellars
3201 Camino Del Sol, Oxnard, Calif.
961 N. Rice Ave., Suite 5, Oxnard, Calif.
Rancho Ventavo Cellars
741 South A Street, Oxnard, Calif.
Casa Barranca, located in the Ojai Valley, is the first winery in California’s Central Coast region to attain certified organic status. It was converted from a century-old subterranean stone water cistern, which was excavated 15 feet down one side and cut through 2 feet of stone wall to gain access.
Old World traditions are combined with appropriate contemporary tools and techniques to handcraft Casa Barranca’s wines. Organic, natural and sustainable practices are employed, and the ICO-certified organic vineyard consists of Syrah, Grenache, Semillon and Viognier — varieties that thrive in the hot, Mediterranean-like climate of the Ojai Valley.
Old Creek Ranch Winery is part of a 22,000-acre Spanish land grant awarded to Don Fernando Tico, dating back to the early history of California. In the late 1800s, Antonio Riva of northern Italy purchased the ranch. He was a chef in Paris, London and later in San Francisco, and built a winery on the ranch.
Today, the original winery still stands, and is depicted in the estate’s logo. In 1976, Mike and Carmel Maitland purchased the property with the intention of revitalizing the old ranch. A couple of years later, they were approached about starting a new winery on the property, and in 1981, the first vintage was introduced. Today, the Maitlands’ daughter and son-in-law carry on the family business.
Giessinger Winery is located in the small town of Fillmore, still an agricultural hub of Ventura County and home to a popular tourist attraction on wheels: the Fillmore & Western Railway.
Giessinger sources grapes from Temecula to Lodi, and from Paso Robles to Santa Rosa. It also boasts a bistro featuring French gourmet sandwiches (try the Garlicky Parmesan Turkey).
Casa Barranca Organic Winery & Estate Retreat
208 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, Calif.
Old Creek Ranch Winery
10024 Old Creek Rd., Ventura, Calif.
365 Santa Clara St., Fillmore, Calif.
No mention of the Ventura County winery scene would be complete without a nod to Leeward Winery, opened in Ventura in 1982 by a pair of home winemakers named Chuck Gardner and Chuck Brigham.
Chuck and Chuck were true pioneers, establishing their business when Ventura was still a rural outpost, little more than a gas-and-snack stop between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Over the years, they became known for making tasty Chardonnay, among other varieties, and even got involved in early efforts to strike down restrictive wine-selling laws.
Today’s Ventura County “wine trail” would not have been possible were it not for their passion, vision and sweat. Sadly, Leeward closed in 2007, a few years before Ventura County became a wine destination.