As Robert Mondavi was to the Napa Valley, Adam Tolmach has been to the Ojai Valley, bringing attention to the area as a legitimate winegrowing area — and providing one more reason to visit this quiet California village.
Tolmach went to the University of California Davis, where he studied viticulture and enology. After graduating in 1976, he settled down on the property his grandfather bought in the Ojai Valley in 1933 to farm sweet corn and melons, selling them at a roadside stand.
After two years of this satisfying yet difficult and nearly profitless work, he sought employment in his field of study. With degree in hand, he found work at the Zaca Mesa winery in Santa Barbara County. Before long, he decided to follow his own vision and started a winery with fellow Zaca Mesa employee Jim Clendenen.
Their winery, Au Bon Climat, debuted in 1982 and was an overnight success. But after nine years together, the partners realized they had to follow separate paths. Clendenen bought the business in 1991 and went on to further glories.
Meanwhile, Tolmach had planted a vineyard in Ojai to Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, and had begun producing wine from that fruit in 1983. When the collaboration with Clendenen ended, he concentrated all his attention on The Ojai Vineyard.
Looking back over the last 25 years, one can see the development of the winery came in three distinct phases. In the beginning it was lots of fun for Tolmach to discover the budding Central Coast region, experimenting with new plantings, new areas, and a wide selection of varietals — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, other Rhone varietals — in addition to those planted in his estate vineyard.
Back in 1983, the vines were grown without much care in what was called a “California sprawl.” It took years for Tolmach and others to convince growers to move toward progressive practices like drip irrigation and vertical trellising in order to improve wine grape quality.
This brought about the second phase, where Tolmach honed an uncompromising plan, striving to make the best possible wine. By 1994, his wines were consistently delicious and attracted notice, which furthered his success.
With that success, Tolmach was able to change all of his grape contracts and purchase fruit by the acre rather than the ton — enabling him to direct farming practices and reduce the size of the crop by thinning. The clusters that were left on the vine to mature ripened more evenly and were more intensely flavored. He found himself paying two or three times the typical price for quality grapes, but felt it was worth it.
For the next 10 years, the wines were big, boisterous and delicious. He worked relentlessly to fine-tune the winemaking process and make it as natural as possible, using only tiny quantities of sulfites and avoiding fining and filtering, with an aim to further improve quality.
The third phase started a few years ago as Tolmach’s craving for perfection made him question and review his experiences to find the very best way to convey the personality of each vineyard he works with.
The Ojai Vineyard’s intimate tasting room is located in downtown Ojai, next to the Art Center, the longest continuously-operating multi-disciplinary center serving the arts in the state of California, which hosts a wide array of programming.
Another local winery — Casa Barranca — has a tasting room nearby in the downtown Arcade. It specializes in locally grown organic wines.
Also in the Arcade is Barrel 33, which combines fine wine with fine art to create a sophisticated yet comfortable atmosphere for tapas, artisanal cheeses and sparkling conversation.
At Boccali’s Restaurant two miles outside town, tastings of Boccali Vineyard wines are offered on weekends until 5 p.m. This family owned and operated winery produces 100% estate wines, made from fruit grown on the Boccali Ranch in the upper Ojai Valley.
All of these wine experiences are easily accessible from the Su Nido Inn, which features spacious one- and two-bedroom suites built around a charming cobblestone courtyard. Although situated in the heart of the Ojai village, visitors are still tucked away with plenty of privacy.
Ojai, about 12 miles inland from the California coastal community of Ventura, has long been known as a haven for artists, musicians and health enthusiasts. It also makes a great weekend getaway for wine lovers.
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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
The Ojai Vineyard
109 S. Montgomery St.
Ojai Art Center
113 S. Montgomery St.
208 E. Ojai Ave.
308 E. Ojai Ave.
3277 Ojai-Santa Paula Rd.
Su Nido Inn
301 N. Montgomery St.