For so many years I’ve blown through Oxnard on my way north to its more famous neighbor, Santa Barbara. But one hour north of Los Angeles you will find the Oxnard nestled between Camarillo on the south and Ventura on the north. This area is an agricultural mecca with many miles of farms growing everything from lettuce to strawberries, tomatoes, squashes, many varieties of beans and many kinds of fruit: melons, pears, tangerines, lemons.
Oxnard is a medium size, quaint, ocean front town with picturesque harbors, beautiful beaches, good surf, comfortable hotels and upscale restaurants with many culinary options.
The Ventura County Wine Trail includes Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Ojai. Currently there are 18 wineries. I visited four of them and was pleasantly surprised. A great way to experience the large distances between wineries is on a guided tour. Lisa Stoll, Sommelier and owner of Explore Wines, will drive you around in her large van (more like a mini-bus) she talks about the different grapes grown in the area, she educates patrons on the winemaking process, how to taste wine to get the best flavor and shares stories of the wine world. In her own words “Please don’t confuse wine expert with wine snob.” Go to: www.explorewines.com for details.
The four wineries I visited were each unique and bursting with personality.
Rancho Ventavo Cellars is located in an historic home in a charming area in downtown Oxnard called Heritage Square. Here 10 city blocks of restored Victorian homes are on display and many have become restaurants and shops. Owner and winemaker, George Gilpatrick started as a home winemaker and eventually outgrew his garage. Today in a separate winemaking facility he makes 47 different red wines, the largest collection of red wines in Ventura County. Wines range from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Majecc (winemakers blend), Syrah, Petit Sirah and a personal favorite: Yes Dear (Majecc blend plus Tempranillo). Grapes come from Santa Barbara County, Central Coast and Napa Valley. The quaint house features an antique bar area and retail shop with wine related items for sale. I tasted Merlots on my visit as it was a “Sideways, the movie” weekend. I love Merlots, they have come a long way from when the movie was first released and were dissed from wine people. Winemakers have learned how to get the best from the grape and not make a watery wine. Southern California Merlots are thick and rich, full of fruit flavor and a bit of strong minerality. If you haven’t returned to Merlots since watching this movies, I highly recommend trying them again. For more information go to: www.rvcellars.com
Strey Cellars, a new winery located in an industrial area, is a cross between industrial and super modern. Co-owners Scott Ballew and Katie Wiegers have poured their heart and soul into their winery and you can tell. The tasting room emanates with love, edgy perfection, attention to detail and comfort. Their motto is to “Strey from the Norm”.
Winemaker, Scott Ballew, started making wines with mentor Robert Wagner owner of Magnavino Cellars (now their next door neighbor) and when he was ready, branched out on his own. He still counts his mentor, Robert as his support and go-to person for all things wine. Scott’s wine style is a mix between respect for the classic wines with a twist of young, cool and hip finishes. You just have to try their wines to understand what I’m saying. I particularly loved his Zinfandel. It has a fruity party on the tongue and a soft finish. Check hours of operations at their website: www.streycellars.com.
An easy walk next door Magnavino Cellars brought us to a lovely Tuscan villa-inspired tasting room. You would never know you were in an industrial building once you enter their door. This large tasting room, has a bar in the center for standing up and is surrounded by many tables and chairs for a relaxing tasting experience. Wine pourers circulate throughout the room, so you don’t even have to get up to walk to the bar to get the next wine taste. Winemaker Robert Wagner says “We create wine by understanding the grapes, knowing the by touch, by sight and by bouquet.” And this understanding a reflected in his wines. They are all truly gems. There was not one wine I didn’t like. Off to one side of the facility is the production facility. Here you can see large barrels floor-to-ceiling fermenting. The winery will gladly supply you with cheeses, meat platters and small foods on Friday nights. If you can get through LA traffic in time, I highly recommend stopping here for Magnavino After Dark between 5-8pm. For current events and all the latest news go to: www.magnavinocellars.com.
Herzog Winery is the oldest kosher winery in the USA and by far the largest in the wine trail. Kosher winemaking has many rules that you can read about at: http://www.star-k.org/kashrus/kk-thirst-wine.htm. Winemaker Joe Hurliman has an exceptional challenge on his hands. He is not Jewish and rules of kosher winemaking is that only a Sabbath observant cellar crew may touch the grapes. But Joe is not deterred and is happy to follow the rules. Herzog Winery is truly impressive. There is a self-guided walking tour where you can see the whole production facility. They have, by far, the hugest vats, the largest barrel room and the largest bottling area I have ever seen.
Tierra Sur, their kosher restaurant serves gourmet food for all types of eaters. Pick out a bottle of wine and enjoy this award winning restaurant any day but Saturday, the Sabbath. For current hours of operations, location and a restaurant menu go to: http://www.herzogwinecellars.com/
Although I only got to four wineries, I can say that these wineries rival all other southern California wineries and definitely deserve your attention. No longer will I blow through Oxnard on my way to somewhere else. I will plan a weekend and explore some more wineries on this wine trail. I’m so thankful I stopped here and gave it a chance. For a complete list of wineries go to: http://www.venturacountywinetrail.com/