Monday, January 4, 2010

Starting the year right...

After spending a pleasant, quiet day catching up on DVR'd programs, we decided that maybe, just maybe, we ought to get off the couch and out of the house, so after our usual Saturday morning activities, we hit the road and headed northwest to Ventura County.

One or two of you may recall that JD and I visited the Cornell Winery and tasted a lovely Barbera made by Cantara Cellars in Camarillo. After I posted that article I received an email from winemaker/owner Mike Brown, inviting me to visit the winery. His email included a link to a list of Ventura County wineries. I'm including a link to the Ventura County Winery Association. Who knew??

We set a course using our new GPS device, whom we have christened 'Gilda'. Gilda almost got us there, but got confused when we encountered some construction that wasn't in her system. Still, we found our way to a small industrial park just off the 101 in Camarillo. Mike's wife, Chris, was manning the tasting room, and started pouring wine. Almost all of the grapes they use are from Mike's family's vineyards in Lodi, near Woodbridge. Mike grew up in the middle of wine country with Woodbridge (Mondavi) and other wineries close by. Then he left and became a mechanical engineer. Then he returned to his roots, making some lovely wines.

2007 Chardonnay - Soft gold in color with a seriously oaky nose. In the mouth, the oak initially overpowers the fruit, backing off to allow some citrus to come thru, followed by a bit of cinnamon spice that softens to butter for the finish. Not my cup of tea, but well-made. $21

2008 Old Vine Zinfandel - This was actually a barrel sample in a decanter. The vines are 71 years old. It's only available in magnum right now, with 750 ml's coming in March 2010. Surprisingly light for a Zin, it was light red, almost pink in color, with a sprightly cinnamon spice nose. It was light and spicy to drink and I understood why she was serving it after the Chardonnay, as the following reds were much heavier wines.

2007 Syrah - Deep red in color, with the traditionally smoky nose. This is a meaty, spicy Syrah that cries out for roasted lamb. It has a lovely soft finish. $29

2007 Left Bank Cuveé Red Blend - This wine is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon (thus the 'Left Bank') blended with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Petite Sirah. A pretty deep red redolent of green pepper and dark fruit, it was a decent Bordeaux-style - earthy and full-bodied, and ready to drink right now. $29

2007 Tempranillo - 50% Amador County/50% Lodi - 100% Tempranillo - My notes say 'WOW'. This is a big red wine - deep garnet in color with a meaty nose. In the mouth, it's cinnamon and black pepper and red fruit. Firm, but silky tannins. Just lovely. $29 - Bought 1 bottle.

2007 Petite Sirah - Opaque red full of red berries, cherries, but not sweet; just really fruity (much like the Barbera we bought at Cornell). I said it was like a cocktail, and Chris said that's exactly how she describes it, too. $36, and yes, we bought a bottle. Just lovely.

At this point, we were invited into the 'winery' to meet Mike. I think we were back there for the better part of an hour, with Mike 'stealing' barrel samples (with his 'wine thief') and talking about winemaking and philosophy. It was especially interesting to taste different samples the 2008 Tempranillo - one barrel taste from Amador County, soft and fruity, and another from Lodi, tannic and rough. Once they're blended, I have no doubt that the 2008 will elicit the same 'WOW' as the 2007. I like this wine!

We made our goodbyes to Mike and Chris, tentatively agreeing to return in March to assist with bottling, and headed to Old Town Camarillo for some further tasting. Mike had given us some ideas of where some of the Ventura County wineries were - up as far as Ojai (about 15 minutes away) to right in town. As it was already after 2 PM, we opted to hit Old Town, which was in the direction of home, and take a look around. As we drove along Ventura Blvd, it was clear that a great deal of thought had gone into the revitalization of Camarillo - it's full of charm.

We stopped at the Bella Victorian Winery Tasting Room on Ventura Blvd. Bella Victorian is a winery, but the tasting room is really more of a hangout than a tasting room, with flights of wines to taste for various prices. There's a really cool bar made out of stainless steel tanks, with a gorgeous tin ceiling overhead. It's also a restaurant with an interesting menu devised and executed by Gael Lecolley, a charming Frenchman who is also involved in the winemaking.

We were initially a bit confused by the idea of calling it a tasting room, when it is so clearly not - and Kevin, the barista who initially waited on us was nonplussed when we asked for a dump bucket. He exclaimed, "No one dumps our wine!" We explained that we were working, not hanging out. He seemed confused, but gave us a plastic pitcher to use. A customer passed by us on her way out, and wondered why we were writing notes about the wines. I explained about the blog, gave her my card; Kevin suddenly got a lot more interested and attentive. I gave him my card, too. We did end up hanging out there for a while; ordered a delicious prosciutto and arugula pizza, and chatted with Gael for about an hour. As Kevin told us, this is a destination - folks come here to hang and eat and party.

The wines were a mixed bag. With every pour, Kevin did a quick rundown of the primary attributes of the wines. We chose to purchase an 'Artisan' flight (3 wines/$12) and a 'Luxury' flight (3 wines/$16), so that we would be able to taste all the wines they were offering. In order of tasting:

2006 Chardonnay "Napa Valley" - Soft gold color, very oaky nose, but extremely high acid - not balanced at all. Kevin said it went thru malolatic fermentation - it didn't taste like it. I found it undrinkable. $36.95

2006 Pinot Noir - "Santa Barbara County" - Earthy nose and earthy mushroom-y with surprising tannins; some spice on the end, but again, really high acid. JD said the nose smelled of diesel to him - but all the doors were open, and we were on a main street. Not a wine I was interested in drinking. $49.95

2006 Grénache "York Mountain" - Deep, dark red, with big black fruit, firm dusty tannins and a bit of spice on the lovely, smooth finish. Really changed in the glass very quickly. Very tasty. $37.95

2006 Syrah "York Mountain" - Smoky, bacon-y nose, deep meaty cherry fruit. Still tannins. After a few minutes, the oak turned to butter. An interesting wine. $39.95

2004 Red Wine Reserve - Kimberly Cuveé "Napa Valley" - This is their flagship wine. Parker gave it a 92, and it's definitely the most interesting of the wines, and the most expensive at $89.95. You can get a full glass for $22. Kevin hoped we wouldn't dump it, and we didn't. 30% Cabernet Sauvignon/30% Merlot/Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc making up the remaining 40%. 28 months in new French oak; unfiltered. Green pepper and chocolate - an odd, but winning combination. We drank this wine with the above-mentioned pizza, and it was a heck of a match.

We didn't purchase any wine, as we had spent our money on the flights, and the only wine we really liked a lot was way more than we wanted to spend. I really felt that all the wines were way overpriced - and I don't often feel that way. So sue me. I'm also kind of confused by the fact that Bella Victorian's brochures all tout the local vineyard, but nothing we tasted was locally sourced, so I'm wondering what they're growing in Camarillo.

We walked down the street, looking for a wine shop we had passed. The Wine Closet, also on Ventura Blvd., is a charming shop owned by Linda and Robert Hunter. The Wine Closet specializes in small production, artisan wines from California. All their wines are hand selected and they only sell wines they would drink themselves, because life's too short to drink mediocre wine! JD and I were happy to see so many of our favorites on the shelves. I introduced myself to Linda and we chatted for a while, buying a couple of glasses of wine while we got to know each other.

I had a glass of 2006 Lavender Ridge GSM from the 'Cotes du Calaveras' in the Sierra Foothills. Dark red, faint smoke in the nose, big meaty fruit to taste. Lovely for sitting and chatting; a real cocktail of a wine. $8/glass

JD chose 2007 Hobo Zinfandel from the Dry Creek region. It was a mild fruit bomb with high alcohol - 15.3%, which means it's probably higher than that. I think it was also around $8/glass.

We bought a bottle of 2004 Graham Beck Shiraz from South Africa, mainly out of curiousity. We had a bottle of their sparkling wine on New Year's Eve and really liked it. TWC had it priced at $15.75, and then undercharged me - bless her heart. I pointed out that she didn't charge me enough, and she congratulated me on the deal I received!

We took it with us to a neighboring restaurant, Verona Trattoria, where we would receive free corkage for purchasing the wine from Linda. The wine was lovely, and everything a Shiraz should be - smokey, fruity, yummy. The restaurant was charming, the service was TERRIBLE, and the food - when it finally arrived - was ordinary and uninspired. We were seated immediately, which was a good start. The waiter - the ONLY waiter - opened our wine immediately and disappeared. The host, who I assume was the owner, finally brought us menus. The busboy - again, the only busboy - brought us freshly made, tasty bread with an EV olive oil and garlic dipping sauce. Then we sat there for over 20 minutes, trying to catch someone's eye so that we could order. After another 10 minutes, JD's house salad arrived. He was slowly picking his way thru it, as my soup was not delivered until I asked the owner for it. Our entrees finally arrived. JD's calamari steak was a bit tough and required a knife to cut it, so it was not up to the standard we require. My penne Bolognese - the item by which I tend to judge Italian restaurants - was sweet, as if sugar had been added to it, and it was full of finely chopped carrots, which made it kind of not edible for me. We got our check, gave a 10% tip and fled. Honestly, if the staff had just acknowledged that they were in the weeds, I would have forgiven all, but this seemed to be business as usual. There was a family there when we arrived. They finished, and the husband sat there by himself for close to 15 minutes, apparently waiting for the check. He didn't seem happy.

So, it was a mixed bag of day. Interesting wines, some good food (pizza), some bad. But there's much more to explore in Ventura County and we'll definitely plan a day soon to start up in Ojai at Casa Barranca, and work our way south.


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