Putting Ventura on the Wine Map

South Coast region is growing bigger and more organized

by Jane Firstenfeld
Herzog Wine Cellars
Herzog's slick tasting bar.
Ventura County, Calif. -- Wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County is far less populous (under 1 million residents) than its southern neighbor, sprawling Los Angeles County, and less wine-wealthy than affluent Santa Barbara County to the northwest. Even so, this year seven of the county's 15-odd wineries formed the Ventura County Wine Trail in the hope of drawing wine tourism to their scenic and highly accessible region.

In June, the members published a map of the wine trail and established a website (see the work-in-progress at venturacountywinetrail.com). Spearheaded by Monica Agyekum, public relations director at Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, the group published 50,000 "mini" maps for distribution at events and another 25,000 full- sized editions, and began to distribute them through their tasting rooms, chambers of commerce, hotels, restaurants and retailers.

Although the members have tried to blanket the area, "There are still plenty left," Agyekum said. She pointed out that, as new members join and the website is perfected, wineries can be added online. She said that there are not yet road signs for the trail, "That's something for down the line." At 200,000 cases annually, Herzog (herzogwinecellars.com) is by far the county's largest wine producer; the kosher operation also produces Rashi and Weinstock brands, operates a thriving tasting room and a highly rated restaurant, Tierra Sur.


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Wineries that are participating ing the Ventura County Wine Trail.

In contrast to states where wine industries have only recently begun to gain recognition, this wine trail did not receive state or county funding. Members chipped in, even those without tasting rooms, such as Rancho Ventavo Cellars, which produces about 2,000 cases yearly in Moorpark. Rancho Ventavo is in the process of putting together a tasting room in Camarillo, near the county's busy Highway 101 corridor, which is becoming a center for wine tourism.

"We went into it knowing we wanted to support the group," said sales and marketing director Faye Hawes. Even though she doesn't expect her new venue to be complete until next spring, Hawes told Wines & Vines that the wine map has already been helpful in her sales calls to retailers. Although most of its production is sold direct through the website rucellars.com, and private events at the winery, "We're very careful about who comes up here (to the winery) and when," she said.

Hawes noted that, even in Southern California's car culture, gasoline prices have cut down on recreational travel. Ventura County's numerous attractions, including fishing, whalewatching and sightseeing to the Channel Islands; a historic train route in the scenic Filmore Valley; and miles of wilderness areas, are only an hour's drive (and a world away) from Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. "We'd like to keep them local," Hawes said of the hoards of potential visitors.

Bella Victorian Vineyards
Bella Victorian Winery and its iconic motorized cable car.
"My motto is, 'Convert your gas to wine,'" said Norm Stafford, manager and winemaker at Daumé Winery/Camarillo Custom Crush, a 10,000-case per year operation that plans to open its new tasting room in Oldtown Camarillo early next year. Daumé currently draws "a good crowd" to its occasional open house events, but Stafford makes wine for 50 different clients, and hopes to be able to pour their wines at the new venue.

Jerry and Kimberley Monahan, owners of Bella Victorian Vineyard (bellawine.com), said their new Camarillo tasting room was supposed to open in early September, but was delayed because they added more food dishes to its fusion/bistro menu, postponing the launch about six weeks. Producing only about 900 cases per year from six acres of estate Syrah and one of Pinot Noir, the Monahans have popularized their products with the use of an antique, motorized San Francisco cable car, with which they plan to use for wine tours next year. Jerry Monhahan was grateful to Herzog for supporting the fledgling trail. "They really got the ball rolling," he said.

Casa Baranca Wines already operates a small tasting room in Ojai, long known as a mecca for artists. An arts-and-crafts style addition to accommodate display and sales of local artworks is expected to be ready in October, according to office manager Lani Aura Kidman. She said that Casa Baranca's 5,000-case per year production of certified organic wine is sold online; through wineclub and local sales; and at a few Los Angeles and San Diego accounts.

At his Old Creek Winery in coastal Ventura, John Whitman makes about 1,700-1,800 cases per year. Whitman sells about 90% of his production online or at the cellar door. "It could be 100%," he said, but prefers to place some wines in local restaurants for exposure.

The wine trail's final charter member is Cantara Cellars, which has a working wine tasting room in Camarillo.

It's a small step, but the Ventura County Wine Trail appears to provide a good start for a little known wine destination with huge potential. Planning and construction may move slowly, due to county officials and agencies with scant experience of wine ways or the benefits a booming wine business can bring. "We call it 'Ventucky,'" John Whitman joked. But combined with Ventura's leisurely pace (and cleaner air), relaxing at local wineries may prove a potent draw for frazzled city dwellers.
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