When you think of California wine country, Napa and Sonoma are naturally top of mind. But there’s so much more to see and taste in California outside these popular wine regions. Conveniently located between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles lies a more unlikely wine region, the Ventura County Wine Trail. And though Ventura County is probably better known for agriculture, wineries are putting down deep roots too, creating a destination in and of itself that’s perfect for a quick escape. Head straight to Ojai, walk through the quaint mission town and begin your tasting there, as you work your way back to Oxnard.
Pro tip: Consider spending the night in Oxnard and making it a weekend getaway. The beachfront Embassy Suites Hilton Mandalay Bay Hotel is surrounded by palm trees and deep, spotlessly clean sandy beaches. Spend one day exploring the wine region, and the next by the pool, on the beach, SUP boarding, kayaking, sailing, or boating to the primitive and remote Channel Islands.
The Ojai Vineyard
The Ojai Vineyard’s tasting room is located smack dab in the heart of Ojai. The winery, which began as a side project to Au Bon Climate in 1983 producing Rhone varietals, soon added Burgundian varietals to their impressive portfolio, seamlessly bridging together styles of California and Europe.
Making wine in California, and particularly in Southern California, means that it’s typical to find grapes that naturally deliver generosity. The Ojai Vineyard’s quest: to combine European sensibilities of balance and finesse with the exuberant fruit from coastal southern California vineyards. By definition, great vineyards have something unique to say, and The Ojai Vineyard captures those characteristics in a clear and unadorned way.
In addition to estate-grown varietals, they also source fruit from neighboring sustainably farmed vineyards, as well as the neighboring Santa Barbara county. The wines that originate in the coastal vineyards retain acidity, are well balanced, food friendly, and far from the bombastic wines you might expect from Southern California.
Pro tip: Splurge on the Reserve tasting of library wines, you won’t be disappointed. And while you’re at it, don’t miss a taste of their Grappa, made from their own grape must.
The Casa Barranca Certified Organic Winery, located in picturesque Ojai Valley, is the first certified organic winery in the Santa Barbara region. The Casa Barranca Estate, a National Historic Landmark originally known as The Pratt House designed in 1909, was purchased in 1994 by Bill Moses, who restored to its current grandeur.
With a focus on the environment, and awareness of their geographic location, all the water used on the estate is drawn from an artesian spring, the power is solar, and all the grapes used in wine making are farmed organically, without the use of pesticides or herbicides. They produce over 5,000 cases of Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pink Moment Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc.
Topa Mountain Winery
Situated at the base of the Topa Topa Mountain range in the Upper Ojai Valley, Topa Mountain Winery is surrounded by ancient oaks and majestic redwoods. Showcasing exceptional wines made from grapes grown in the Ojai Valley region where Rhone varieties like Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier have thrived, they’ve been responsible for bringing new varietals like Barbera, Tempranillo, Carmenere, and Touriga Nacionale to the region.
Sourcing fruit from up to a dozen vineyards from Ojai, Santa Ynez, Marin, and Santa Barbara, Topa Mountain tries to stay as local as possible. Taking full advantage of the many microclimates spread across Santa Barbara County and Ojai, Topa has been able to achieve complex wines, marrying a balanced and refreshing style that is evocative of the warmer Southern California climate.
Pro tip: The popular tasting room is a steady buzz of visitors. Ask about their Frosé, especially enjoyable on a warm summer day.
Old Creek Ranch Winery
Nestled amongst old oak and olive trees, Old Creek Ranch Winery is the only rural winery in all of Ventura County. Guests enjoy the bucolic ranch setting, complete with roosters crowing, decorative old farm equipment, dirt paths to explore, and birdsong that fills the air.
Before it was a winery, Old Creek Ranch was 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 1800’s, Antonio Riva of northern Italy purchased the ranch and built a winery on the property. Riva produced wine until 1942, including the prohibition years when wine purchasers would leave an order and money on a clothesline and return to pick up a jug of red wine left at the base of an oak tree.
Today, the Old Creek Ranch is an 850-acre cattle ranch with a winery and fruit orchards. Purchased in June 2015, the current owners have built a beautiful new wine tasting room, grassy picnic areas, and outdoor guest areas complete with handcrafted lounge chairs and couches.
The original vineyards sadly fell prey to disease and disrepair, so the winery currently outsources grapes from northern Santa Barbara County and the Paso Robles area. They’re in the process of installing new vineyards, with plans for 40 acres of estate vines.
Pro tip: Pack a lunch, buy a bottle or two, and enjoy the picnic area or any one of the cozy outdoor living rooms scattered throughout the grounds.
Rancho Ventavo Cellars
Using fruit sourced from Santa Barbara and the Central Coast, Rancho Ventavo Cellars is serious about their reds. Guest to the tasting room can expect Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Tempranillo, but with 50 wines in their portfolio, you can never be too sure what will be in one of the two flights they offer.
The tasting room is located in Oxnard’s beautiful Heritage Square, where 14 houses from the early 1900’s were moved from the Oxnard Plain to protect and restore them.
Pro-tip: Take a little extra time to walk around the square in this historic part of town, you may even be able to tour some of the houses.
Located in an industrial part of Oxnard, Strey Cellars is built on the concept: “Stray from the norm.” Their tradition is to be untraditional, a vibe they’ve incorporated into their winery and tasting room. The cool, edgy winery experience appeals to both the younger crowd as well as general wine enthusiasts. With wines like Mouvedre Rosé, and a delicious blend of Syrah, Tannat, and Zinfandel, they’re definitely not wines one might find everywhere else.
Winemaker Scott Ballew, who has a soft spot for Zinfandel, is the youngest winemaker in the region. He sources his fruit from Lodi and has been able to provide a fresh and contemporary winetasting experience in Ventura County.
Pro-tip: Bring a treat for the friendly cellar dog Tawny, or just be ready to give her lots of belly rubs.
Herzog Wine Cellars
California’s first and only Kosher winery, Herzog Wine Cellars combines state-of-the-art technology with a hands-on approach to artisan winemaking. The Herzog family makes wine under two separate labels: Baron Herzog and Herzog Wine Cellars. The’re proud of their eight-generation long commitment to making great wine, now producing over 50 different wines, ranging in price from $9.99-$270.00. Sourcing fruit from three different regions in California, Herzog showcases the unique characteristics of each region.
After twenty years of renting space in various wineries, they finally build their own state-of-the-art winery in the town of Oxnard, creating a center for high-end contemporary winemaking. Guests can taste wines as well take a self-guided tour that provides a bird’s eye view of the winemaking process.
Pro-tip: Stay for dinner in the winery’s exquisite on-site, four-star restaurant.
When Tamara Belgard’s not chasing down stories for publications like NW Travel and Life, Portland Monthly, EaterPdx, WinePress NW, and Oregon Wine Press, you might stumble upon her traipsing through wine country, exploring new restaurants, perusing her local farmers market, pouring over cookbooks, or searching the racks of her favorite wine shop for hidden gems.