OJAI: Wine Destination Gem

Words by By Don Sonderling

The charming town of Ojai (meaning “Valley of the Moon” in the Chumash language), is less than a 30-minute drive from Ventura, up Highway 33. For the better part of a century, Ojai has been known for its healthy lifestyle, food, agriculture, art, music, recreation, wellness — and yes, wine! For the wine explorer, it’s time to visit this “other” wine destination. Here are a few tasting rooms to explore:

Boccali Vineyards and Winery, at Boccali’s Pizza and Pasta, is a great “go-to” where you can enjoy fine wine and delicious pizza. Sit, sip, relax, and enjoy the pastoral outdoor tasting spaces with fabulous views.

You’ll be welcomed as family, and the wines you will enjoy are made by father-and-son winemaking team Mario and DeWayne Boccali. Dedicated to farming, grapes come from the Boccali Estate Vineyards in the Upper Ojai Valley. Once seated in the relaxing outdoor area, enjoy a flight of six wines, which may include Boccali’s Grenache Blanc, Rustic Red Blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Topa Topa Syrah plus other selections on the tasting menu. Any visit to Boccali’s would be incomplete without a meal at their legendary restaurant! This local favorite has been family owned and run since 1986 and serves up fresh Italian fare with produce fresh from the Boccali Ranch in the Ojai Valley. The winery/tasting area is only open on weekends and may occasionally be closed due to special events (or weather), but you can taste the wines anytime at the restaurant which is open 7 days a week. Find Boccali Vineyards and Winery at 3277 E. Ojai Ave, and at boccalivineyards.com.

Feros Ferio Winery is simply an experience not to be missed. As owner Nigel Chisholm says, “When people come in, they are happy, when they leave, they are happier. I am in the experience business, and I want everyone to have a great experience.” And indeed, they do! From the moment you walk into this eclectic tasting room in the heart of downtown Ojai, you can’t help but have a smile on your face. There is an assortment of seating, from high tops to tables and chairs, and a table for two at the front window where you can people watch. But there’s plenty to look at inside, too: The art on the walls, sculptures on and under the tables, to the 110-year-old piano which was refinished and painted whimsically like a hippy 1960s VW bus. Even the bathroom is Art Deco! Nigel hasn’t missed a beat.

And then, of course, there are his wines! Start off with the Rousay Rosé, which is, as Nigel describes it, “happy in a glass.” Then, let Nigel or a staff member pour you an assortment of whites, white blends, reds, red blends, and maybe a glass of bubbly. If you happen to be a Malbec fan, be certain to go home with a bottle of the Dùne Malbec (yes, I did)! Nigel is most concerned about your having a good time, and as he says, “If you like the wine, then it’s a good wine.” Find Feros Ferio Winery at 310 E. Ojai Ave, and at ferosferiowine.com. But Feros Ferio also has a more somber humanitarian angle. Nigel has made three trips (and is planning a fourth) as an independent individual to volunteer in Ukraine. And he is not volunteering for “fluff” roles. If he has time to tell you his story, you will learn about his Vitali Red Blend — and have a Kleenex ready, because this wine is named after one of the Ukrainian fallen. In his memory, 20 percent of all sales of the Vitali go directly to Ukraine. Make Feros Ferio a destination to sip, enjoy the art, the fun, the laughter, the music (from 4 to 6 pm on weekends).

Across the street from Feros Ferio is Majestic Oak Vineyard, which features a tasting room and patio beckoning you to find a cozy alcove or table, sip wine, and let your cares and stresses evaporate. Owners Tara Coble and her winemaker husband Andrew have created a perfect space that feels far away from its downtown location. Situated below street level, the patio is shaded by vines and a tree canopy, where you can enjoy a flight, a glass, or a bottle of wine. On the day I was there, it was just so pleasant sitting on the patio, talking to Tara as she told us about their history with wine and winemaking, and about the wines themselves. Tara takes great pride in her staff, and you will find them to be the definition of hospitality and knowledge.

Tara is committed to ensuring everyone who visits has a unique and memorable experience of wine and place, and will come back again and again. During our visit, we tasted a selection of five wines. However, it was the Sauvignon Blanc that stood out for me on that warm, end-of-summer day. Crisp and bright, the tasting menu described it as “easy peachy lemon squeezy.” With great acidity, this wine had layers of not only lemon, but grapefruit, green apple, and tropical fruits and was simply just fun, zippy, and so enjoyable! It was the perfect wine, blending so well with the weather and ambiance. In her quest to help educate others about wine in a fun, casual, relaxed manner, Tara created a wine website, which includes free online Zoom tasting experiences (thatwinelady.com). And, when you’re in town, set aside time to relax and enjoy a selection of enticing wine varietals and the friendly, knowledgeable hospitality of the staff at Majestic Oak Vineyard tasting room and patio. Find Majestic Oak Vineyard at 321 E. Ojai Ave, and at majesticoakvineyard.com.

The Naturalist wine tasting room (formerly Casa Barranca Organic Winery) has a storied history, vision, and, of course, wine! Given the long-standing reputation of Ojai as a mecca promoting health and wellness, it should come as no surprise that The Naturalist (first released in 2001) has the distinction of being one of (if not the) first certified organic wineries in Southern California. Sourcing only from vineyards that are certified organic and sustainably farmed, they are committed to making natural, pure, organic wine.During production, additional steps of lab testing and obtaining USDA certification are taken to guarantee all the health-focused qualities. Focusing on every detail, even their water cups are biodegradable, no shortcuts are taken here with their commitment to the environment.

Winemaker/owner Sam Tulberg’s tasting list at this downtown spot changes seasonally, based on what is aged properly and ready to bottle and pour. On a recent visit, the tasting menu included a Sauvignon Blanc, Mourvèdre Rosé, Sangiovese, and Merlot. However, other varietals you will find as the seasons change will include Reisling, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life,” and this variety of wines will spice up your life! “The brothers” Josh or Aaron will generally host you, and while they pour will share with you their knowledge of what it takes to produce wines of distinction — all while staying true to their responsibility of creating a variety of wines that are held to the highest of standards. Find The Naturalist at 280 E. Ojai Ave, and at naturalistwine.com.

The Ojai Vineyard tasting room is another spot not to be missed. Owner and winemaker Adam Tolmach is one of the pioneers of winemaking in the Santa Barbara region — and a true icon. He began his career at Zaca Mesa Winery in 1978, then started Au Bon Climat Winery with Jim Clendenan, a fellow employee.

Adam and Jim were instrumental in putting the spotlight on Santa Barbara County as a major high-quality wine producing area. The Ojai Vineyard was started by Adam in 1983 and has been flourishing ever since. Its current tasting room sits on South Montgomery Street, just off Ojai Avenue. Here you will get a true taste of Santa Barbara wines and terroir. Adam crafts over two dozen wines each year, all small lots, mostly single varietals, and has hundreds of library wines available for purchase. In addition to wines made from estate grapes, Adam sources from the most acclaimed vineyards in the area, such as Solomon Hills, Bien Nacido, Fe Ciega, Duvarita, and Sebastiano to name a few. Adam’s almost 50 years in the industry making wines have garnered him consistently high scores and reviews from the 
wine industry. Relax in the tasting room and give your palate a treat with various vineyards of Santa Barbara County. You’ll enjoy such elegant wines as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, plus many others. With so many highly regarded small-production wines, the tasting menu will change about every two months so keep coming back to explore. Also check the website for special library tastings, after-hours events, and other special tasting events. Find The Ojai Vineyard at 109 S. Montgomery St, and at ojaivineyard.com.

Old Creek Ranch & Winery is slightly off-the-beaten-path, about 15 minutes from downtown Ojai. This is a destination property that is majestic, serene, and comfortable, where you can truly exhale, relax, and let any stress evaporate as you sip their wines and marvel at the surrounding views. Upon arrival, you will be amazed at the assortment of relaxing, comfortable spaces.

There is a large grassy area with tables, secluded alcoves, and tables for two overlooking the vineyards, individually tucked away. Dog-, kid-, and family-friendly, there are bocce courts and cornhole boards. This is a perfect place to bring a picnic lunch, order a bottle or wine-tasting flight, and just sip back and enjoy the bucolic, pastoral setting, with wispy clouds and hawks soaring overhead. Once seated, you will enjoy a variety of wines, which change about every two weeks — so come back again and again to enjoy something different each time. Old Creek sources grapes from the vineyards of the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles, so this is a great place to get a taste of the Central Coast. While you are enjoying the ambiance and relaxation, take some time to wander a bit. You may see some of the sheep in the vineyards, the chickens (at the entrance), and the overall feel of a farm and ranch from yesteryear. Old Creek Ranch & Winery offers the ultimate blend of wine, relaxation, serenity, and peacefulness. Find Old Creek Ranch & Winery at 10024 E. Old Creek Rd, and at oldcreekranch.com. Don Sonderling is a freelance writer covering California’s Wine Country lifestyle, and culture, from Santa Barbara to the Napa Valley and Sonoma. He may be reached at: donsonderling@gmail.com.