Ojai Wine Festival pours out the fun at Lake Casitas

June event serves up local wine, beer, and spirits in Rotary Club benefit

By Clarissa Fishman

Wine has been around for a very, very long time. Current findings suggest that it originated in West Asia (modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, northern Iran, and eastern Turkey). It is said that as people migrated, it spread through the Mediterranean and then, to the rest of the world. The vitis vinifera, the vine that grows wine grapes, was produced and turned into wine for the first time somewhere around 6000 BC, or so they say. There are still debates about this because new archaeological discoveries are continuously being made, so really, there is still a bit of mystery around this beloved elixir of life.

For the wine lovers out there, there’s good news: the Ojai Wine Festival is coming back to beautiful Lake Casitas on June 15 from noon to 4 pm. This 36th annual event is sure to be another wonderful occasion to try out some delicious wines from all over California. This year, Lake Casitas is fuller than it’s been in a long time — 89 percent of capacity (and still rising as of press time). Combined with verdant hills from the abundant rains, it is bound to be a spectacularly beautiful event.

What is exceptional about this wine festival is that it is a fundraiser, and it raises a lot of money. Every year since 1987, the Rotary Club of Ojai-West has hosted this festival, growing it into a renowned regional fundraising event attracting over 3,000 people. In 2023, the Club donated over $80,000 towards charitable projects and community grants, and since its inception, the Ojai Wine Festival has raised over $1.5 million.

Some great examples of local projects that the Rotary Club of Ojai-West funds include science-based field trips for elementary students on the Rotary Floating Classroom. 
This will be offered again this year for the attendees of the festival. “It’s a great way for patrons to see what we cover during our science-based field trips for area students,” says Angela May, the executive director of the Ojai Wine Festival. They also fund the Elementary School Dictionary project, educational scholarships for graduating seniors, free family-friendly summer band concerts at Libbey Park, and The Girl’s Empowerment Workshop. In addition, the Rotary of Ojai-West supports many international projects that help protect the environment and drinking water; implement literacy programs; improving women’s and children’s health; combating poverty; fighting diseases and eradicating polio worldwide; and grants for peace projects throughout the world. The list of recipients is extensive!

The wines poured at the Ojai Wine Festival are not normally found at your local grocery store or wine shop. The opportunity to taste amazing wines produced by garagiste vintners – micro and boutique family-owned wineries – and highly respected wine producers from all over California makes the tasting experience a special chance for wine enthusiasts to try wines they have never had before. You will find a vast selection of award-winning wines, as well as craft beers, cider, spirits, and non-alcoholic beverages.

This year, Ojai Valley Brewing will be pouring along with many other craft breweries in the area. Local wineries include Majestic Oak Vineyard, Boccali Vineyards and Winery, Flying H Wines, Side Street Wine, Second Chance Ranch Vineyard, and Feros Ferio. Food trucks and food vendors will be serving some delectable options, Doc Lobsta’ and Passion Empanadas are just two of the eight food truck vendors signed up. New and exciting this year is the Stay Wild Cocktail cart that will be serving samples of cocktails from its super cute and fun cocktail cart using Cutler’s Artisan Spirits.

Admission includes unlimited tastes of wine, beer, and spirits, and a keepsake crystal wine glass. Ticket sales are capped at 2,500 and usually sell out.

The entertainment this year will be courtesy of Area 51, a Santa Barbara-based dance band that knows how to get people out on the lakeside dance floor to boogie. Yes, you read that right: There is a dance floor to get your groove on, with gorgeous views of the lake. Wine Festival goers can also participate in the silent auction and bid on items donated by wineries, sponsors, and craft vendors. Examples of items are fine wines, private tasting parties, VIP tours of wineries, artisan crafts, jewelry, and much more.

As usual, there will be an incredible selection of local artisans and craft vendors at the festival selling their wares. You can purchase handmade jewelry, hand-crafted wood products, wine themed products, clothing, candles, hats, olive oils and balsamic vinegars, leather goods, and wine barrel furniture.

Angela, the festival’s executive director, shared that the Ojai Wine Festival has been a labor of love for the last three-plus decades. “Shortly after the Rotary Club of Ojai-West was formed in 1985, the members, after trying fundraising with a golf tournament and barbecuing for other groups, decided that they needed a better way to raise funds. Several members had attended the first Paso Robles Wine Festival the year before and thought that it might be worth a try.”  The first event was held June 14, 1987. First held at Montessori School of Ojai, the festival then moved to Soule Park. It soon became apparent it needed a new (and larger) venue.

“After a thorough search of the valley, we finally approached Lake Casitas about using the 1984 Olympic Rowing Site as an event area,” Angela said. The site, at the eastern edge of the lake, has remained the home of the Ojai Wine Festival ever since — albeit with a few improvements courtesy of the Ojai Rotary Club of Ojai-West, such as grass, trees, sprinklers, electrical systems, and a phone line.

“We do a lot to help those in need in our community and have fun while we are lending a hand,” said Angela.

I have been a long time Ojai resident and I had no idea of the amazing things that this festival supports, and the funds that it raises for important causes. This adds quite a bit of sweetness to the whole experience! I will raise my glass and toast to an event that is not only in a beautiful natural setting but does a lot of good for the community and beyond, cin cin!

Tickets are $85 when purchased by May 31, or $95 by June 14, and $105 on the day of the event. For those who will not be drinking alcohol, tickets are $25. Children ages 12 and younger are free with a paying adult. Discounted group ticket sales are also available. For tickets and more information, visit ojaiwinefestival.com, or at Attitude Adjustment Shoppe: 1129 Maricopa Highway, Ojai.

To get involved in the Rotary Club of Ojai-West, call (805) 646-3794 or email RCOWfound@gmail.com.