The Ojai Vineyard promised great things for wine growing in the Ojai Valley when the winery was founded by Adam Tolmach on his family’s land in 1983. While Tolmach rose to become a living legend and the brand is now respected worldwide — thanks primarily to Santa Barbara County grapes — the Ojai-as-wine-country dream suffered greatly at the hands of the grape virus Pierce’s disease, which started ravaging the region’s fledgling vines by the mid-1990s.
But wineries and even vineyards are returning to the Ojai Valley, with better viticultural techniques to track and control the disease. Some operations are quite casual, some rather serious. Topa Mountain Winery combines both strategies, serving a wide range of deeply considered wines in a family-friendly tasting complex where Highway 150 hits 33.
“It was really just a hobby that ran amok,” said owner Larry Guerra, a former mutual funds manager from Pasadena who planted vines around his upper valley home in 2009 because they “didn’t take a lot of water and were pretty to look at.”
After making some barrels in 2012, Guerra decided to “go for it” in 2013 and enlisted the winemaking services of Dominic O’Reilly. An Oregon native who grew up working in his family’s Owen Roe Winery — his first wine came out when he was just 14 — O’Reilly came to Ojai in 2008 to attend Thomas Aquinas College. “I didn’t have any intention of staying down here,” said O’Reilly, who grew up hearing that nothing good ever came out of the Golden State. “I hated the idea of California wine.”
But by 2010, O’Reilly was assistant winemaker to Tolmach at The Ojai Vineyard, learning how to make wine from the master and blind tasting about $1,000 worth of bottles from around the world every day at lunch. With that training, which included learning the landscape of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, O’Reilly was ready when Guerra called and brought along fellow Ojai Vineyard alum Alex Tombelli to be cellar master.
“We’re very, very hands-on,” said O’Reilly while standing amid the barrels of the production facility, which is adjacent to Guerra’s home and vines. “Our motive isn’t just low alcohol, high acid. It’s about finding the balance. We’re not afraid to put out a wine that’s 15 percent alcohol, nor are we afraid of putting out a wine that’s 12 percent.”
The wines are 80 percent from Santa Barbara County — Rhône and Burgundian varieties from such places as Bien Nacido and John Sebastiano vineyards — and 20 percent from Ojai, including from the five acres that surround Guerra’s house, which include barbera, grenache, carménère, and a few other varieties. They make more than 20 different wines, including affordable blends and numerous whites, totaling about 4,000 cases a year. “Unfortunately,” said Guerra, “we never met a grape we didn’t like.”
That mix fits well into their tasting complex, which Guerra developed on an abandoned car dealership property that was on the market for years. Like his winemaking hobby, “it just kinda snowballed,” said Guerra. “I wanted to create that wine-country experience, where you can come inside the gate and it’s like you’ve left everything behind.”
He succeeded. Indoors, high ceilings and barrel-stave walls offer rustic elegance while outside the buzz of live music, kids playing, and people tossing bean bags or having picnics prevails. Offering nearly unobstructed views of the Topatopa Mountains, including the iconic Chief Peak, Guerra explained, “This is a pink moment view area,” referring to Ojai’s famous sunset hue.
“It’s become the Ojai gathering spot,” said Guerra. “People thank us for being a place where they run into people they haven’t seen in years.”
Guerra’s vineyard and home narrowly escaped the Thomas Fire, but O’Reilly’s nascent cider operation, called Anna’s Cider, burned to the ground; he and his wife, Anna O’Reilly, are rebuilding that now. As for the Pierce’s disease, which is spread by sharpshooter bugs, Guerra explained, “There’s so much citrus around; that’s why they live here. You just have to pay attention.”
TASTINGS TO DO: Squid-ink noodles with nerello mascalese, anyone? Chef Weston Richards is cooking up a spring celebration, paired with wines chosen by new GM Hayden Felice at Les Marchands (131 Anacapa St., Ste. B) on Tuesday, March 27; $50 for food, $45 more for wine. Reservations start at 5:30 p.m.: (805) 284-0380 or firstname.lastname@example.org. … The same day, next door at S.B. Wine Collective, Santa Barbara’s Rhone Rangers will show off more than 40 of their latest rosés and whites for $20: independent.com/rhone18. … Speaking of the Rhône, Betty Dunbar’s Laplace Wine Bar & Shop (205 Santa Barbara St., Ste. B) is hosting Amour du Rhone with a mix of Central Coast and French wineries on Sunday, April 15, 1-4 p.m. Tix are $75 and limited to 50 people: (805) 880-WINE or laplacewinebar.com.