The Ojai Valley is not new to winemaking.
Antonio Riva built a winery on what’s now Old Creek Ranch more than 100 years ago, and, in the 1980s, Adam Tolmach planted a vineyard at The Ojai Vineyard, where he’s now growing fascinating hybrid grapes to deal with the region’s pesty Pierce’s disease. A smattering of vineyards popped up in the ensuing years — Roll Ranch getting the most attention, thanks largely to Tolmach — as well as homey wineries such as Casa Barranca and Boccali. Things got even more serious with the 2016 opening of Topa Mountain Winery, whose comfortable outdoor spread and solid wines put Ojai on the map as a true tasting destination.
The latest brand to join the fray is Walson Holland, a partnership between winemaker Benjamin Holland and vineyard owners Lisa Wallmark and Jonas Svensson, an entrepreneur and investor in various ventures originally from Sweden. (“Walson” combines the couple’s last names.) With plans to deliver the inaugural wines in the fall — a pinot noir, chardonnay, white Rhône, and red Rhône blend — the brand is now taking sign-ups for its allocation list, which will grant access to an annual release.
Holland’s path to the cellar starts in his home state of Georgia, which he left in 2004 to hit up South Lake Tahoe for a ski season. He wound up staying for eight years, working as a bartender in Heavenly Village and then helping a friend’s dad run a higher-end restaurant in Reno. That’s where he learned to build a wine list, began being certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and decided to embark on a life of wine.
His first stop was at the legendary pinot noir producer Kosta Browne in Sebastopol in 2016, and then he headed down to New Zealand, working on pinot noir and aromatic whites at Amisfield in Central Otago. The next year, Holland moved south with his daughter and wife, who now works as an oncology nurse at Kaiser in Ventura. He worked for a year with Sine Qua Non, the Oak View–based cult brand founded by Manfred and Elaine Krankl that makes some of the most sought-after wines on the planet.
He continues to use what he learned at Sine Qua Non in the cellar today — not necessarily the style of Krankl’s notoriously powerful and brawny wines, “but how thoughtful, meticulous, and clean his process is,” said Holland.
Along the way, Holland met Svensson, who’d planted about an acre of grapes on his Ojai property. They started making a red field blend (from the vineyard’s syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, and carignan) and rosé (from the sangiovese, nebbiolo, and sauvignon blanc) together under the Walson Farms name and selling it in Ojai shops such as Point de Chêne and the restaurants Ojai Rôtie and Nocciola.
Out of that relationship came Walson Holland, first crafted in a warehouse winery in Oxnard, but now based in a facility on Ojai’s Bryant Street that they fixed up last summer. Walson Holland produces about 800 cases of wine per year, sourced from Santa Barbara County vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, Alisos Canyon, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, and Santa Ynez Valley appellations as well as from Slide Hill Vineyard in the Edna Valley.
Here’s a sneak peak of the first release.
Duvarita Vineyard Chardonnay 2019: Just two barrels were made of this wine — one in fresh oak, one in neutral — and its blend of buttercream, sea salt, nectarine, and herb expertly show this unique vineyard, which sits just west of the Sta. Rita Hills near La Purisima Mission. “I really love that vineyard,” said Holland. “You get that tropical citrus but also that salinity and minerality hangs in there too.”
Melange Blanc 2018: This blend of 40 percent grenache blanc and 20 percent each viognier, marsanne, and roussanne is quite tightly woven, especially considering the grapes came from the warmer McGinley Vineyard in Happy Canyon. “It’s kind of surprising that the whites do really well out there,” said Holland, who made sure to turn the roussanne clusters during the season to ensure even ripening.
Slide Hill Vineyard Grenache 2018: Though not included in the four-pack, this powerful bottling is super ripe with caramelized black fruit flavors, a bit more extracted than Holland’s preferred style. “It’s kind of a beast,” he admitted.
Melange Rouge 2018: This blend of 54 percent syrah, 25 percent grenache, 9 percent graciano, 6 percent petite sirah, and 6 percent viognier hails from six vineyards, from Enda Valley to Happy Canyon. It’s savory, peppery, and pleasantly rugged.
Duvarita Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019: Holland included 100 percent of the stems in this whole-cluster fermentation, which is very popular in New Zealand. “That’s tricky for your first time,” he said of that choice, which can impart strong herbal character to a wine. “There was a lot of spicy jalapeño during fermentation for a while, but the fruit came and I feel like it’s integrated nicely.”
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