BEST of Camarillo and 3 Old Friends

What the heck is going on in Camarillo? When we attend a wine festival, especially in Camarillo, we expect to taste and munch and meet and greet. We are not supposed to discover wines and new labels. The 2012 Taste of Camarillo provided the right concoction of need-sonar-to-find-em wineries [ed. now THAT is under-the-radar], go-for-it winemaking spirit, and excellent food to see something vinous is happening in the breadbasket of SoCal.

#1 – There is a wine “boomlet” taking place in Camarillo. Nobody is actually growing grapes in or near Camarillo. Somis might seem an obvious site with hills and cool ocean breezes. But we do not know, nor did we hear, of any such LOCAL vineyard activity.

#2 – The Camarillo wine scene is going through the standard developmental stages as it would seem every California wine region has undergone: Stage 1 is to make Cabernet and Chardonnay wines. Stage 2 is to experiment with Rhone varietals. Stage 3 is to get a credible winemaker and make decent wines.

#3 – Some folks are making decent wines right now in and around Camarillo.

Every winery in Camarillo is sourcing grapes from somewhere else in the state. This is in itself unique. Even Malibu grows its own. The vineyards are in the increasingly popular Lodi sites [ed. see ancient head-cut Carignane vine in montage at top], the inevitable Santa Barbara vineyards, and Paso Robles. Quite a few wineries make their wines in their Camarillo facilities. We find it remarkable that a would-be vintner will build a “winery” in Camarillo to crush and ferment fruit trucked in every harvest. Wouldn’t it be easier and perhaps even cheaper to buy a winery in Paso Robles? Excuse me for saying this BUT the geography would certainly be prettier! Maybe tBoW is too old school, too romantic. We just love the pocketed Westside micro-valleys in Paso. We cover four notable Camarillo wines right after we revisit three old friends.

2010 Chateau Cambon Rosé $21: First reviewed this wine in 2011. The death of renowned winemaker Marcel Lapierre from Beaujolais influenced the buy. This being his last vintage AND the winemaker being a legend AND the price being right AND the time for Rosé peeking around the corner…it was an easy buy. Problem: the wine was quite lean and hardly quaffable. Twelve months later the wine has settled into a state of appeal. The color is still hot pink but the salty flavor is gone. It is no longer lean as in acidic without fruit. Now the wine shows structure and lychee fruit flavors. Not ripe. Not tart. That strange in-between zone occupied by exotic fruits. 12.5%

2011 Malibu Sanity Chardonnay $40: Tasted pre-release. Apple flavors, cinnamon spice, more oak than in his previous two vintages. Has high tone quality. Reminiscent of a Cakebread wine but with FRUIT! Charles Schetter shows improved skill with each vintage. His Chardonnay wines are more approachable right away than his Pinot Noir which, as it turns out, needs a year or more in bottle to blossom. We predict this Chardonnay will also improve with time. 14.8%

2009 Ortman Chardonnay Central Coast O2 Series $18: Unexpectedly delightful. Served at a reception. Fresh scented nose, appley flavors. Very nice whenmoderately chilled. Light oak. Found myself returning for more. Screw top a plus. Papa Fred would love this. Would be a U20 recommendation except the winery closed in Dec 2011! Chuck Ortman founded Meridian which became a HUGE Paso outfit producing 1MM cases at its height. Meridian was sold to Cellar360 and the Ortman progeny were unable to keep the Ortman boat afloat. Which is too bad because this Chardonnay is very nice. Finding out what happened here is like chasing ghosts. Makes you wonder what everyone is doing now? 14.2%

The wines of Camarillo… or thereabout…

Ritual Wine Company is not actually from Camarillo. Mike Stan is the software engineer turned winemaker. He is located in Santa Maria but he hits every wine festival possible from February thru October. Mike is o-b-s-e-ss-ed. He has a refreshingly candid blog where he discusses going into the wine business with very little knowledge but plenty of enthusiasm. He writes “After getting a Bachelors degree in Political Science from UC Berkeley, I had kicked around some terrible jobs and I was sick of having no money and being something of a fuckup with no future.” Oh yes. What winemaker would admit that? And he makes decent wines and his price points are pretty good ranging from $20 to $40. He makes 500 cases with aspirations to grow to 1,000. He takes winemaking classes and hangs around cellars of notable locals including Bill Wathen (Foxen) and Jim Clendenen (ABC). We liked his Cabernet Franc (14.1%), Mourvedre (14.2%) and the 2008 G-S-M.

Four Brix Winery is also not from Camarillo. The winery is in Ventura but the 4Brix team is from Simi Valley. Leadership is comprised of three couples who enjoyed drinking wine together so much they started their own winery. You do not have to be a TV writer to imagine those conversations. They poured the 2011 Roséo ($15) which is almost all Grenache with a bit of Zin and they describe as Provencal style. And it is. The 2009 Temptress ($28) is a “Spanish Rioja Style blend” of 44% Tempranillo, Mourvedre, and Grenache. How many people get the wine bug (you just met 7 of them) and jump into the game? Maybe it’s less intimidating in Camarillo? Nice wines, well priced.

Michael Giovinnazzo created Sunland Vintage Cellars in 2010 when he turned 55 [ed. all four of these “Camarillo” labels started up in the past couple years! Oy such chutzpah!]. Another software industry guy who decided he wanted to be in the wine industry. He claims mucho street cred given his grandfather had a southland wine company named Sunland. Grandpa made wine and raced horses. Nice! The label shows it all – the Italian heritage, the horses racing into the sun at Del Mar. Well that would be enough of a story BUT the wines are also pretty good. He goes with Italian varietals. He is the winemaker. He poured his 2011 Barbera Bianca that is bled immediately off the lees proving he will go the extra mile to stay Ital-legit. Floral perfumed nose. We also tasted the 2009 Montepulciano (14.6%, $28) which is 86% Montepulciano juice with Dolcetto and Sangiovese. The wine lightweight, smooth, perfect for daily use. His claim-to-fame is the NV Tre Regazzi ($28) a blend of 50% Nebbiolo, 40% Barbera and 10% Sangiovese. All the grapes are sourced in Lodi. But the wines are made in Camarillo. One must consider that Uvaggio wines, which are coveted in NoCal, cost about 30% less and are also Lodi fruit. Shipping further adds to cost? Still, these are very nice food friendly wines.

Artiste Winery and Tasting Studio is also not in Camarillo. IOO (in our opinion) they showed the best wines at the festival. The concept would appear to be simply uniting fine art with fine wine. It is more. Winemaker Bion Rice approaches the idea of making wine in a fairly original manner. The proof is in the bottle and the three wines we tasted were artfully done. The Butterfly is 71% Sangiovese, 20% Barbera and 9% Chardonnay. We found it refreshing that the winemaker – Bion Rice – listed the white grape in his red blend. The practice is common but the admission is rare. Seems a bit freaky putting Chardonnay in a red blend. Well it ain’t. This red wine has Old World style as in not so ripe. The Skyline is a Bordeaux blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Merlot. We really liked this wine and that is atypical for tBoW. Excellent winemaking is evident. Windy Beach ($32) blends Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Each of the three wines are non-vintage. Alcohol levels are above 14% but well integrated. The labels are a separate show to be sure and the Artiste Los Olivos tasting room includes label paintings along with other art pieces. The website includes artist bios. The winemaker’s bio describes his family roots in the large scale Sunstone Winery. Of greater interest is Bion Rice’s commitment to changing how wine can be made. Forget about vintage unity and especially forget about terroir [ed. he DID NOT say that]. Each of the wines we tasted were very attractive, made for fine dining.

This Wines of Camarillo movement is not about a geographic place. It is about the spirit of jumping into the wine business when you have been bit by the wine bug (and perhaps burned out by computing). It happens, believe me. Perhaps it is less costly to succumb to oenologinuria in Camarillo. Perhaps the syndrome has traveled further south…like the Plague moving into Eastern Europe. Whatever the Camarillo story is about, the fact remains the wine industry looks so damn fun from the outside! For the inside view from a wild and wonderful newbie be sure to look at Mike Stan’s Ritual blog.

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