Ventura County Wine Trail Celebration
Thursday, June 20 (past)
The Collection at Riverpark

On a surprisingly warm and sunny night in June, a thousand thirsty guests gathered to celebrate and raise a glass to the growing wine scene in Ventura County. The venue: the new event space in the heart of The Collection at RiverPark. The vibe: festive and light, with the Shoemaker Brothers cranking music in the background. The center of attention: wine from 17 different wineries and food from more than 10 local restaurants. The general consensus: It truly is an exciting time for winemakers and wine lovers throughout the Ventura County area.

See, we should consider ourselves lucky. Whether you go north or south from here, you will find grapes. From Napa to Malibu, Paso Robles to Ojai, grapes grow well in the coastal climate. So when wineries on the Ventura County Wine Trail source their grapes from all these major growing regions, we benefit. We get to taste all the lovely varietals without having to leave the comfort of our own town.

And that’s where the map comes in. Each year, this celebration is a coming-out party of sorts, the moment when the new and ever-expanding Ventura County Wine Trail map makes its debut. This year’s map includes five new wineries, with a few more on the horizon for next year, according to Lauren Belshe, coordinator of the Ventura County Wine Trail.

This year’s map has been designed to be more user-friendly, full of pictures and descriptions of each of the wineries in the area, as well as the partnering hotels, restaurants and area attractions. “It is our hope that people will pick them up and use them on their own self-guided tour,” Belshe says. Or if you prefer to let someone else play tour guide, the map includes information on local wine tour companies.

I spoke to Ed Schwartz of Labyrinth Winery about what drew them to open their first tasting room here. A five-month search led Schwartz and winemaker Ariki Hill to downtown Ventura. The vibe of downtown, the eclectic mix of shops and the community demographics were all a draw. “The fact that the Ventura County Wine Trail is younger appealed to us. … And being the first winery tasting room here just felt right,” says Schwartz. Throughout the event, Schwartz spoke with guests and poured a variety of his wines, including the 2010 Freebird, an easy-to-drink red blend.

Throughout the course of the evening, as I juggled my wineglass, my food and my little notebook for scribbling notes, I did my best to make note of some favorites. Boccali Vineyards was pouring a selection of its wines, with my personal favorite being the 2010 Rustic Red Blend, a people-pleaser kind of wine that tastes just as good sipped with or without food. Plan B Cellars was pouring a dry and refreshing rosé. I love how every time I taste a rosé I’m surprised at how good it is, and this one was no exception. Summer picnic dinner and a bottle of that? Yes, please. It is sold at Plan B Cellars tasting room by the glass or in refillable one-liter glass bottles.

By the time I made it to this table, Panaro Brothers Winery had run out of the pinot noir, but wowed me with the chardonnay, which was described as a great “bridge” between red and white, a gateway wine for those easing into whites. As I sipped my chardonnay, brother Vito spoke about how this family of fifth-generation Italian-American winemakers ended up making wine in Ventura. He cites that same feel and demographic that Schwartz spoke of, but also how much they love “the small-town feel.”

To go along with all the wine, local chefs were present as well, representing restaurants included on the new map, places like The Cave, The Kitchen, Tierra Sur, La Dolce Vita and Hollywood Beach Wine Company. There were oysters from The Jolly Oyster served with a beet mignonette sauce, short rib crostini from Camarillo’s Twenty 88, pulled-pork sliders topped with pineapple slaw from the Coastal Grill at the Embassy Suites, and a black truffle pasta draped in a roasted garlic gorgonzola cream sauce from Cafe Zack. Of the desserts, the Meyer lemon semifreddo from Tierra Sur and The Kitchen’s chocolate cherry cupcakes infused with Four Brix Winery’s Temptress red wine were definitely the standouts.

As I wandered through the event and spoke to the people at the forefront of the burgeoning wine scene, I was struck by how many of them have wonderful stories to tell.

There are stories of people making wine in their garages, people with varying degrees of experience, people who didn’t want to wonder “What if?” for the rest of their lives, people leaving careers behind to take a leap and pursue a passion for wine. Thank goodness — I’d like to raise a glass to all these risk-takers for making the local wine scene what it is today.

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