PICTURED: Explore Wines’ Lisa Stoll (left) and Gretel Compton of Clos des Amis at South Mountain Winery. Photo by Gwendolyn Alley

by Gwendolyn Alley

After plentiful December rains, followed by unusually dry weather through winter, spring dresses the hillsides of the Santa Clara Valley in orange poppies, purple lupine, yellow mustard, glossy avocad, and green grasses turning golden on sunny slopes. On this early spring morning, I’m headed to Santa Paula’s Clos des Amis South Mountain Winery for a story about Ventura County’s women in wine.

The salty maritime air shifts to the willowy smells of the Santa Clara River and the heady scent of citrus flowers. Exposed layers show shells, dark striped soils and chalky rock outcroppings revealing the days when the Heritage Valley was under the ocean.

The winery sign along South Mountain Road is small, obscure, easy to miss. Although more people now know about the vineyards of Ventura County, few know where to find them. Yet wine grapes have grown here going back to the early Spanish days at Rancho Camulos in Piru. 

Between towering avocados, I take the turn up the steep driveway, eager to meet with artist and educator Gretel Compton, Clos des Amis co-owner and co-winemaker with founder Bruce Freeman. We’re joined by winery tour guide Lisa Stoll of Explore Wines, based in Camarillo. She specializes in boutique Santa Barbara County wineries, and she’s visiting Clos des Amis for the first time.

Gretel Compton, Clos des Amis

The unpretentious winery is small, not much larger than a garage, handmade of adobe brick and solar powered. Compton gives Stoll a quick tour of the modest facility which has been home to Clos des Amis for seven years, starting with the 2014 vintage. We squeeze past a few barrels, mostly older, as well as stainless steel tanks of various sizes holding wines made from Ventura County grapes. A simple lab and sink is in the back, near the riddling rack Freeman made for Clos des Amis’ sparkling wine, Chambang! In another room, more wine is stored in tanks, barrels and bottles. Overall production is very small, averaging 500 cases a year.

Clos des Amis winemaker Gretel Compton in the albariño she planted during budbreak in the Clos des Amis estate vineyard on South Mountain, Santa Paula.
Photo by Gwendolyn Alley

Stoll puts her brand-new Lincoln Navigator into four-wheel drive, and as she steers us carefully up the windy way to the vineyard, Compton tells Stoll more about Clos des Amis. In addition to working with Freeman on every aspect of the business, Compton sells and delivers wine, pours from 3-7pm at the Friday Santa Paula Certified Farmers Market, and creates the art on the labels (which feature local hiking trails, flora and fauna). In a vineyard tucked in the hills under the Fillmore “F,” Compton planted cabernet sauvignon and in 2020 Clos des Amis harvested the first vintage to make a red field blend.

Compton and Freeman help plant, prune and pick grapes from all over Ventura County, but Compton has a special place in her heart for the albariño grapes she planted a few years ago.

Stoll parks on a patch of chalky white soil below the vines, between fragrant lupine flowers and citrus trees. The calcareous earth beneath our feet has chunks of surprisingly lightweight rocks scattered here and there.

Compton explains that it was this limestone soil that led original owner Sanger “Sandy” Hedrick to plant an experimental vineyard on this steep slope. With its success, he expanded, and then added a second vineyard where there’s room for further development.

Between the soil and the maritime environment similar to its home in the Iberian Peninsula, Compton suspected that albariño would do well, and it has. She and I picked the first crop last fall, cranked the small basket press to crush the grapes, and the juice went into a five-gallon jug for fermenting. We bottled it a few weeks ago.

Compton grew up around wine: “I was raised in a more European household,” she tells us, “so we would have dilute wine with dinner on Sundays or special occasions.” She graduated on to spirits and “then Bruce came along.”

That was in 2010. With trips to France and samples of wonderful wines, she realized “there is such a beauty in the perfect glass of wine. I have had perfect glasses of wine that paired with food, fired my tastebuds and engaged me.”

Freeman has been a wonderful guide, Compton says. Early in their relationship, “we were talking over dinner about starting a winery, making the step from home winemaker, which he’d already left behind, doing a business plan, questioning if we could make it work.”

After she retired from her 37-year career as a graphic artist in 2015, Compton “became more and more involved with the mechanics and magic of making wine. Bruce taught me what his mentors, Brooks Painter and Adam Tolmach, taught him.” Freeman served as assistant winemaker to Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard for many years.

“Sitting around a table and enjoying a glass of wine is what it’s all about,” Compton says. “One of the reasons I retired at 59 is because I had something to do — I had a wine career to look forward to.”

After helping Freeman with every aspect of the vineyard and winery experience, Compton wanted to make her own wine — one where <em>she’d</em> make all the decisions. So she bought a bin to make a barrel, and with fruit from Paso Robles, she’s made merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.

“Bruce has embraced my presence as co-winemaker,” she says.

And now Compton’s making albariño: “I really love that I work in the vineyard and I grow these grapes and I pick these grapes and I press these grapes and they end up, after sleeping over the winter, as these amazing things that talk about a place and they talk about time and they talk about the season and the weather so it’s such a very expressive experience.”

“I feel like winemaking is very artistic.”

Chris Brown, Cantara Cellars

While long ago only widows were allowed to own property, in Ventura County women have owned or are currently the co-owners of many wineries. 

At Camarillo’s Cantara Cellars, Mike Brown makes wine from purchased Lodi fruit and Chris Brown runs their flourishing tasting room, brewery, and events space.

Gretel Compton bottling at the Clos des Amis winery. Photo by Gwendolyn Alley

According to Chris, in 2002, on a whim in their garage located in the “Cantara” tract of homes in Ventura County, she and husband Mike fermented fruit from his mom’s chardonnay vineyard. The name was a joke at first, but they decided to keep it even as they became more serious about making wine.

“We started making wine from his folks’ chardonnay,” recalls Chris, “and by the time it was ready, it was amazing! We picked this fruit, we made this wine; it really got both of us amazed that we could do this.” But, she adds, “You have to buy good fruit, and you have to know what you’re doing.”

With a desire to learn to make better wine, in 2003, the Browns volunteered at Camarillo Custom Crush. “In 2005 we did our first commercial harvest which is what we had when we opened in 2007.”

Analytically minded, Chris had a former career as a materials manager; she points out that she does the same thing at Cantara but with a different product. “Instead of widgets, it’s wine,” she says with a chuckle.

When asked about being female in a male-dominated business, she agrees that wine is not as bad as manufacturing. However, “Salesmen in particular will say ‘I’m here to see Chris’ — and they are talking to Chris, a woman, when they are expecting Chris, a man.” Chris says that she has always used the non-gendered name purposefully for that reason, so no one knows her gender in advance and judges her. Overall, she loves what she does. “Wine is such a wonderful business.”

Helen Tolmach and Leah Coles, The Ojai Vineyard

In Ventura County, all roads lead to The Ojai Vineyard owned by Adam and Helen Tolmach. Adam’s grandfather bought the property near Creek Road in 1933, and with the support of Helen and his degree from University of California, Davis, he planted syrah there in 1981. Decimated by Pierce’s Disease, that vineyard is now replanted with resistant experimental vines. Adam and Helen recently purchased Fe Ciega Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, but most of their fruit is purchased from Santa Barbara County and brought to their Oak View winemaking facility.

Sheila Donohue at Vero’s Ventura warehouse. Photo courtesy Gwendolyn Alley

At The Ojai Vineyard, Leah Coles gets the wines out into the world as wholesale director. Previously, she ran Paradise Wines, now Paradise Pantry, with Chef Kelly Briglio and Tina Thayer. This excellent women-owned restaurant establishment is also a wine and cheese shop and is celebrating its 15th anniversary in downtown Ventura near the Mission San Buenaventura.

Coles shared with me three bottles of sauvignon blanc: the Sainte Hélène Reserve from 1991, a blend of Santa Barbara County sauvignon blanc and semillon which honors owner Helen Tolmach, plus two recent releases. The name itself gives a hint to the important role Helen Tolmach holds. While the Sainte Hélène is past its prime, the other two offer an interesting contrast in vintages and sites.

Sheila Donohue, Vero

Sheila Donohue helps bring wines like those from Clos des Amis further afield through her wine merchant business, Vero, located in an unassuming Ventura warehouse. Donohue also imports wines from Italy, all with a similar ethos, and often with women at the helm. These wineries include La Maliosa in Tuscany and Vigna Petrussa in Friuli.

Mother and daughter Hilde and Francesca Petrussa of Vigne Petrussa in Italy. Photo courtesy Sheila Donohue

Donohue comes from the male-run banking and technology industry, and moved into another male-dominated industry, wine. She’s had to learn “to be outspoken and also have thick skin. I’m still getting accustomed.” 

Since wine is also controlled by big business enterprises, she says that as a small business, “It’s very difficult no matter your gender.”

At Vinexpo America, which took place in New York City in early March, Donohue observed that on a panel with three men and one woman, the only person talking about small production, sustainably made wines was the woman — who herself owns a small, independent retail shop.

“My business focuses on wines that are out of the ordinary,” says Donohue. “I love Ventura County but I must say that it is not easy to sell wines that are off the beaten path.”

Wines like those from Vigna Petrussa. Hilde Petrussa and her daughter Francesca Petrussa are second and third generations, respectively of women winemakers and winery owners in Friuli, in northeast Italy next to the Slovenian border. Donohue was the first person to bring the wines of Vigna Petrussa to the United States.

In 2020 Hilde was cited by Italian wine expert Ian D’Agata as “one of the best estates in Italy.” The nicely structured, vibrant Richenza blends native varieties from Friuli vinified and aged in oak separately, then assembled.

Spring on South Mountain

Back at the winery, Stoll, Compton, and I taste and discuss the white wine blend from Vigna Petrussa, The Ojai Vineyard’s sauvignon blanc, and Clos des Amis’ chardonnay, albariño, and a sample from the tank of the 2021 sauvignon blanc that was bottled on March 19. Stoll is excited to add tours to Clos des Amis to her Santa Barbara and Ventura County offerings. It fits right into her focus on out-of-the-way, special, and elevated winery and vineyard experiences.

“Sandy” Hedrick stops by for lunch at the big table under the pepper tree, and we share our picnic spread with him as well as the wines. We relax in the shade, and enjoy the views of the wildflowers on the hillsides across the valley. It’s spring, and while there may be a lot that’s wrong in the world, there’s a lot that’s good in the Ventura County world of women in wine.


Gwendolyn Alley writes for Slow Wine Guide and blogs at Wine Predator, winepredator.com.


RESOURCES

Cantara Cellars
cantaracellars.com
805-484-9600
126 Wood Road # 104, Camarillo,

Clos des Amis
closdesamis.com
805-795-7743
20262 South Mountain Road, Santa Paula

Explore Wines
explorewines.com
805-364-2397

The Ojai Vineyard
ojaivineyard.com
805-649-1674
109 S Montgomery St., Ojai

Vero
www.verovinogusto.com
805-535-4027


Wines to Explore

2021 Clos des Amis “Albariño South Mountain Estate Vineyard,” Ventura County; 1 case
Almost platinum in color, aromas include fresh lemon, white stone fruit, and kiwi. On the palate the mouthwatering wine offers tart, white stone fruit, lemon, sea grass, kiwi. With food on the palate, the wine takes on a creamy citrus flavor that was fabulous with the shrimp bisque as well as the crab cakes with aioli.

2016 Clos des Amis “Olivelands Chardonnay,” Ventura County; 100 cases
These grapes grow just above Olivelands school off Telegraph near Wheeler Canyon. The wine can be found at The Cave, online from the winery, or from distributor VeroVino. In color, a golden buttercup with aromas of butterscotch, sea salted caramel apple, and a hint of paprika, and on the palate, lemon curd, with a nice roundness on the palate, and a chaparral finish. An excellent food wine, especially with Ventura’s local seafood, it’s fantastic with triple cream brie on bread or in a puff pastry with asparagus, shrimp bisque, and crab cakes with fresh aioli.

2021 The Ojai Vineyard “McGinley Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County
Very pale yellow in the glass with aromas of fresh grass, lemon, peach, citrus and citrus blossom. A sip brings to your lips tart lemon, salinity, wet slate, white stone fruit and fresh, unripe banana. With oysters, they become very sweet and bring out the lemon in the wine. Fantastic with goat cheese on top of a rosemary raisin cracker.

2020 The Ojai Vineyard “Presqu’ile Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara
The wine made from these organic grapes is a very pale, light lemon color, with aromas of jalapeño pepper, lemon, lime, and cilantro with more jalapeño on the palate. Outstanding with crab cakes and aioli.

2018 Vigna Petrussa “Richenza” Friuli, Italy
Golden yellow, daffodil in color, it offers aromas of marmalade, tuberose, minerals, mulling spice with orange rind and lemon thyme. On the palate the wine is clean and bright, with notes of herbs, lemon, olives, sea salt and a very long, lingering finish with a hint of rose petals. Excellent with a wide range of foods: bisque, asparagus brie tart and fresh fruit galette. It offers enough structure to pair well with a traditional corned beef dinner.