Notes from the Vineyard

Past "Notes from the Vineyard"

Handmade wines since 1983.


Notes from the Vineyard




The harvest of 2007 will mark our 25th year of making wine at The Ojai Vineyard, and so I have been taking stock and would like to share with you some of my thoughts on how and why I make wine and where I am going with it.

Basically I treat wine making as a craft. Going through the process year after year and learning how each detail affects the final outcome is fascinating. In order to concentrate on those details I have had to check my empire building tendencies and keep the winery small and manageable. I take an uncompromising approach to the goal of making the best wine possible and spend lavishly on any aspect that helps me toward that aim. A colleague of mine claims I am not a real wine maker-real wine makers are in the business of making money--I am what he calls a lifestyle winemaker. Be that as it may, I passionately enjoy the pursuit, and haven't tired of the challenge.

Grapes are the basis of wine (obviously!), however it has taken California winemakers years to come to terms with that fact. Conscientious growers are now producing far better grapes than could have been imagined 25 years ago through improved trellising, training and irrigation control. The monetary issue here is how detailed one wishes to get with the vineyard work, and I have found very careful work does dramatically improve the evenness of grape maturation, which correlates positively with wine quality. For the wine to express the distinctive character of a particular vineyard one must take the farming to another level and reduce the crop size--25 years of experience tells me there is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. This is extremely expensive, and while it is standard practice here at The Ojai Vineyard, very few people are obsessive enough to stomach the costs.

When I started making wine I was always one of the last to pick in a vineyard, but now I am often the first, even though I still pick at about the same sugar levels. Times have changed and it is widely believed that the way to get the pundits praise is to pick grapes after they have raisined. I like nice ripe grapes too; however I continue to believe there is a moment when one can capture the best of California's fruitiness and generosity, yet preserve the aromatics, acidity and backbone that provide freshness and food friendliness. When picked at the right point the distinctive character of the vineyard is captured, if picked too ripe, dull wines are the result. Like choosing to restrict the quantity of crop for quality, this is another financial issue that the pursuer of craft has to come to terms with. The fashion of the moment is monster wines, and anything that is subtle and fine seems to get lost in the shuffle. Wine makers make excuses for the fact that they are picking riper and riper grapes. They give all sorts of reasons for doing so from global warming to new grape clones to unripe grape skin tannins, but I think it all comes down to worries about marketing wines that don't play well to the critics. Because of the detailed work we are doing in the vineyards to insure each cluster is evenly ripened, we are moving against the current trend and picking slightly less ripe, and by doing so are achieving intensely flavored wines that are better balanced.

In 1981, after working the harvest in Burgundy, Sarah Charmberlain, Jim Clendenen and I visited quite a number of wineries there. It struck me that it didn't seem to matter whether a proprietor had a cellar with lots of fancy equipment or not, the quality of the wine produced had a lot more to do with how thoughtful the wine maker was. I ran with that spirit when I started The Ojai Vineyard, and at our winery there is not a lot of fancy equipment. This is not to say I am unwilling to spend generously if there is the possibility that wine quality can be enhanced. But I have a healthy skepticism of new techniques and equipment-my focus is on presenting a pure expression of a vineyard site. So much of what is done in wineries these days seems to be centered on taking a wine and manipulating it into a predetermined ideal rather than gently coaxing it to show off its attributes.

When I was in my twenties and thirties I had boundless energy and thought I could do it all, but with time and experience I've gotten pickier and notice more clearly the deficiencies in a wine when it has not been properly attended to. With this in mind I have assembled an eclectic team of employees that participate in fashioning the wines and help me focus on the myriad details involved with making wine. With their help I hope to further refine the craft and bring you ever finer wines.


The weather conditions right before and during harvest have a major effect on the character of the wines produced, and in 2004, just as the pinot noir harvest began we had very hot and dry conditions. Because we felt the pinot was physiologically ripe, we chose to pick as fast as we could to avoid raisin-y flavors, and were able to capture some of the freshness we like. Our aim is for a less ripe style, but it was a nice lesson in how important uncontrollable aspects of the process play in winemaking. Mother Nature has the upper hand, and it's best to be intuitive and not too ideologically rigid when reacting to changing conditions. The syrah harvest, which occurred a few weeks later, was less influenced by the hot weather, but the wines all have a plumpness and easygoing character that is the mark of the 2004 vintage.

Adam Tolmach