Upper Ojai, Ventura County
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It takes no coaxing for viognier to be expressive. It tends toward being intensely fragranced with fruity-floral aromas, and sometimes to a fault. Like a teacher’s pet who constantly raises their hand and has the right answer—too much of a good thing can become obnoxious! And too many examples in California seem heavy, even sweet, because the grape is quick to lose acidity.
Our viognier comes from Roll Ranch in upper Ojai, and we make a different kind of Viognier. The grape ripens early and we harvest it at moderate sugar levels, so it’s usually the first fruit that comes into the winery. I find it plenty expressive and intensely aromatic even at this ripeness—smelling this wine as it ferments in barrel is intoxicating in itself! Yet it impresses without gushing, and has a taut minerality and citrusy edge that isn’t often associated with the grape.
The viognier harvest was painfully small in 2015, thanks to the drought. We harvested only 3 tons from Roll Ranch’s two acres of viognier, so the wine is intense, and for the second year in a row we made no separate dessert wine, just this dry version.
A glass of this will strike you with aromas of fresh white stone fruits and flowers, wet rocks and lime zest, and there’s a curious anise-y kind of spiciness that comes out after a year or two in bottle. On the palate it swells with texture before pulling into a focused, mouthwatering finish. Though uncommonly bright for viognier, it’s certainly got flesh too, so I find it drinks well with rich foods like cheese plates, roasted pork and pears, or creamy Thai flavors like thom kha gai.
Roll Ranch is located under the dramatic striated bluffs of Topa Topa mountain in Upper Ojai, and the roots of our vines there plunge deep into poor rocky soil that was once part of those bluffs. It’s a warm generous climate and the wines from this site are gutsy.
Our history with Roll Ranch goes back to 1992, when Suzanne and Richard Roll’s ranch manager Larry Finkle approached me for advice about planting a vineyard at their place in Upper Ojai. Suzanne was just launching her eponymous restaurant in downtown Ojai, and they had the momentum to get several acres under vine too. They wanted to plant some Chardonnay and Cabernet Aauvignon because, well, that’s what most people want to plant. I told them Syrah and Viognier would be better choices for our climate, and so Richard bought a bottle of Guigal’s famous Coté Rotie called La Moline, which is made from Syrah and a dollop of Viognier in the northern Rhone. He tried the wine and thought if I could make something like that it would be okay, so we planted five acres of syrah and two of viognier (all own-rooted) and harvested the first crop in 1995.
What’s unusual and consistent over the years with Roll Ranch is that the fruit there retains acidity remarkably well for a warm climate vineyard. Warm sites tend to give grapes with lots of sugar and too little acidity, which often means overstuffed and sweet flavored wines. I’m not sure if there’s some soil voodoo to thank, or the magical abilities of vineyard manager Martin Ramirez (who planted Roll Ranch with Larry and has farmed it since), but some combination of factors has contributed to what seems to be an inherent balance to this site.
No doubt though, there used to be a real Californian exuberance to Roll Ranch wines. In the early years, many Roll Ranch Syrahs were big bruisers with over 15% alcohol, and the viognier was often so unctuously ripe that I would only make dessert wine with it. After a while I felt the over-ripeness presented a problem: our wines from the Ojai Valley were so saturating you would only want to drink them on cold rainy winter nights, and we rarely have them in our warm climate!
So, over the years we’ve tinkered in the vineyard and the cellar to temper some of that opulence. We’re fermenting the Syrah fundamentally differently than our cool climate sites now. And these days we’re finding no shortage of flavor when harvesting a bit earlier. The wines are better for it actually (when a wine has so much to say it does not need to yell!). They are fresher with more cut and intricacy than ever. Making wine from Roll Ranch has been a 20-year evolution; learning to listen to what a vineyard has to say and trying to capture its spirit is a slow process!