By Mariah Bryand

Santa Barbara, California – The dusty dry ranchland disappeared into lush rolling foothills as we pushed our way into the heart of Ojai Vineyard. Soon after, Ojai winemaker Adam Tolmach was pouring us his wines and suddenly recapping three decades of Santa Barbara wine history.

Ojai Town

The town of Ojai with tasting room on the left

Founding partner of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir wine legend Au Bon Climat in 1982, Adam has spent the last two decades in another epic crusade. At least, that is the feeling when he speaks in detail about the nuances of dozens of parcels across the whole Central Coast. As his fingers traced the laminated tasting room map of the Central Coast, he explained where various vineyards lie and how the coastal weather patterns usher in cool breezes, making Santa Barbara a truly unique growing region. I couldn’t help thinking Adam spoke of the land in such intimate familiarity, as if he had just walked the entire coastline that morning on his usual daily route taking note of favorite nooks and crannies along the way.

Adam’s approach to winemaking displays a deep respect and celebration of the grape and the specific site from which it is grown. Minimalistic yet vigilant and careful. Watchful. Maybe it was his Steven Spielberg-esque appearance, or maybe it was the way in which his piercing blue eyes gleamed a bit brighter when he spoke of his craft, the land, the grapes, and his wines that convinced me that Adam was at heart an artist and in practice an expert craftsman. Adam explained that he wanted to stay small, artisanal and to work as close to natural as possible – avoiding filtering and fining, using just the teensiest amount of sulfites and working with indigenous yeasts for all of his reds (“the whites struggle” he says with a note of compassion). Back in the beginning he worked out agreements with his growers to purchase grapes by the acre rather than by the ton. This has allowed him to have a direct hand in the vineyards, working to reduce yields and pick less ripe for better balance.

AdamA UC Davies graduate, Adam started his first winery with Jim Clendenen –they both had met working as young winemakers at Zaca Mesa- in 1982. Their wine project was called Au Bon Climat and took off like a rocket. About that same time (1983), Adam planted a couple plots of syrah and Sauvignon Blanc in Ojai, producing his own wine from these vines. Today, Adam can’t hide a sip of nostalgia when recalling that first 1983 syrah bottling. At just shy of a decade, Adam and Jim parted ways – Jim buying all of Au Bon Climat and Adam founding Ojai Vineyards.

I found Adam’s wines to possess a true moderate European sentiment exhibited by minimal use (if any) of new oak and balanced ripeness/alcohol levels allowing the grapes and site to really sing clearer than the vinification process. There was also, however, an element of other to which I can only describe as having captured the sea-spray freshness that is uniquely Central Coastean.

The Ojai Vineyard

2011 Kick on Ranch Riesling

Laced with lemon/lime zest, unripe peach pit, green apple skin, orange blossom and just a faint touch of petrol, this Riesling is not hinting at acidity and is as bright and brilliant as the California Coast’s skyline.

2010 Viognier

A delicate arrangement of pink roses, white pepper and whipped into the lightest lemon custard foam. 13.5% alcohol.

2010 Solomon Hills Chardonnay

With seeing just 5% new oak barrels, this Chard exhibits bright ripe and slightly bruised yellow apple, a squeeze of lemon rind and the faintest pat of butter. 14.0% alcohol.

2012 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir

Balanced and clearly Pinot – a hefty dose of tart cranberries, fresh-picked bing cherries, black licorice, sweet root beer and woodsy stems. 13.5% alcohol.

2006 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir

This bottling is a tad more ripe with exuberant flavors of raspberry jam, black cherry and black plum. A nice note of black pepper and leather focus the fruit into a savory finish. 14.0% alcohol.

2012 John Sebastiano Vineyard 50% Syrah 50% Grenache Blend

Perfectly ripe and freshly crushed wild berries – tart blueberry, ripe raspberry, black currant and huckleberries with a mouthfeel of just pressed pomegranate juice. This blend is incredibly fresh, fresh, fresh!! Fruit is dusted ever so lightly in exotic spice – cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon stick, smoky paprika and fresh bay leaf. There’s even spiced ham in the background, while the finish is lifted and lightly floral.

(*This bottling was part of a no sulfite project. The Grenache vines were later than usual to harvest, holding out until November to achieve adequate ripeness.)

2009 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah

Herbs are first to greet my nose, closely followed by fresh raspberry puree and tantalizing bacon fat. The palate is full of blue, black and red fruit and even more herbs – flat leaf parsley, fresh sage and dried bay leaf. 14.5% alcohol.

2012 Santa Barbara Syrah

Very fresh and very pure. A blend of four vineyard sites including Bien Nacido, White Hawk, and Sebastiano. Flavors of mixed berries, sage, licorice and anise. 13.5%