From Vine to Wine
Can the vineyards of the Santa Monica Mountains compete with those in the renowned wine regions of Napa Valley and Paso Robles?
Written by ANNA BITONG Photos by RICHARD GILLARD, IRIS SMOOT
A ccording to Martin Ramirez of The Vineyards of Ojai, grapes growing in local soil rival some of the best in the world, and some are being tended in unexpected places: peoples’ backyards.
For the past 20 years, Ramirez has installed and maintained vineyards in backyards all over the area, including Agoura Hills, Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo. With wine’s popularity booming and many local commercial growers finding success, more and more homeowners are getting into grapes.
“The trend has been growing like crazy,” Ramirez says. “Most of (my clients) are retired. They want to have something to play with. The wine that’s been produced out of their vineyard, they love it. They cannot believe that (it’s) from a little backyard vineyard because the wine is really good. The taste is great.”
Ramirez planted 483 vines in Dale and Carole Kornreich’s nearly 1-acre yard in Old Agoura. The vines will bear cabernet, syrah and zinfandel, varietials that will do well in the area’s warm climate, Dale Kornreich says. Ramirez notes that grapes grown in warmer climates tend to produce sweet-tasting wines, while those tended in cooler weather make peppery varieties.
The viticulturist recommends planting at least 100 vines in a backyard. The stalks can produce 5 to 10 gallons of juice. Even better would be to plant 250 to 300 vines in a yard that is at least 100 feet by 80 feet, he says. The grapes would make enough juice to fill a 60-gallon wine barrel, or 300 bottles.
The Kornreichs, who spent about $20,000 for their vineyard last year and will pay up to $3,000 a year for Ramirez to maintain it, must wait at least two more years for their vines to sprout grapes suitable for wine-making. During that time grape clusters will fall from the vines, a process that yields fruit with higher-concentrated juice for a more flavorful wine.
Before planting vines, clients choose the grapes they wish to grow with a vintner who will eventually make their wine, Ramirez says. Before embarking on what will be a very long-term project, Ramirez makes sure he and the homeowners have clear goals. “I ask them what their intentions are and what they are looking for so there are no surprises.”
Residential vineyard owners may have their wine made without charge if they share the product.
“If I find a client willing to plant something experimental that we are pretty sure is going to work, then we try to cut a deal,” Ramirez says. “We make the wine and then at the end we split the wine.”
The Kornreichs are on their way to one of the rewards of growing a vineyard.
“If you do it right all year long you’re going to make great wine. Fantastic wine,” Ramirez says.
In the meantime, the couple are enjoying the view. About 140,000 pounds of quarry rock were brought in to line their terraced hills filled with vines.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous when it’s growing,” Dale Kornreich says.
Carol Marinello carries on a family tradition started in her ancestral home with a clear glass of chardonnay raised in a toast in the Simi Valley home she shares with fiance Mike Johnnie. There the couple uses a 100-year-old wine press that belonged to Marinello’s grandfather, passed down from her great-grandparents in Sicily, to create gold medal-winning wines.
“We have a number of wine parties every year,” Marinello says. “It’s really lovely. Wine tends to open people up and (help them) relax, which is just great because we have high-stress jobs. You can sit down and say, ‘OK, I’m not thinking about work and (I’m) just enjoying people’s company.’ That’s what wine does.”
The countdown to the celebration begins during harvest season, between late August and November, when the couple drives to Paso Robles to sample wines and choose grapes. They buy about a half-ton of the fruit, which costs around 75 cents a pound, and take it home de-stemmed and crushed in fermentation tanks. The bounty produces about 600 bottles a year.
It’s Marinello’s favorite part of the process: “We bring it home and everything smells like wine and grape and harvest.”
Then it’s time to make wine in a corner of their garage: a small room with cream walls and a white-shuttered window facing the street. Several 60-gallon oak barrels made in France and weighing 550 pounds each line the wall below the window. Nearby is the refurbished 120-pound vintage press. Wine glasses hang from a rack made from old parts of the press stained the color of Bordeaux from decades of grape skins.
The couple, who started making wine together in 2001, seem to have perfected their process. They’ve won at least 25 Cellarmaster awards: gold, silver and bronze medals spanning more than a decade for their chardonnay and cabernet, which they produce every year, and their zinfandel, merlot, malbec and sangiovese, which they produce intermittently.
Newly harvested grapes are scooped or pumped through hoses into bins, then they undergo a multistep process that includes adding yeast to the juice to start the fermentation process.
At the end of fermentation, the wine is clarified to remove solids and poured into the oak barrels. Chardonnay is kept in the kegs for a year; the red wines for up to three years, developing their distinctive flavors.
Every year Marinello and Johnnie give their wine to friends who gather at their home and form assembly lines to fill, cork and label the bottles. The custom-made labels bear the name Cane Rosso Winery, (“red dog” in Italian) and have photos of their beloved dogs, Bogey and Rico. Other labels commemorate birthdays and wedding anniversaries of family and friends.
Marinello is happy to pay tribute to her family’s legacy.
“My mom is absolutely thrilled,” she says. “The first time we used my grandfather’s press she was just crying. She said, ‘Grandpa is smiling at you.’”