By Nicholas Harary
Recently, I spent a couple of incredible days in Santa Barbara County (SBC). SBC takes a backseat to Napa and Sonoma when it comes to booking vacations in wine country, but when it comes to making world-class chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah, I’m pretty sure SBC is the best spot in America. It was a whirlwind tour, several wineries, all the great vineyards, two off the charts In-N-Out burgers, and at least a zillion miles in a car. The day I spent walking vineyards with Fabien Castel and Adam Tolmach of the Ojai Vineyard was one of the most enlightening days I’ve ever spent. It started at 6 a.m. at one end of Santa Barbara and ended 10 hours and 300 miles later, as we rolled into what looked to be a hippie commune left over from the ‘60s in the backwoods of the mountains west of Ventura at the Ojai Winery.
We sat down to taste the new releases and I started firing questions at Fabien. I knew Adam – really just about everyone does in SBC. As one of the pioneers of the SBC wine scene, many young budding winemakers have made their way to Adam, to learn from the master. I assumed that Fabien had a similar story and being French, I figured he came from a winemaking family. Turns out, the assistant winemaking gig at Ojai is Fabien’s first in the wine business. Fabien grew up in Paris, the only thing he knew about wine is that he liked it. When life brought him to California, he scored an interview with Adam, never expecting him to accept it when he saw his resume lacked any winemaking experience. Fabien’s pitch was that he was loyal, a fast learner and a good taster. So, Adam started tasting wine with him. Lots of wine. Fabien told me he didn’t know he was supposed to spit, so he kept on drinking it, wine after wine, as he fielded question after question from Adam, very little of them having anything to do with wine. Needless to say, Fabien’s buzz was considerable by the end of interview.
The next morning while nursing a hangover, he assumed he had blown his only chance. In an odd turn of events, Adam called to offer Fabien the position. As Fabien apologized for getting drunk, Adam said, “That is what got you the job – I thought you held your liquor very well.” Really? Well, truth be told, it was a little more than the solid drinking. Adam has always believed that smart, artistic people were better prepared to deal with the unpredictable nature of winemaking; classically trained winemakers have a hard time thinking outside the box. The proof of Adam’s theory lies in every wine we tasted.
Ten years later, Adam and Fabien are a formidable winemaking team, making some of the best American wines that I have ever experienced.
One of the best was the chardonnay 2011 from the Solomon Hills vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. The first thing you notice when you step into the Solomon Hills vineyard is the steady breeze. It carries a briny sense of freshness that speaks entirely of the sea. Off in the distance, you see the evidence of the Pacific in a bank of fog that a couple hours earlier, covered this entire vineyard. It is absolutely on the very edge of being able to get grapes ripe and the vines struggle mightily. But it’s that struggle that produces such spectacular fruit. I almost didn’t have to taste the wine. I just had to taste the grapes.
Ojai Solomon Hills Chardonnay is incredibly aromatically complex with a concentration of fruit and mineral backbone generally reserved for Burgundy with price tags north of $50. For American wine, particularly at $36, it’s almost unheard of.
Log onto my Nicholas Wines store at www.restaurant nicholas.com to order today.
Nicholas Harary is the owner and executive chef at restaurant Nicholas in Middletown.
In 2011, Restaurant Nicholas launched its Nicholas Wines program. Each month, Nicholas Harary selects one to two wines to sell in the online store (www.restaurantnicholas.com). Chef Harary’s long-lasting, personal relationships with winemakers and his commitment to storing wine at 56 degrees from Day One equates to unique access, value and quality for Nicholas Wines customers. Wines can be ordered by the bottle and/or case and shipped or picked up at the restaurant.