At first glance, it is a miracle on the order of the loaves and fishes. With no more than 12 acres of grapes, Ventura County yields more than 150,000 bottles of wine a year.
But the five wineries that produce vin de Ventura get most of their grapes and sell the lion's share of their vintage far beyond the county lines. Their owners are prophets without much profit in their own land but they dream that the fruits of their labor will become more firmly established in a region now more respected for its lemonade than its wine.
"Europeans love their local wineries and take great pride in searching out the guy off the beaten path," said Ed Pagor, the founder, chemist, chief bottler, marketing representative and sales manager of Rolling Hills Winery in Camarillo. "I think that feeling is going to catch on here in Ventura County."
Sandwiched between an auto repair shop and a warehouse in a Camarillo industrial park, Rolling Hills imports its grapes from the rolling hills of Santa Maria, 100 miles to the north.
No wooden casks mark its entrance. There is no brick veiled with ivy, no tasting room, not even a sign. The dimly lit winery, crammed with oak barrels, flasks, measuring spoons, thermometers, gauges and the other paraphernalia of wine making, occupies a space about the size of a small two-bedroom apartment.
"If I can keep it going," Pagor says, "it will take another five years to have really steady customers, which will allow people in Ventura County and the rest of Southern California to really know and appreciate my wines."
Part-Time at First
A former sales manager for a Swiss aluminum company, Pagor started the winery in 1981 as a part-time operation. Last February, his employer of 18 years closed its West Coast operation, and he was out of a job. "I became a full-time wine maker the next day," he said.
In 1987, he produced 18,000 bottles of wine.
A transplant from New Jersey, Pagor sells 75% of his wine in the Los Angeles area, which represents the nation's largest consumer of wine. (So competitive a market is Los Angeles that the University of California, Davis offered a one-day class in Santa Rosa last fall on selling wine in Southern California.)
About 250 of California's 650 wineries produce as much or less wine than Rolling Hills, according to the San Francisco wine-industry consulting firm of Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates.
"A winery a month opens in this state, and many of these are lucky to sell enough wine to just break even. Many are producing wine for the love and art of it," said Jon Fredrickson, the firm's president.
On the average, he said, a winery must sell 36,000 bottles a year to cover expenses. Only one Ventura County winery sells that much.
In the last half of the 1800s, however, Ventura County was considered one of the most productive grape-growing areas in California.
Wineries and vineyards flourished in Ojai, Piru and Tapo Canyon. On Santa Cruz Island, wine makers blended island grapes into Zinfandel, Chablis, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Burgundy and shipped most of the vintage to San Francisco for bottling.
But the industry was squeezed out by the thirst of the citrus business for cheap land, by disease and by Prohibition.
The flow of wine from area wineries stopped in 1949 for 30 years. It resumed in 1979, when a grocery store manager and a retail clothier created Leeward Winery, now the county's largest and most profitable wine maker. The two men, Chuck Brigham and Chuck Gardner, began their commercial operation in a 1,600-square-foot warehouse across the street from what was to become Pagor's Rolling Hills Winery.
"We spent 50 hours a week making wine, in addition to our regular jobs," Brigham recounted. "We did everything ourselves, even the dirty work. The two of us used to leave for the Bay Area at 3 in the morning with 140 cases of wine to deliver and sell, then we'd drive back. It was quite an experience."
Their patience has produced a wall full of awards. Two golds and a silver from the Orange County Fair honored the only three varieties that they produced their first year.
"We are really proud of those first three awards," Brigham said. "They really helped put us on the map."
In 1982, Leeward moved from Camarillo to a spacious new facility in Ventura. The two-building complex features one of the county's two tasting rooms.
A climate-controlled production facility is accented by a state-of-the-art bottling assembly line that can bottle, cork and label 2,640 bottles in one hour--five times the number that they could process at their old facility.
In 1987, Leeward produced 114,000 bottles of wine, 63% of Ventura County's total production for the year. Two Chardonnays (a Central Coast and an Edna Valley) accounted for 75% of the company's total production. The winery also makes an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir Blanc known as "Coral."