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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

A Laid-Back Wine Sampler

The popular Ojai festival at Lake Casitas will draw more than 50 wineries as well as microbreweries. Music, food and crafts make it popular among families.

June 06, 1996|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Roland Meinyer, a Santa Barbara-based wine distributor, has had some wild times at past Ojai Wine Festivals.

"We go in our shorts and T-shirts. We bring squirt guns," said Meinyer, describing himself and fellow wine representatives. "Last year there was one little boy whose mom came up to us at the end of the day and said, 'He's having more fun with you guys than doing anything else.' "

That's far from the stuffy image one may have of a wine tasting. But then, the Ojai festival, which marks its 10th anniversary Sunday at Lake Casitas, is hardly hoity-toity.

"I think it's the sun, the lakeside, the music and the Sunday afternoon that makes this a family-type thing," said Meinyer, who works for the Wine Warehouse with headquarters in the City of Commerce. "Everybody there is just having a good time, whereas with some other wine tastings--the wine connoisseur type of deal--they are much more serious about their tasting."

Serious or not, the Ojai Wine Festival, sponsored by Ojai West Rotary, manages to attract a host of wineries from various geographical areas. Ventura County will be well-represented this year by Leeward Winery in Ventura, The Ojai Vineyard and Old Creek Ranch of Ojai--as will be the California's Central Coast, the Napa Valley and even Australia.

Austin Cline, chairman of "Ojai Wine Festival '96," expects about 50 wineries to be represented, either by local sales reps or by winery personnel themselves. The Brander Vineyard, Sanford Winery, Firestone Vineyard, Austin Cellars, Barefoot Cellars and the Santa Ynez Winery are on the list.

About 10 microbreweries, including Shields Brewing Co. of Ventura and Joe-Joe's Brewing Co. of Simi Valley, and a similar number of local restaurants will also participate.

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A crowd of about 3,000 people, a combination of wine-tasting novices, experienced palates, nondrinkers and children, are expected to turn out to sample the food, drink, arts and crafts, music and youth activities.

Cline said the Rotary Club's goal is to bring in about $20,000 in net proceeds to benefit the club's community programs. Past festival funds have gone toward scholarships for local youth and the purchase of equipment for the Ventura County Sheriff Department's bike patrol in the Ojai area.

Since its inception a decade ago, the Ojai Wine Festival has tried to maintain a family-oriented image, while providing high-quality wines, said Les Gardner, who co-founded the event with Ojai veterinarian Bill Shouse.

"Our two goals were to have the wineries showcase their best wines, which makes it a class event, and to limit the amount of wine consumed," said Gardner, who owns the Attitude Adjustment Shoppe liquor store in Ojai.

"We've always been very conscious and very concerned about over-consumption of alcohol at the event."

To meet both of these ends, Gardner took some tips from the Paso Robles Wine Festival.

Though organizers of most wine festivals ask participating wineries to donate the stock they will be pouring, the folks in Paso Robles and in Ojai purchase the wines from the wineries. In the case of Ojai, the festival buys the wines at wholesale prices, expecting that pourers will squeeze at least 20 servings out of each 25-ounce bottle.

This, Gardner said, limits the wine being poured and encourages the wineries to bring their best stuff.

"You can have a sample of an $18 to $20 Cabernet or Chardonnay here. The winery couldn't afford to donate three to five cases of a $20 wine," Gardner said. "Wineries spend a lot of money coming to these events and most bring only a limited amount of wine. But with us [buying it] they can bring top-of-the-line wines and they can bring enough so they don't run out."

All of which fits well into the game plan of winery officials, who see wine festivals as great promotional opportunities.

"The benefit for the winery is to keep itself out in front of the public," said Chuck Brigham, owner of Leeward Winery, which will be represented at about 50 wine festivals across the country this year.

"There were 250 wineries in California when we opened in 1979, and everyone stuck out more than they do now with the number approaching 900," Brigham said. "Wine festivals continue to renew our relationship with the public."

Leeward winemaker Eric Cinnamon will do the pouring at the Ojai Wine Festival. The spotlight will be on Leeward's 1994 Central Coast Chardonnay, its 1994 Monterey Reserve Chardonnay and its 1994 Pinot Noir.

Kas McGregor, a spokeswoman for Raymond Vineyard of Healdsburg, said her winery also attends about 50 wine festivals annually, including the Ojai Wine Festival.

"Most of the consumer events we do are in Northern California, but if an event is well-organized and well-attended we do them in other parts of the country too," she said. "The whole Southern California market is good for us. It's another means of hands-on contact with the consumer."

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