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Ventura County

Winery Returns Family to Its Roots

Ojai Valley: Daughter of Old Creek Ranch vintners and husband are reopening tasting room on weekends and reviving the vineyard.

June 09, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winemaking flows through Carmel Whitman's veins.

Her great-grandmother was an Italian immigrant who squeezed her own red wine in the basement of her Detroit home. And for more than a decade, her mother, Carmel Maitland, owned and operated the Old Creek Ranch Winery on an 800-acre cattle ranch at the southern edge of the Ojai Valley.

So when the winery was shutting down two years ago, torpedoed in part by a voracious pest that had ravaged its vineyard, she just couldn't bear to see it end.

"It was Mom's dream to make a success of this," said Whitman, who along with her husband, John, has resurrected the winery and plans to reopen it June 29. "We didn't want to let that fade away."

It's not just about keeping Maitland's dream alive, it's also about tradition.

Old Creek, which released its first vintage in 1981, had become an institution in the Ojai Valley. It was rooted in winemaking traditions dating to the late 1800s, when early settlers built a winery on the property that outlasted Prohibition and didn't shut its tap until sometime during World War II.

In fact, the foundation remnants and broken walls of that building stand today, a stone's throw from Old Creek's tasting room.

John K. "Mike" and Carmel Maitland bought the ranch in 1976 and launched their winery a few years later. When her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few years later, Carmel Maitland almost single-handedly ran the ranch and winery, while caring for him until his death in 1988.

In that time, and until her death in 1996, Maitland made good wine and better friends.

She created a place that would become a landmark for locals and a destination for wine drinkers from all over, loyalists who would line her tasting room or pack a lunch and sit on the deck overlooking the sun-bleached property.

"We heard from a number of people who were sad the winery had gone away," said John Whitman, who, when he's not producing wine, produces television shows in Los Angeles. "In the end, we didn't want to see it [stay] shut down. We wanted it to continue, for the tradition of the ranch and in memory of my in-laws."

The Whitmans aren't new to this.

When Maitland died at age 74, she left the ranch and winery to her son, Mark, and daughter, Carmel. The siblings and their spouses took over the winery operation, launching a learn-as-you-go crash course in winemaking and vineyard management.

"It was a radical change," John Whitman said. "I tell people, 'One day I was buying grapes by the pound, the next day I was buying them by the ton.' "

The joint venture worked well until early 2000, when it became apparent that Old Creek would lose its vineyard to Pierce's disease. Spread by a bug known as the sharpshooter, the disease has devastated wine grapes throughout the state and by 2000 had wiped out most of Old Creek's 20-acre vineyard.

Mark Maitland wanted out of the business and the Whitmans considered following suit. But by the summer of 2000 they committed to buying him out and giving the winery another go.

They took over sole ownership in October and, for the first time since closing the winery in August 2000, will open it on Saturdays and Sundays for tasting and sales.

The winery will offer its first vintage produced under new ownership, a 2001 Chardonnay. It also will sell a 1999 Merlot and 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon produced under the previous ownership structure.

When it sells out of the 350 cases it has available, the winery tasting room will close until June of next year, when it will reopen with an estimated 450 cases. By June 2004, the Whitmans plan to have 1,000 cases for sale, allowing them to remain open year-round.

"Our goal is to stay small, at 1,000 cases a year," John Whitman said. "What we can do at 1,000 cases is make a good wine and have lots of fun doing it."

The county is home to about half a dozen wineries, run by a small but thriving fraternity of winemakers who have shown they don't need a vineyard to be vintners.

Like most other wineries in Ventura County, Old Creek is having to rely on wine grapes bought from other parts of the state.

Setting up in strip malls and industrial parks, local wine producers have managed to carve a niche in California's competitive wine industry, squeezing out superior vintages in a county better known for its lemons and strawberries than its Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs.

Agricultural officials say there are fewer than 30 acres of wine grapes in Ventura County, as local growing conditions are better suited to producing more profitable fruits and vegetables.

Moreover, the emergence of the disease-spreading sharpshooter has made growers shy away from the idea even more.

"For anyone who produces wine grapes in this county, it's a lot like playing Russian roulette," said Alan Laird, a deputy agricultural commissioner with the county. "I wish anyone who tries a lot of luck."

The Whitmans are undeterred.

Although the last of Old Creek's vineyard, just 2 1/2 acres now, is drying and shriveling, they talk of staking a new vineyard high atop a grassy hill with brilliant views of the Ojai Valley and the Pacific Ocean.

In the meantime, they are excited to be reopening and reestablishing the winemaking operation.

"My mother made a lot of friends over the years, and we inherited many of them," Carmel Whitman said. "The first vintage was 1981, and a lot of these people have been coming from the beginning, so they are thrilled that tradition can continue."

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