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Excelling with an unlikely Ventura winery

James Laube
Posted: March 18, 2003

Helen and Adam Tolmach have found success with their Roll Ranch wines.
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When winemakers talk about tough places to grow grapes, they usually refer to challenging soil or climatic conditions. Roll Ranch, in Southern California's Ventura County, is another story altogether.

The enemy there is grapevine-killing Pierce's disease, caused by a bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, and spread by a trio of insects: green, blue-green and glassy-winged sharpshooters. The fact that sharpshooters thrive in this mild coastal climate almost ensures that grapevines won't -- and makes Roll Ranch quite unusual. Adam Tolmach, 47, owner of Ojai Vineyard, knows firsthand.

The vineyard that Tolmach and his wife, Helen, planted in Ojai in the late 1980s was destroyed by Pierce's disease and removed in the early 1990s. Since then, the Tolmachs have purchased all the grapes for their 6,000-case winery, mostly from Santa Barbara County growers. But they have had the good fortune to buy Roll Ranch grapes, which since 1995 have produced premier California Syrahs; the Ojai Syrah Roll Ranch Vineyard 2000 (93 points, $45) is a deep, rich, opulent wine that was one of the best wines in its category from the 2000 vintage.

That Roll Ranch even exists is testimony to its unique microclimate. It is located in a warmer, drier area of the valley, 700 feet above Ojai, on a plateau of nutrient-deficient soils. It sits below the area's defining geographic presence, the TopaTopa Mountains, which reach about 6,700 feet. Moreover, while the vineyard shows evidence of Pierce's disease, Roll Ranch is healthy enough to routinely produce delicious wines. The sharpshooters have been kept at bay by a combination of the vineyard's isolation and its dry microclimate.

The owners of Roll Ranch -- Richard and Suzanne Roll -- planted 5 acres of Syrah and 2 acres of Viognier out of affection for Guigal Côte-Rôtie, says Tolmach. Richard is a finance professor at UCLA, and Suzanne is the owner-chef of Suzanne's, a restaurant in Ojai that she runs with their daughter.

Roll Ranch's ascent is due to precision farming and naturally low yields, says Tolmach. Roll Ranch is by far the warmest site that he buys grapes from, and it produces the ripest of the eight different Syrahs that he makes. Wines that come from Roll Ranch grapes age well too; the 1995 (93 points) is still plush and vibrant, with lots of complexity.

Most of Ojai's grapes come from cooler sites in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys. Wines from vineyards such as Thompson and Stolpman (Santa Ynez) and Bien Nacido (Santa Maria) are tighter and more austere, with firmer tannins. The Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard 2000 (88, $38) shows off layers of blueberry and boysenberry, with exotic spice and cigar box nuances. This late ripening vineyard typically produces ink dark wines. The Stolpman Vineyard 2000 (87, $38) is more tannic and earthier, but still rich in berry and tar flavors.

Other goodies include the Ojai Syrah Roll Ranch Special Bottling Lot E.H. 1998 (92, $65), which is thick and concentrated. The Vin du Soleil 1999 (90, $28), which is 85 percent Grenache, gushes with spicy plum and blackberry fruit, while the Santa Barbara County 2000 (87, $24), a blend of all the vineyards, is a solid value with its range of dark fruit flavors. Tolmach also makes a brilliant Pinot Noir; the Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard 2000 (93, $50) features rich, silky fruit.

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