When the Kelly brothers decided to open a winery, they looked no further than their old hometown.
Camarillo is known for its avocado and citrus orchards, and artichoke and strawberry fields. But vineyards?
As it turns out, the climatology and soil samples from a patch of ground owned by the Kelly family in Camarillo are almost identical to those in Sonoma County.
So as soon as they get the proper permits, Bob and Brian Kelly, along with partner Jim Larson of San Diego, plan to turn 40 acres of a ridge that overlooks the ocean into Pacific Ridge Vineyards, hopefully by fall.
“Most wines are known for being from Napa or Sonoma counties or as a California wine,” said Brian Kelly, chief financial officer. “Basically, what we’re looking for is something that would represent Ventura County and be particular to Camarillo.”
Not only will Pacific Ridge become Camarillo’s first vineyard, but it could uncork the area’s wine industry by nearly tripling the county’s mere 23 acres of grapevines.
It will also make Camarillo home to the county’s fourth winery that will be open to the public--the others are Leeward Winery in Ventura, Old Creek Ranch Winery in Oak View and Giessinger Winery in Fillmore.
The other local wineries are not open regularly to the public, nor do they grow their own grapes.
Ojai Vineyard in Oak View gets most of its grapes from Santa Barbara County and about one-third come from the Ojai Valley. Two other wineries in Camarillo--Rolling Hills Vineyards and Daume Winery, open to the public only a couple of times a year--both get their grapes from vineyards elsewhere in California or even Oregon.
Rolling Hills’ Ed Pagor is excited about the Kellys and Larson experimenting with a new vineyard in Ventura County.
“There’s possibilities in the area, but you have to prospect out these little microclimates that will work,” Pagor said. “Sounds like a little Napa Valley may be shaping up here.”
Like other winemakers in the county, John Daume chose not to grow his own grapes because of the risk. “When you have your own, if they’re not the best, you’re stuck with them,” Daume said. “The bottom line about winemaking is whether you’re a home maker or the best winery in the state, you’re only as good as the grapes you start with.”
Daume’s winery, located on a field near Camarillo’s Target shopping center next to the Ventura Freeway, is in an area that’s “good for growing celery, pumpkins or tomatoes,” he said.
“But it’s too cold for grapes and too humid. . . . You’ll find any premium growing area has warm days so they can ripen, and cool nights so the acidity and quality stays up.”
Climate, Daume says, is the main determinant of grape quality.
“It’s the difference between growing grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, where you get high tonnage but low quality, and growing in Napa Valley where you get limited tonnage, but high quality,” Daume said. “But there are microclimates in Ventura County where it’s hot during the day and cools off at night, like in Ojai and up along Santa Rosa Road in Camarillo.”
Aware of the high stakes in growing grapes, the Kelly brothers and Larson, their marketing director, are determined to turn the piece of land near St. John’s Seminary, off Upland Road and above Santa Rosa Road, into a successful vineyard. The property is now covered in yellow mustard flowers, white sage and cactus and is accented with eucalyptus and pepper trees.
“Ventura County as a whole is not a compatible climate,” Brian Kelly said. “But there are microclimates where it will work.”
Bob Kelly, the winery’s president, agreed that the right land is an essential ingredient for success. “But we already have this land,” he said of the parcel that has been in the family for decades, “so it makes it much cheaper for us than the next guy.”
Bob and Brian Kelly, as well as Larson, developed their dream of becoming vintners while they were Navy aviators flying in the same squadron. All three plan to keep their day jobs. Bob Kelly, 34, is about to begin a new job as a pilot with Alaskan Airlines, and Larson, 32, is a systems engineer with RF Microsystems in San Diego. Brian Kelly, 28, remains in the Navy as an aviator.
In a push to get the winery’s name out, this past week they’ve bottled 348 cases of chardonnay and 76 of merlot with premium grapes purchased from Santa Barbara’s Bien Nacido Vineyards. The wines will be released in mid- to late August.
The trio bottled this first batch at Central Coast Wine Warehouse, a Santa Maria processing facility that handles other labels: Woodcraft, Lane Tannery, MacMillan and Golden Bear.
“We’ve purchased grapes from one of the finest vineyards in California, where extremely successful wines have come from, in an effort to make our product a premium wine,” Bob Kelly said. “We’re not messing around with the less expensive grapes. We’re going right for the very top stuff. It costs more to make it, but it’s worth it.”
Word of their strategy has apparently traveled quickly: 30% of the chardonnay and 80% of the merlot bottled in Santa Maria are already reserved by restaurants, country clubs and private wine collectors.
Ironically, by the time the wine is ready for release in August, there will be little left for Ventura County residents.
“There are two other buyers who want the rest of the lot, but we actually want someone in Ventura County to have some,” Bob Kelly said.
Not to worry. They plan to be producing at the 1,000-case level by next summer, offering equal portions of merlot and chardonnay.
In the meantime, they are making plans to grade the Camarillo property and plant grapes by October, and maybe within a year open a tasting room on the ridge. On a clear day, wine tasters could see across the ocean to the Channel Islands and as far north as Santa Barbara.
So far, the Kelly brothers and Larson have invested $60,000 in their dream and they’re figuring to spend another $450,000 for grapes, barrels and land development, which will include a 1,500-square-foot storage area and tasting room.
The Kellys and Larson estimate that after planting their vineyard, it will be three to five years before their first harvest. “We’re working at it casually as a hobby,” Brian Kelly said. “And it will be quality wine because we’re not driven to quantity and large profits.”
Carol Nordahl, executive director of the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce, believes a winery could boost tourism. “The chamber is working with the city to draw additional visitors and this would be a welcome attraction,” she said.
Others see a boutique winery as a natural progression of the county’s agriculture history.
“And who could get upset with having a vineyard next door to them?” said Jim Jevens, the city’s economic development consultant.
The Kelly brothers and Larson are also committed to making the vineyard environmentally friendly. For every case that’s sold, a tree will be planted in Southern California, they said. They plan to use corks that are treated with hydrogen peroxide, rather than bleach.
The winery’s 100% French oak barrels can be reused for aging for decades and then will be cut in half and used as planters. Their business forms and cards are printed on recycled paper and environmentally friendly inks are used where possible.
“I used to plant trees as a kid with my grandfather,” said Larson, who was born in Pennsylvania. “In 20 years, these trees that we’re planting now will be symbolic of the growth of our company--because if you nurture it, it will grow.”