Garagiste Goes Upscale

Vintner Lauro Guerra expands Topa Mountain Winery.

By Michael Aushenker

Photo by T Christian Gapen

“We wanted it to feel like the historical roots of Ojai,” says Lauro Guerra of Topa Mountain Winery’s new tasting room in Ojai.


f there’s one thing that vineyard grapes need to ferment into quality wine, it’s fresh air. So, too, perhaps, a wine business.

Last month, Lauro Guerra saw a major extension of his Topa Mountain Winery. After nearly four years of planning and construction, Guerra opened the doors at 821 West Ojai Avenue over Memorial Day weekend. Topa Mountain’s new tasting station offers plenty of outdoor seating, magic-hour mountain views, and that subtle oaky scent of fine reds and whites lingering in the atmosphere. Not bad for a one-time garagiste who has only been making wine for seven years.

“We didn’t have a tasting room before,” Guerra said. “It’s pretty amazing. We’ve got the best views of the mountains in the city.”

The expansion means a 2,000-square-foot tasting environment sitting on 2 acres of property that will soon allow for live music on the weekends. Inside will see softer acoustic acts strumming in the background; outside, there’ll be a stage “for bands to rock a bit harder,” as Guerra put it. “There’s a lot of room to hang out at the picnic tables. We’re really catering to having people come in, hang out and enjoy live music and great wine.”

Architecturally, Guerra intended the new Topa Mountain showroom to “stay true to the Ojai Spanish feel,” he said, “the tile roof, the arched windows, the stucco, the reclaimed wood, the rustic feel. We wanted it to feel like the historical roots of Ojai. When people come out and see this setting, they’ll appreciate it.”

In other words, the ultimate Ojai experience.

Topa Mountain Winery’s product — which includes 15 different wines, some estate grown — comes courtesy of grapes grown in the Ojai Valley and Santa Barbara regions. Of course, Topa Mountain’s prime winery remains up in Ojai, where the wine is aged in French oak barrels. If the small main production facility in Upper Ojai Valley is Topa’s beating heart, this new extension is the winery’s public face.

“This is more about the tasting,” said Guerra, although there will be some vineyards on the premises to give visitors a taste of that authentic winery experience.

The original Topa Mountain Winery site sits nestled within the Topa Topa Mountain range, among the mighty spread of old oaks and rare redwoods. Topa Mountain’s varietals are derived from the region’s climate and soil. To distinguish themselves in an area abundant with vineyards, Topa Mountain began working with varietals new to the Ojai region — tempranillo, carménère, touriga nacional and barbera — in addition to offering grenache and viognier, which thrive in this region, and popular wines such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

It all started with a bottle of syrah out of Guerra’s garage.

Two decades ago, Guerra, a successful businessman, left his money management profession behind in Los Angeles to relocate to Ojai. Originally from Pasadena, Guerra had played competitive tennis back in high school and it was at one of those athletic tournaments that Guerra glimpsed his future while competing in Ojai. “I always wanted some land, some space for a tennis court,” he said.

Guerra’s life came full circle in 1996, when he finally made the jump and moved to town. He found his tennis court and his scenic bicycle trails. It wasn’t until 2009, however, that he began producing wine.

“The first vines were planted seven years ago,” Guerra said. “It was really just a hobby. I thought it would be nice to look at the vineyard. It’s beautiful landscaping that doesn’t take a lot of water.

“It just kept leapfrogging from a hobby, just me making a little wine in the garage.”

When those initial bottles of syrah from his garage garnered positive reactions from friends, family, even local restaurants, Guerra knew it was time to invest in something larger and ramp up production. “It was one of those light-bulb moments,” Guerra recalled. “I realized that you can make pretty good wine from locally grown fruit.”

Traditionally, “All of our wines are dry, our rosé is dry,” he says. Topa Mountain is currently aging a port, however, that will be ready in a couple of years and the winery will introduce its first dessert wine this July.

“What we’re doing is trying to make more food-friendly wines, lower alcohol content and higher in natural acidity in the wine,” Guerra said. “We’re very low in the sulfates added. We want people to taste the grapes and the variety that grapes grown in different soils bring.”

Tendency is, the more alcohol in the wine, the less natural acids; so Topa Mountain aims for less alcohol to retain the best flavor. “We want the natural balance,” Guerra said. “We pick a little bit earlier.”

Today, Guerra beams with satisfaction as he surveys the completion of the biggest undertaking of his life. He has single-handedly put a lot of work (and an undisclosed financial investment) into delivering what he feels will become Ojai’s best tasting room. “It is the most ambitious thing I’ve taken in quite some time,” Guerra said, who added that the process has taught him much patience as he has been “seeing it through to the end. We don’t cut corners here.”

One bonus: Guerra can now two-wheel it over to Topa Mountain’s new digs. “We are adjacent to that bike path,” he said. “The bike racks went in [in May]. We want to encourage bike traffic.”

“The thing that I’m most excited about,” he continues, “is the venue and the vineyard. You’ll get a sense of going out to the wine country without having to drive two hours away from here.”

After all, as Guerra put it ever so succinctly, “Ojai is about enjoying the outdoors.”

We’ll drink to that! 

Topa Mountain Winery
821 W. Ojai Ave.
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 640-1190

Grape varietals such as picpoul, carménère and touriga nacional, unfamiliar to most American wine drinkers, have found a fertile home in the Ojai Valley.

Lush vineyards in the Topa Topa Mountains are the winery’s “beating heart.”

Wine enthusiasts enjoy a sip in the hot summer sun among grapevines just beginning to sprout.

Lauro Guerra with French oak barrels in his Upper Ojai production facility.


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