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A Matter of Taste

Sommelier Mark Storer swirls and sips his way from T.O. to Ojai

Bellavino Wine Bar, Thousand Oaks. Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

 

ine bars started sprouting up like wheat across the county some five years ago. From Thousand Oaks to Ojai, oenophiles and casual wine lovers alike began gathering in small storefronts and shops while small business owners created a new kind of hybrid establishment. Part bar, part restaurant with a focus on serious customer service and knowledge of the products they purvey, wine bars became a nationwide trend, and their numbers have increased steadily over the years.

Ventura County, though, is diverse enough to have a number of unique places whose ambience has more in common with the cities in which they operate than they do with each other. We traveled from Thousand Oaks through sleepy Camarillo to Ventura, where we visited not one but two unique places, and ended our quest for wine bar design and atmosphere education in Ojai.

The first-rate wine list pairs with a full menu of international food to make Bellavino a top choice for East County oenophiles. Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

In a strip mall in Thousand Oaks, Richard Belloff started Bellavino in 2003. Attracting East County customers with discriminating palates seems to have inspired Bellavino’s focus on a full menu, as well as a wine list that may be one of the best in the county. At the heart of Bellavino is a full range of international offerings, including a killer French wine list.

Inside, the colors are no surprise: warm earth tones, burgundy, and even brown adorn the walls. Belloff’s bar is the centerpiece here, and its rich dark wood tone is offset by a glass surface highlighted with blue light shining from underneath. The wine bar is large enough that Belloff has created space at the back for a band to perform, but patrons can escape to the patio if they prefer a quieter setting. Meanwhile, the opposite direction through the bar opens up into a full dining room, available for banquets and private parties as well as regular dining.

Originally, the patio was reserved for cigar smokers, but that didn’t work out as planned and all smoking is now prohibited. White tablecloths adorn each table and artwork hangs on the walls. Belloff has succeeded in attracting a diverse customer base: a younger crowd, which appreciates the live music, full bar menu, and intimate table placement; and a more mature crowd, which tends to retreat to the dining room or patio.

The Wine Closet in Old Town Camarillo started off as a wine shop before evolving, at the behest of its patrons, into a tasting room. Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

Up the 101 in the bedroom community that is Camarillo, Rob and Linda Hunter have spruced up Old Town by opening The Wine Closet, an aptly named intimate space that started off as more of a wine shop than a wine bar.

The Hunters first opened their business in Oxnard, far from the freeway, and focused on wine tasting and wine purchases. “When people came in the door, they were either trying to sell us something, borrow something, or ask us what we were doing there,” said Linda. The couple got the hint and moved to Old Town with the same goal: a simple space where people could taste and purchase great wine.

But the basis for their dream ran into a customer base that demanded a bit more. So they added a few tables, some comfy chairs, and a couch to their simple concrete (yes, concrete) wine tasting bar, which has beautiful purple stains in it from careless and even careful patrons.

Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

High ceilings and large fans with a mottled tile floor are the theme here. Rustic brown and dark colors again on the walls, but they are offset by the large wine racks that line them and the light concrete bar. Art on the walls, yes, but most of it fairly commercial and wine related. The small space really allows wine tasters a chance to talk, as the Hunters intended. “I love talking about wine, learning about it, hearing others talk about it,” said Linda. “That’s what so great about this.”

Inside The Cave at Ventura Wine Company, high-tech Enomatic machines give a contemporary look to an otherwise rustic setting.Photo by Eric Fisher.

From Camarillo, we headed into Ventura, to the county’s most unique wine bar. The Cave, located inside Ventura Wine Company on Telephone Road, is easy to describe. In the front of the industrial park space is a warehouse type wine shop with eclectic offerings at great prices. In the back, though, is a space where owner Nick Fisher, realizing there were no windows, nor a view if there were any, simply rough stuccoed the interior, creating—a cave. He left a few spaces for some light fixtures and candle sconces, but essentially, patrons sit at either tall tables or cozy corner niches with pillows and a low table and get their own wine from ingenious, Italian-built Enomatic machines.

Photo by Eric Fisher.

The machines house wine bottles and keep them open and fresh by infusing nitrogen into them as they’re emptied. Nick put up enough machines to hold about 30 bottles. Patrons purchase a credit card-sized key and load it with however much money they’d like. The key is inserted into the Enomatic, and patrons choose a one-, three-, or five-ounce pour of featured wines. Meanwhile, chef Gary Daniels is in the kitchen creating fresh and interesting small plates to pair with the wines.

In addition to creative New American cuisine, Restaurant Brooks offers wine on tap.

Not to be outdone, chef-owner Andy Brooks made a recent addition to his namesake restaurant in Ventura that one could argue qualifies it for wine bar status. Restaurant Brooks features an industrial chic design, with high ceilings and bare rafters and exposed ductwork with warm green colors and white tablecloths. Many a laugh, including my own, have broken out in the men’s room, where above the urinal is a picture of…roosters fighting. Let’s call it that and move on.

The Ventura establishment was the first in Southern California to introduce the cutting edge technology, which reduces waste and lowers costs. Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

Recently, the restaurant added “wine on tap,” which takes the Enomatic system to the next level. In the bar, small tanks below the counter are filled with wine—and not just any wine; many of the most respected producers are going this route. Wine on tap means bottles need not be opened, which means less spoilage and, ultimately, a cost savings to the customer. It’s also considerably more sustainable (think of all the unused bottles and corks). Brooks was the first Southern California establishment to welcome the new technology, which has since been introduced at Santa Barbara’s Wine Cask and other celebrated wine-centric restaurants. At press time, Brooks featured Silver Tap wines: a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Zinfandel. More are soon to come.

Ojai’s Barrel 33 is an intimate space where original paintings adorn the walls and the soft ambiance pairs well with acoustic music and light fare. Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

Finally, we visited Barrel 33 in Ojai. Owner Norbert Furnee, a serial restaurateur throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara, has recreated the former Movino into a quiet, rustic, and intimate space. If those adjectives are familiar, it is because many wine bars try to achieve just that feeling. But as Belloff’s intimate spaces feature a more open floor plan, a larger bar, and patio dining, Furnee’s is quieter, softer, with carpeting on the floor, original paintings on the wall, an indoor copper fountain, and a full-service cocktail bar with a focus on martinis. Barrel 33 is all Ojai, catering to patrons with vegetarian light fare, along with serious wine pours and occasional acoustic live music.

Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

Ventura County has anted up and kicked in when it comes to wine bars. Each owner has created a character that fits his or her passion, but also his or her town as well. Now, if only we could get a few more breweries, too.

12-01-2010

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