Pixies And Wine In Ojai

In Ojai even cloud shadows take their time.

With this in mind I dawdle on the sun-dappled patio at Agave Maria's Restaurant & Cantina, sipping a Mango-rita. There is no need to hurry; pretty much everything in Ojai is literally around the corner. After this I might meander over to Suzanne's Cuisine for a Pixie cosmopolitan, or maybe, while my reflexes are still sharp, I'll stroll over to the Sunday farmers' market on Matilija Street, where farmers literally toss out samples.

Grape tasting is also a possibility. As Agave Maria's general manager Tracy Jeffares helpfully points out, "The Ojai Vineyard's tasting room is right across the street."

Sixty-five miles north of Los Angeles, Ojai has long been known as a small town (population 8,150) that melds Mayberry's easy hominess with European sophistication; the post office, where everyone knows everyone, is housed in a Castilian bell tower. But of late, this heaven-touched valley -- face the pinking Topa Topa Mountains at sunset and you'll understand -- has raised fruit, in its myriad forms, to new heights. As you read this Ojai farmers, with help from scientific cohorts at the University of California Citrus Center at Riverside, are fomenting new citrus variants; sweeter, juicier, easier to peel. Not to be outdone, local winemakers -- several, like Adam Tolmach and Manfred Krankl, with an avid global following -- are creating new alchemy with grapes. And Ojai restaurants are bringing this fruity bounty to the table in innovative and yummy forms. Start with chef Laurel Moore's stuffed dates at Azu.

Ojai has long lain hidden and drowsily content, but times are changing. The town is poised like, well, a syrah grape ready to burst.

The Ojai Vineyard -- headed by Tolmach, a pioneer in the production of syrah in California -- epitomizes this change. Tolmach has been making wine in Ojai since 1983, but he kept to his vineyards and his barrels for almost thirty years, finally opening a public tasting room, in a 1936 firehouse on South Montgomery Street, in 2010.

Fabien Castel smiles from behind the tasting counter, tidily explaining the attitude change on the part of The Ojai Vineyard, and Ojai in general.

"The area is very unique because it has consciously avoided development and the limelight," says Castel, assistant winemaker at The Ojai Vineyard. "It has stayed quietly tucked away. But now there has to be some middle ground between keeping that spirit and developing the economy."

Not that The Ojai Vineyard has succumbed to ostentatious glitz. The tasting room is only slightly bigger than a closet.

Fabien pours a 2008 Syrah.

"This is one that hasn't been sold yet. Enjoy."

Just, well, around the corner, Casa Barranca's tasting room is decidedly larger, but equally unpretentious, although some of their wines have experienced a share of glitz. Casa Barranca was the featured wine in the movie "Easy A," if only for a few minutes. Too bad for them, most of the stars in the movie -- a comedy about the high school rumor mill -- weren't old enough to drink the wine, made from organic grapes, but I am. I sample a Sauvignon Blanc bottled two weeks earlier. It tastes, yep, fruity.

"A little like drinking pineapple," says Connie Buell, pouring.

If it was just about fruit, you could browse your supermarket produce aisle. What makes Ojai so fun and exciting are its far-outside-the-box locals. Adam Tolmach and Manfred Krankl, whose limited production Sine Qua Non wines attract a cult following, are known for experimentation and perfectionism. Local farmers like George Thacher of Friend's Ranch follow suit. Friend's Ranch is known throughout California and far beyond for their signature Pixie tangerines, but George and family aren't resting on their citrus crates. Thumbing his green thumb at Ojai's dry climate, George already has banana trees, and is considering papayas and mangoes.

"Why not?" grins George. "It's just gardening, right?"

For now, though, the Pixie is Ojai's marquee fruit star. For reasons no one entirely understands, this gloriously sweet citrus runt -- 1-3 inches in diameter -- found its soul mate in the Ojai Valley. You don't need to understand the nuances of Ojai's soils and microclimate. All you need to know is kids don't pluck Brussels sprouts and pop them like candy.

"If you put a plate of cookies and a plate of Pixies in front of kids, the Pixies are gone," laughs George's sister Emily Ayala, who helps run the family operation. "It's pretty amazing."

Through a combination of serendipitous climate and clever (and dogged) marketing by an assembly of small family farmers, Ojai has become the Pixie purveyor, not just at farmer's markets and grocers in California, but in world's far beyond: Ojai Pixies are sold in Yankee Stadium and high-end grocery stores in Tokyo.

Wander about town for a very short time and the fruit connection becomes spookily amusing. At La Fonte Pizze, co-owner Tammy Bernardi places a crescent-shaped mezzalunetta on the table. The dessert is sweet with peaches.

"We change the filling, substituting whatever fruit is in season," she says. "We used strawberries the other day."

At Knead Baking Company, a grand name for yet another homespun closet-size operation (owner Bobbi Corbin doesn't take credit cards, but if you don't have cash you can send her check later), the counters are brimming with creative delicacies, in turn brimming with ...

Corbin smiles.

"We like to bake things that have a great chew and fruit is our chew of choice."

There's even a Pixie Tangerine Body Scrub at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. It's like being stalked by Vitamin C.

Ojai's residents absorb this largesse in stride. In fact, it could be said that no one enjoys this cornucopia more than the locals.

One bright afternoon I walk with George Thacher through rows of trees laden with Pixies. George talks and plucks. When George was little, he and sister Emily pilfered as many Pixies as they could reach; many a Thacher Pixie tree was stripped from the waist down.

Adulthood has not slowed George. By his own reckoning, during Pixie season (March to June), he might pop 30 Pixies a day.

The man does appear a little orange.

I can't say how many he's had today, but I do know the sticky-sweet juice liberally stains both our chins.

George picks another Pixie, lifting the little orange orb in a toast.

"It's like wine tasting," he grins, "but you're doing tangerines."

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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