You’re likely familiar with Los Angeles’s big league food and drink scene – some of America’s most famous restaurants are here, not to mention see-and-be-seen bars and celebrity haunts. But if you’re a foodie looking for the latest trends in California cuisine – locally sourced ingredients, emphasis on organic and farm fresh products – then you might want to set your gastronomic sights 90 minutes north to Ojai.
During my weekend here, I toured some wineries, went citrus tasting and hit some outstanding restaurants. Here are some of the highlights:
I had no idea that Ojai was such a growing wine region – there are quite a few vineyards with a decent amount of crop and distribution, and there’s a wine festival every year on the second Sunday in June (tickets are around $40). You’ll find the wines in all of the local restaurants and at the grocery, but what better way to find the perfect souvenir than do some tastings?
At Ojai Vineyards, you get a Riedel tasting glass, as well as a flight of wines, for $15. The tasting room is part of a converted firehouse, so it’s a nice place to just chill out, drink some wine, and talk to the staff about the vineyard’s history and about wine growing in this area. Their varietals include syrah, grenache, mourvedre, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier. My favorite was the Clos Pepe Pinot Noir.
Casa Barranca has long been known for being the first certified organic winery in the Santa Barbara region. The winery maintains a gorgeous estate that is often rented out for Hollywood productions such as the Bachelor and Brothers and Sisters. Their tasting room is located right in the arcade in downtown Ojai, so you can’t miss it. Besides their organic choices, they even have wines without sulfites, which is sure to please a few allergy sufferers. Tastings here are $10 for a flight.
Another local wine to look out for are the syrahs produced by Boccali Vineyards. While they don’t have a tasting room, they do have an Italian restaurant where you can try everything and snack as well.
Because of the topography of the Ojai Valley, it is ideal for citrus growing, a fact evident that anywhere there isn’t a manor home there’s an orchard. One family-owned farm, Friends Ranch, is now offering an Orange Tasting tour where you can walk the orchard, learn about the thousands of types of oranges, and taste-test to find your favorite. I was impartial to the Tahoe Gold, though what really make it special was touring the property with members of the family who have been farming here for generations. If you can’t get enough of the citrus, Friends also offers a mail-order service so you don’t have to fly to Ojai to get some fresh fruit.Call ahead to get a booking.
As one might expect with all that natural bounty around the Ojai Valley, the Ojai Farmer’s Market, held every Sunday from 9-1, is considered a must-do.
Besides the piles of citrus – including some I had never heard of, such as the scary-looking Buddha Hand fruit, used for zest and perfume – the downtown market has piles of fresh vegetables, honey, olive oil, as well as fresh snacks and treats. It’s a great place to meet and mingle with the locals.
That emphasis on fresh flavors was evident in Ojai’s restaurant scene.
My best meal in Ojai took place at Azu, where Chef Laurel Moore uses local ingredients to create what she calls “Spanish California” (think tapas and Mediterranean inspired small plates).I’m still thinking about the bacon-wrapped dates. Their bartender is a mixologist, so the drinks list – particularly the alcoholic concoctions served up for dessert – is dangerous territory.
The Ranch House is one of Ojai’s more popular settings for an outdoor wedding, as their terraced gardens provide a gorgeous backdrop for their menu, which features fresh herbs grown on site, and Wine Spectator award winning wine list. I loved their brunch menu, particularly the crabcakes.
Special thanks to the sponsors of this trip, the Iguana Inns of Ojai, who also have Ojai wines in every room for purchase!