As published in Edible Ojai magazine, Summer 2014
Clos des Amis
Passion for terroir leads Bruce Freeman on a path to source and bottle local grapes.
Just back from an acupuncture appointment to help him heal from a bee that stung him while building his new Santa Paula winery, winemaker and all-around nice guy Bruce Freeman is talking in metaphors about getting bit by the wine bug back in 1994.
“I’ve just got to make this happen,” Freeman, 59, remembers thinking after making his first barrel of wine two decades ago. It was a Bien Nacido Syrah, which he says is a difficult and heavily nuanced wine. “It’s like learning how to drive in a Maserati.”
Fast forward to today, and Freeman is still pedal-to-the-metal when it comes to tackling lofty goals for the first time. He’s seeking to fully express the local terroir (French for “sense of place”) by sourcing grapes grown solely within Ventura County. To-date, he’s up to seven vineyards at private one- to two-acre parcels in Camarillo, Ojai, Santa Paula, East Ventura, Saticoy and Newbury Park producing Chardonnay, Grenache Rose, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and soon, Riesling, Mourvedre and Cincault. Though the county already boasts close to 20 wineries, very few are exclusively sourcing grapes grown here, a distinction Freeman is proud of. He officially launched Clos des Amis (French for “circle of friends”) last year. His first vintage in 2011 yielded about 125 cases, and now he’s up to 250 cases.
Hoping to someday get to 1200 cases, winemaking remains a part-time affair at this point. A Ventura County native, Freeman’s day job is teaching art at Ventura College, which he’s been doing for some 20 years. It was one of his art students early on, winemaker Brooks Painter of Napa’s Coho Wines, who steered him toward the craft of winemaking.
“He got me started in my backyard.”
Wine and a love of terroir have always been in Freeman’s blood (his mother is French). It was the trips in his youth to visit relatives back in France that got the wheels turning. Upon returning home, Freeman remembers experimenting with making liqueurs.
“The food and wine culture there really piqued my interest.”
That experience informed his determination to showcase the local terroir.
“I grew up in Ventura County surrounded by this beautiful landscape and climate.”
After working with Painter, Freeman was introduced to Adam Tolmach of the critically-acclaimed Ojai Vineyard. Freeman interned for Tolmach during the summer months when he wasn’t teaching at the college.
“He really took me under his wing. And he’d be brutally honest.”
During his time with Tolmach, Freeman learned to appreciate starting small.
“Adam used to say, ‘You get too big, you start to lose the intimacy.’”
Today, Tolmach has only praise for Freeman.
“Bruce Freeman is a true artist in every sense,” Tolmach said recently. “What impressed me most during the years he worked with me at The Ojai Vineyard was that he took his soulful creativity into every realm.”
Since his time with Tolmach, Freeman has served as part-time winemaker for Casa Barranca in Ojai for the past four seasons, where he’s managed to pick up a few awards.
Now in his second year out on his own, Freeman is ready to take some controlled risks.
“You have to take some risks and let the wine and the vineyards express themselves.”
Working with a handful of smaller vineyards and going at this as a boutique winery, though, helps mitigate those risks.
“Commercial scale wineries come with a host of problems, which complicates the ease of harvest.”
Staying small and with separate parcels also helps Freeman take advantage of the county’s diverse geography and climate.
“You really see the difference in Ventura County terroirs. I like the wines to show more distinct character, and we have vineyards that can do that.”
The proof is in the bottle. Right now, he’s excited about his Chardonnay, which he says has a “more lean mineral style,” and his Pinot Noir, which is “cherried and medium-bodied.” And looking to break a few stereotypes, he’s out to prove that Riesling can be “super dry and racy.”
Freeman says this year’s harvest will probably be as early as August, which he feels is “…just absurd. With this current season, we had bud break super early.”
Freeman’s wine labels tap into his artistic side, using his own drawings depicting local Chumash Indian artifacts, which he says brings his love of art, winemaking and the local area together.
“It’s a blend of who I am.”
As he continues building his winery—he’s converting an old agricultural building in the middle of an orchard in Santa Paula—he has no plans just yet to open a tasting room. For now, he says he will make his wines available to the public online and at locations around the county, including Paradise Pantry, Ventura Wine Co. and Santa Cruz Market.
Beyond that, Freeman isn’t too sure where things are headed, but he seems to like it that way.
“Will I make a dollar or not? I don’t know. I like to see what happens every day I wake up.”
For more, visit ClosDesAmis.com
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