Art of the Vine: Bruce Freeman of Clos des Amis
Passion for terroir leads Bruce Freeman to source and bottle local grapes
"I've just got to make this happen," Freeman 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. Learning to make wine with such a highquality grape was "like learning how to drive in a Maserati."
Fast forward to today, and the Ventura resident 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 for his several varietals produced under the boutique label Clos des Amis (loosely translated as "circle of friends"). It was launched last year with a 2011 vintage of about 125 cases; now he's up to 250 cases.
This is noteworthy because the county's more than 30 wineries primarily source their grapes from California's well-known wine regions to the north. Some are adding Ventura County-grown grapes into their product line – like The Ojai Vineyard, Four Brix and Panaro Brothers wineries – and a small handful use only estate grapes from their Ventura County properties, including Ojai Ridge and Noble Oaks Vineyard and Winery in Ojai.
Freeman crisscrosses the county overseeing the grapes at seven vineyards, located on private one- to two-acre parcels in Camarillo, Ojai, Santa Paula, East Ventura, Saticoy and Newbury Park. He produces Chardonnay, Grenache rosé, Pinot Noir, Syrah and, soon, Riesling. Plans are to add other varietals in the future, including a Mourvedre, estimated to be three years away. He hopes to eventually produce up to 1,200 cases per year.
Freeman splits his time between winemaking and teaching art at Ventura College and print-making at Brooks Institute. It was one of his art students early on, esteemed winemaker Brooks Painter of Napa's Coho Wines, who steered him toward the craft of winemaking.
Wine and a love of terroir have always been in Freeman's blood, he says, crediting his mother's French heritage. It was the trips in his late teens to visit relatives 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 Ventura County's various terroirs.
"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 The Ojai Vineyard. Freeman interned for Tolmach during the summer months when he wasn't teaching. This led to a five-year full-time stint at the vineyard.
"He really took me under his wing, Freeman says. "It was a great place to learn because Adam would be brutally honest about the results."
Today, Tolmach has only praise for Freeman.
"Bruce is a true artist in every sense," Tolmach says. "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 and consultant for Casa Barranca Organic Winery in Ojai, where he's managed to pick up a few awards.
Now in his second year out on his own, Freeman believes winemakers need to take some risks to 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, he says.
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 from Mitchell Vineyard in Saticoy, which he says has a "lively, leaner mineral style that's more Old-World style than New," and his Pinot Noir is from Bryman Vineyard in Camarillo, which is "cherried, medium-bodied and Beaujolais style." Looking to break a few stereotypes, he's out to prove that his Riesling – made in the Austrian style – can be "super dry and racy."
Outside the bottle, Freeman taps into his artistic side with labels that bring together his love of art, winemaking and the local area. His drawings depicting local Chumash Indian artifacts are on 2011 and 2012 vintages; 2013 will depict local flora and fauna.
"It's a blend of who I am."
He's converting an old agricultural building in the middle of an orchard in Santa Paula into a production facility. While there won't be a tasting room, his wines are available online and at select county retailers.
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."