Wine Bitten

Oxnard: Fun on Land & Sea

In search of a pretty, low pressure, moderately priced two day escape from the crowds, lines, and auto frustration of everyday life in Los Angeles, I decided to head north, just a smidgen.  As I came down Hwy 101 to the fertile plains poised at the edge of traffic’s snarl, I crossed swaths of agricultural unknowns, looking for warm sands, jumping dolphins, a multi-masted harbor, and unique wineries.  I found them all, and then some, in a town I had always believed was named for a bovine’s lost jewels:  Oxnard.  
I could, just have easily, landed somewhere sweet.  Zachari (“sugar” in Greek) was Henry Oxnard’s preferred name for the town that sprang up around his sugar beet plant in 1898.  Bureaucracy triumphed, however, and Henry gave his surname to the town.  Within a year, Henry sold his plant and never lived in his namesake city.  When incorporated three years later, Henry’s name stuck.  Founded on agriculture, Oxnard carries on today with a fertile plain from which strawberries, lima beans and leafy vegetables spring for your table.  Despite struggling with linguistic connections to bovines who, typically, have lost their nards, Oxnard endures.   
Why would one want to hang out in the fields?  Well, most don’t.  But there is a very wide beach complete with sand dunes, an off shore National Park (The Channel Islands), harbor front dining without the wait, and down home dining and shopping in the old town.  Wine tasting at four wineries, each with its own unique ambience and wines.  No, they don’t grow the grapes in the agricultural plain, but they do produce some very nice wines from grapes grown a short drive up the coast.   
Oxnard lays just at the northern tip of Los Angeles’ traffic snarl—time it right and you can be on the beach within about 40 minutes of leaving central LA.  Here’s a beach without massive crowds, where you can laze and read and bask.  Want to watch the boats?  Head to the harbor.  Want to climb dunes, and watch and play in the waves?  Head to the beaches near the Embassy Suites Hotel.  
The Channel Islands:  While you can certainly enjoy Oxnard without stepping foot off shore, you would miss the wild mammals and birds that delight minutes to the wet west, and the largely unaltered Channel Islands known as California’s Galapagos.   Isolated for millennia, each island hosts its own unique landscape, flora and fauna.  Five Islands can be visited, the closest is volcanic Anacapa, the largest Santa Cruz to its west (95+ square miles with mountains up to 2,000 feet).   And so, I began my day on board the Island Packers' ship, along with 40 other passengers—some half day tripping, some waiting to be left overnight on barren Anacapa.  Along the way we spotted vast dolphin pods, who were kind enough to play in the ship’s wake, occasionally springing into the air.  We saw where SeaWorld came up with its dolphin show behaviors—naturally.  There is something about the dolphin’s smile that is inescapably contagious.  Here there is a mix of harbor seals, sea lions, twenty six species of whales and dolphins who either live here or pass through.   Feeling very lucky?  You may even spot a sea turtle flying just below the surface, as I did.  
The nearest Island is Anacapa Island, a volcanic island with a lighthouse, two miles of trails, camping, its own, unique deer mouse, and birds:  pelicans and gulls unmolested by predators.  Dry, dry, dry in appearance, if you are camping or hiking, bring lots of water.  The Navy possesses San Nicolas Island far to the south, parallel to and west of Catalina.  While you can’t go there, one young Indian girl was stranded alone on the island in the mid 1800’s for 18 years, only to die from disease two weeks after rescue.    Her story gave rise to the Island of the Blue Dophins, the loved story of youth.   Santa Cruz Island, only an hour from the harbor, ranges from tide pools to waterfalls to mountains and valleys, would make a good, long, day trip.  
What we like about Oxnard:  Variety, Few Crowds, Accessible and Affordable Lodging & Dining & Nature, oh my.  
Variety:  You may at first think “where is the “there there” in Oxnard?”  Think in thirds:  Downtown Oxnard, for neighborhood shops and dining; Heritage Square, for turn of the 20th century architecture, antique surrounded dining and wine tasting; and the Channel Islands Harbor for views of sailboats as you dine, beaches, and departures to the Channel Islands.  

Crowds be damned, head to Oxnard

Dining:  How long is the weekend wait for a table at a harbor side restaurant in Newport Beach?  Rarely under an hour.  Not so in Oxnard.  Your table is waiting, service is quick, and the dining is excellent.  I can recommend the easy ambience of the Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar.  Watch the sail boats as you dine with weekend entertainment.  Bring your dog if you like, there is a welcoming water bowl.  Seasonal California cuisine, very reasonably priced.   
For Zagat’s top scoring restaurant in the County, Tierra Sur offers farm to table upscale dining.  From tapas to full prix fixe tasting menus with wine pairing, this is exceptional dining.   From my experience, this is the most de luxe Oxnard dining, in quality and price.  
Looking for an intimate, upscale dinner?  TryLa Dolce Vita, in an historic house, with white table cloth service upstairs, California/Italian dishes, and a lively bar downstairs, fronted by Heritage Square.  Wander around Heritage Square, taste at nearby Rancho Ventavo Cellars.
In downtown Oxnard, The Kitchen Restaurant, featured on HGTV’s Diners, Drive-ins, & Dives serves up comforting food with a gourmet touch.  It may not be a diner or a drive-in, and it doesn’t seem like a dive, but it is an excellent Gastro Pub.  You can check out the lamb burger Guy Fieri loved, or the meatloaf sandwich, but my favorite was the bacon grilled cheese sandwich paired with Fusion 21 ale.  Want some extra entertainment?  Time your visit for one of their dinner theater productions.  This is a woody, cozy pub.   
Beaches:  There is a small beach at the harbor (Silver Strand), with very broad sand dune beaches to the immediate north (Hollywood Beach).  Parking is easy, the trek is short, and nibbles can be had nearby.  Further north, near the Embassy Suites is the broadest, dune-iest beach, Mandalay Beach.  With over five miles of broad sandy beaches, who could ask for better lounging?
Moderate Priced Stays, there’s a thought.  Whether it is the dune sideEmbassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel, with the Coastal Grill restaurant newly catering to craft brews, specialty spirits, a commendable wine list, and a reinvented menu—you could spend your time on site and laze, although you would miss Oxnard’s other draws, if you really want, you need not venture forth.
Or, the golf course side Residence Inn, offering spacious rooms with kitchens and fairway views and access, you should be able to find something that fits the budget—for far less than comparable stays to the south and north.  Ease and convenience are the words of the day at these inns. 

Wine, who woulda thought?  You won’t find grape vines in Oxnard, but it is at the southern tip of the Ventura Wine trail.  Just up the coast is the land of Sideways, the book and movie that sidelined Merlot for a decade.  But Sideways was wrong—Merlot is great, and making a comeback.  This Bordeaux varietal is on ready and heady display at Rancho Ventavo Cellars, which began just after Sideways premiered in 2004.  You can’t have a good St. Emillion without Merlot, and you should have some with varied dimensions.  You will find vintage flights covering up to a decade at Rancho Ventavo in Heritage Square, where you can taste from prominent berry to leather forward vintages.  Find the ones you like, and pick up a few bottles.  

If you come with a group or just want worry free tasting and a little knowledge to boot—Lisa Stoll will give you a wine tour of four wineries, and, being a sommelier, she’ll give you a little extra boost.  Here’s a trick I’ve stolen from Lisa:  pinch your nose, chew a jelly belly bean.  Did you taste anything?  Probably just a basic sweet or salt taste.  Now, release your nostrils—that’s when the flavor arrives—be it watermelon or cocoa.  It really is all in the breath.  Lisa has much more—an afternoon is well spent, you can turn your GPS off for a few hours and get a mini wine education as you ride and then taste.
In industrial park locale you will find Magnavino Cellars, with an old world charm inside the doors and, across the parking lot, Strey Cellars, just opened in February 2014 with a hi-tech industrial vibe and personally shepherded wines mainly from Lodi grapes.   Unrelated to the Stray Cat Strut (a song older than the winemaker), it nevertheless has “cat class and cat style”.  Strey is owned by a young couple, who you will most likely meet.  
Further off the path is Herzog Cellars, the only kosher winery on the West Coast.  What makes it kosher?  Primarily those who handle the grapes—you gotta be male and you gotta observe Judaism.   Herzog grows many of their own grapes in the Sacramento Valley area, and buys from Santa Barbara and Lodi, which are trucked down to Oxnard’s large facility.  Producing 225,000 gallons of wine annually, Herzog is easily the largest in Oxnard.  Take the self-guided tour and see the Don’t miss their Variations label, which combines Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from several regions (e.g., Napa, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez Valley) to intertwine the best flavors of each.  Be sure to stop in for a bite or many at Tierra Sur.  Whether or not Kosher is important to you, stop in for tasting, you won't be disappointed. 
For good or ill, just minutes south of Herzog, you will re-enter Los Angeles’ reach.  All the more reason to turn back . . .