If Ojai restaurant owner Nigel Chisholm didn't already have an ancestral Scottish family crest with "I am fierce with the fierce" as its motto, he might have created one.
"It means don't give up. That to persevere in life, you have to push on," Chisholm said, giving his modern-day interpretation of the phrase, which in its original Gaelic is also the name of his newest project, Feros Ferio Winery.
It fits, in any language.
Consider: Chisholm's first Ojai Valley business, The Village Jester, was forced to close in July 2014, when a water main broke and sent hundreds of thousands of gallons flooding into the then-newly renovated Ojai Playhouse next door. Following a November 2017 settlement between the city's former water company and the building's owners, Chisholm hopes that reconstruction will allow him to reopen his local-hangout pub — known for its beers, burgers and live music — as soon as this summer.
But Chisholm hasn't been sitting idly by, waiting for things to happen.
After the unexpected closure of The Village Jester, he took over an existing wine bar in the historic Ojai Arcade a block away and renamed it The Vine. The purchase inspired Chisholm, a native of Birmingham, England, who landed in Ojai after a career as a professional soccer coach in Asia, to expand on what he already knew about wine.
Unbeknownst to patrons, friends and family members, he started making it, too.
"I was looking for alternatives to fruit bomb California-style wines. I wanted something much more pared down. Something more French, although it pains me to say that, given the history of relations between England and France. I forgave France after tasting wine there," he said with a laugh.
In late November, after 2½ years of sneaking off to wine-making facilities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, he invited a few dozen longtime supporters of The Vine over to try the results. He didn't tell them beforehand they'd be tasting wines from his own label, or that he intended to open the restaurant during the day to serve as the label's official tasting room.
"People weren't all that surprised, because they know I'm always trying new things. I call myself a spaghetti-thrower. I try a lot of things and see what sticks," Chisholm said.
In addition to running The Vine, Chisholm is a coach for the varsity boys soccer team at Nordhoff High School. He also appeared in two local theater productions in 2018, playing Banquo in the Ojai Art Center staging of "Macbeth " and Saul Kimmer in the Santa Paula Theater Center production of "True West." The latter allowed Chisholm to use his natural speaking voice, depriving him of exploring a new accent as a character-development tool. So he "stole" a friend's confident, shoulders-back walk for the role, instead.
"Acting for me is like a holiday. It's so different from my daily life," he said.
With Feros Ferio, Chisholm hopes to offer patrons something they can't find anywhere else, a goal handily achieved in the winery's unique California-U.K. mashup. The initial release features two whites and five reds made from grapes grown in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and named for different Scottish locales.
The Innis Mhòr chardonnay from Los Olivos is a lightly oaked shout out to a tidal island of shifting sand dunes found near Scotland's east coast. A blend of sangiovese grapes from Paso Robles and Los Alamos is the namesake of Craigleith, an island known for its endangered population of puffins with their own webcam. A syrah sourced from the Santa Ynez Valley's White Hawk Vineyard bears the name of the castle that became the ancestral home of the Chisholm clan in the 15th century.
Blends round out the lineup, including a grenache, syrah, mourvedre and tannat combo that Chisholm dubbed Lewis, in honor of a friend's birthplace on the Isle of Lewis.
Designed by Ojai artist Dustin Byerley, the winery's circular label references the shape of the familial crest, the circle of life and "O" for Ojai. The cursive script of the name as it appears above the bar and on bottles was created by one of Chisholm's two daughters, now post-graduate students living in Australia and Scotland.
"I had an opportunity to take this bar and turn it into a place for Ojai, which turned me into a better citizen of Ojai. I've become more accepting and patient," Chisholm said.
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