For over a decade now, I have extensively traversed the West Coast looking for LAWineFest exhibitors. From Washington and Oregon, down the length of California, and into Baja, seeking new talent is one of my favorite parts of producing the event. A little while ago I took a break from visiting wineries to explore a local talent producing limoncello.

Limoncello, for those yet to discover this refreshing aperitif, is an Italian lemon liqueur that is believed to have been created only about 100 years ago. Most Italian limoncello comes from the south – and traditionally from Sorrento lemons – but it is produced all over the country. Like most rustic traditions, every family has its own fiercely protected recipe which they swear is the best of all.

Since California is a citrus mecca, it’s only natural for our state to get in on the action. One of the most interesting comes from someone very local – the Ventura Limoncello Company. Founded by James Carling and Manuela Zaretti-Carling in 2007, they use a recipe Manuela learned from her grandmother.

The Ventura Limoncello Co. is very much a family business. When James had me over to visit their production space, Manuela and her mother, Rossana, were standing at the sink and peeling a sinkful of locally selected lemons by hand. The family works directly with local growers to find the best-fit fruit, all of which then gets hand-peeled. Labor-intensive – yes.  Worth it – absolutely.  I was instructed that this is how you guarantee that only the top oil-rich layer of the lemon peel gets used and the bitter pith avoided.

I also walked through their workshop and storage rooms. Everything is small-batch, and each bottle has a handwritten batch number to prove it. When evaluating limoncello quality, I learned to look at the neck of the bottle. What is called ‘little collars’ of separated citrus oil or milk fats prove the ingredients’ integrity. But after a quick shake, you’re in sipping business.

James and Manuela are currently producing the classic Limoncello Originale, their first product and the first to receive awards from such groups as the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and LA SIP Awards. Next came the Limoncello Crema, which is a true sweet treat in a chilled glass. Their newest release is Orangecello – Blood Orange. This will be strictly seasonal and limited quantity, using Ventura’s blood orange crops.

My thanks to James and Manuela, for letting me get a glimpse inside their interesting world.

By Joel M. Fisher, with Sara Fisher Chapin