Take a tour of the unexpected wine trail in LA’s Malibu
Los Angeles is famous for many things, but its local wine isn't top of the list. Malibu Wine Country could soon change all that, with its vineyards in ne form.
Teetering over a Pacific Ocean dotted with surfers waiting for the next wave, Malibu Pier harbours Malibu Farm, a cafe constantly buzzing with locals hungry for farm-grown fare. Out of the kitchen come salads of wild rocket and creamy burrata, grass-fed beef burgers, and grilled salmon fillets on beds of roasted veggies and wild rice. And from the bar: local wines. A glass of Hoyt Family VINEYARDS Chardonnay, with tropical fruits on the nose and a bright, lingering nish, is gratifying; even more so knowing that its grapes were grown in the hills that lie just behind.
at Malibu has a wine country may sound confounding. It’s a little like saying Los Angeles gets a lot of rain. But the former is true, thanks in part to the region’s microclimates. At a latitude of 34 degrees north like the Mediterranean, LA enjoys mild, dry conditions in the mountains and cooler temperatures by the ocean, with a marine layer that lends unique characteristics to locally grown grapes.
About 20 minutes north of Santa Monica, Malibu is accessed only via the Pacific Coast Highway, a sinuous road not much wider today than when it was built in 1929. Malibu straddles pricey real estate with water views on one side and on the other, slate cli s and the Santa Monica Mountains, with its steep inclines scored by orange groves, avocado trees and grapevines. Such magni cent views draw comparisons to Provence and Tuscany. Napa and Sonoma usually receive kudos
for placing California wine on the map, but the rst vines arrived in Southern California with the missionaries in the 1770s. Later, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc cuttings were introduced by Frenchman Jean-Louise Vignes, who established a large-scale vineyard and winery in downtown LA in the 1830s. Malibu was part of that early movement, says John Freeman, a director at Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA). “ e rst-known Malibu Coast vineyard
That Malibu has a wine country may sound confounding. It’s a little like saying Los Angeles gets a lot of rain. But the former is true, thanks in part to the region’s microclimates.
was planted by Spanish General José Bartolomé Tapia in the area known today as Serra Retreat.” By the mid-1800s, Irish businessman Matthew Keller had bought the Spanish land grant Rancho TopangaMalibu - Sequit (present-day Malibu) and planted hundreds of acres of wine grapes in Solstice Canyon.
e gold rush, urban sprawl and the bacterial Pierce’s disease killed LA vineyards, which meant Northern California went on to eclipse its southern counterpart in winemaking. As for Malibu, according to John, it returned to growing grapes in the mid-1980s. “For the next 10 years you could count the number of vineyards on one hand,” he says. Among these early re-entrants was his Colcanyon Estate Wines, planted in 2001.
In 2014, Malibu Coast nally gained
AVA recognition, deeming it an o cial wine-growing region, in turn revitalising interest in its 50-plus vineyards, half of which are commercially viable.
e challenging topography of this mountainous region calls for backbending manual work (you won’t nd tractors tending the steep plots here) and large-scale production is impossible. Serious contender Rosenthal Estate Wines produces 16,000 cases per year, while Malibu Ridge Vineyards, a one-acre biodynamic operation situated at an elevation of more than 500 metres, produces 100 cases of malbec, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. And because legislation restricts wine production throughout LA County, all winemakers must press their grapes outside county lines. Malibu Vineyards owner Steve Bernal custom-crushes his harvest in neighbouring Ventura County at e Village Winery facility where he works closely with winemaker B. Allen Geddes. Operating a tasting room is economical to only a few, namely Malibu Wines and Rosenthal – both make wine using grapes grown in, and outside of, Malibu. Otherwise, wine clubs and cellar door collectives – the two biggies being SIP Malibu Grapes and Cornell Winery and Tasting Room – cater to the commercial needs of smaller local vineyards. From its well-stocked shop, Cornell sells Malibu Ridge Vineyard’s 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 2013 Estate Malbec
(both aged 32 months in French oak barrels). And as for that 2013 Hoyt Chardonnay mentioned earlier? It’s a bottle worth buying to take home.
Why can’t Malibu producers make wine on-site?
A rule forbidding wine production within LA County dates back to Prohibition days and is also due to agricultural-area zoning laws that are unlike anywhere else in California. A number of local operators have been lobbying to change this law because it adds excessive costs and challenges to their business.
Rosenthal Malibu Estate; Left and below, Malibu Farm at the pier.
Rosenthal Malibu Estate.