Malibu is popularly associated with surf, sand, celebrities, movies — but usually not wine.
Vintners in the recently recognized Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area, or AVA, are joining forces to do something about that. On Feb. 7, the first meeting of the Malibu Coast Vintners & Grape Growers Alliance was held at Cornell Winery in Agoura Hills. Among the group’s aims is to broadcast to consumers that the Malibu Coast is producing wines worthy of their consideration.
First, some background. Before last August, someone growing grapes on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains or the hillsides near the Malibu coast had two choices to designate the appellation of their wines: Los Angeles County or California. There were a couple of exceptions: Two growers in the Santa Monica Mountains had secured approval for the smaller Saddle Rock-Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon AVAs.
On Aug. 18, the federal government established the Malibu Coast viticultural area, which spans 46 miles from Oxnard to Los Angeles and is about eight miles wide from the coast inland. The AVA designation is a major advance in winning recognition for Malibu wines.
The appellation includes about 44,590 acres of privately owned land and encompasses the two smaller AVAs. There are only about 198 acres of vineyards in the new AVA, most ranging from one-half to seven acres and many on steep mountain slopes. Three larger commercial vineyards among the 52 in the AVA are 78, 32 and 15 acres.
The Malibu Coast AVA has numerous micro-climates depending on distance from the coast, elevation and orientation of the hillside. Many varieties of grapes can be grown there.
“Finally, now we can actually indicate on our labels that the grapes originate in what is now known as the Malibu Coast AVA. So we now have a sense of identity, a sense of place,” said Elliott Dolin, who has 900 chardonnay vines growing on just under an acre on his estate about two miles from the coast in Malibu. He said the AVA creates a level of credibility that the region did not have before.
Malibu wines have won gold medals against formidable entries in state and international competitions. Some examples: Dolin Malibu Estate’s 2012 chardonnay won a double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition and its 2011 chardonnay was rated at 90 points in the Wine Spectator. Rosenthal Estate wines from Malibu-Newton Canyon, crafted by veteran winemaker Christian Roguenant in San Luis Obispo County, have won numerous gold and silver medals in blind tastings. Many other vintners have won medals.
B. Alan Geddes, who grows grapes and makes wines for 38 clients in the Malibu Coast AVA, said, “I think the quality of the wines around here, given our challenges, is incredible. It’s surpassed anything that I thought was possible when I first started my business in the area.” He is the owner of Grape Expectations and the Village Winery in Westlake Village.
One of the challenges in the AVA is the high cost of growing grapes. There is no economy of scale at the many small vineyards. “There are certain expenses that we incur based on the fact that we have 900 vines that would be not much different if we had 9,000 vines,” Dolin said. Land and water are also expensive, and unlike Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, the Malibu Coast does not have multiple vendors in wine services industry competing for business, he said.
Malibu wines are sold in high-end restaurants, online and at tasting rooms, most of them not on vineyard property [See above box]. Malibu Family Wines, owned by the Semler family, has an outdoor tasting venue next to its 78 acres of vineyards at Saddlerock Ranch, seven miles from the coast. CEO Dakota Semler said the family is about three months away from final approval to build a winery on its mountain property.
The Malibu Coast AVA will not grow much from its small wine production. Last August, Los Angeles County supervisors passed a land-use plan for the Santa Monica Mountains that prohibits planting new vineyards. Existing vineyards are grandfathered in and the action does not affect planting within Malibu city limits.
At their Feb. 7 meeting, members of the new Malibu Coast Vintners & Grape Growers Alliance talked about seeking new marketing opportunities for the wines.
“Obviously, making great wine is going to do a lot to further the presence of the AVA,” Dolin said. “The thing that we have working in our favor is the name recognition of Malibu.”
Many of the small vineyards get a lot of personal attention, with all of the work done by hand. “Nobody plants 400 vines; they plant hundreds of acres,” Geddes said. “But people do that in Malibu. It’s passion.”
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]