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June 22, 2012

Malibu Wines Come Into Their Own

Richard Foulser

A handful of vintners produce serious wines that celebrate the area's grape-growing potential.

It’s a perfect afternoon in Malibu. I’m standing on a terrace high above one of the many canyons that cut from the coastline up into the Santa Monica Mountains. The sky is deep azure blue lightened here and there with wisps of cottony clouds. The sea, rimmed with the froth of breaking waves, is a lighter variation on the same shade; a scattering of gleaming white sails, stretched by the breeze, glide across the horizon. The salt air smells of geraniums and barbecue smoke, and all around me the sturdy flora of this magical corner of the world is thriving: flame bursts of bougainvillea; sprawls of the oily scrub called chaparral; live oaks, pepper trees and sumacs; oleanders; wild fennel; palm trees; Pinot Noir vines.

Wait. Pinot Noir vines? In Malibu—the retreat of billionaires, playground of the stars, surfers’ paradise?

Well, yes. Pinot Noir and, in other portions of the area, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sangiovese and more. There are about 50 vineyards in the Malibu area today, at least one within a few hundred yards of the beach, many up in the canyons, some near the crest of the mountains, with close to 200 acres under cultivation in all. Most of these properties are tiny, a half acre or an acre at the most, and a good percentage still yield grapes destined for homemade wine—or wine made by hired professionals solely for family-and-friends’ consumption. A growing number of vineyard owners, though, are turning their fruit into serious wines for commercial sale—and a fair amount of it is very good indeed.

It might be difficult to imagine this today, when Napa and Sonoma are the undisputed stars of the American wine world, but Los Angeles County was once California’s most important wine-producing region. In the early 1830s, in what is now downtown Los Angeles, an immigrant from Bordeaux with the felicitous name of Jean-Louis Vignes (vignes is French for “vines”) planted what were probably the first high-quality European grape varieties in California. He went on to become the territory’s first successful winemaker, and his efforts were soon being emulated by scores of other entrepreneurs. On the eve of Prohibition, in 1920, Los Angeles County had become a major wine-producing region.

Very few of the area’s wineries survived the era; one of them, San Antonio in downtown Los Angeles, hung on by producing altar wine for local churches. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, most of the county’s once-flourishing vineyards had been converted to other use or lost to disease. Meanwhile farmers in Northern California had continued producing wine for home use, as allowed under the law, getting a head start on a revived wine trade.

The story of modern-day Southern California viticulture begins in 1978 with Tom Jones—not the singer, but a visionary aerospace executive (he ran Northrop Corporation for nearly 30 years) whose love of wine inspired him to plant vines around his ranch house on the western edge of Bel-Air and begin making elegant Bordeaux-style red and white wine under the Moraga label. Today, there are vineyards, albeit small ones, all over Southern California again. (The grapes for Hollywood Classic Cabernet—at $200 a bottle—grow beneath the Hollywood sign!)

Up until 15 or 20 years ago, wine connoisseurs wanted cellars filled with prestigious bottles from France and Italy. Now it seems as if they’d rather have bottles with their own names on them. The backyard vineyard is becoming the new must-have amenity—the in-home gym, screening room or infinity pool of the 2010s.

Furniture designer and wood-carver Raymond Enkeboll planted vines on his estate in Encinal Canyon around the same time that Jones got started, but the first Malibu grape-grower anybody noticed was restaurateur Michael McCarty, proprietor of Michael’s in Santa Monica and New York City. “The whole thing came out of a wild dinner party in 1983,” he recalls. “I’d just gotten a notice from the county about clearing the brush around my house, and we started talking about what I could plant instead. And of course somebody said, ‘Grapes!’ ” McCarty had friends in the wine business, most notably the legendary Dick Graff of Monterey County’s Chalone Vineyard. In 1985 Graff planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from some of the best Northern California properties around McCarty’s hilltop Malibu house, and four years later, McCarty’s first Malibu Vineyard wines were released. After the vines were damaged by a brushfire in 1993, McCarty replanted, this time exclusively with Pinot Noir. “We decided just to grow what’s supposed to be grown here,” he says, “and we think that’s Pinot Noir.”

He has two acres of it now—those were his vines I mentioned earlier—a combination of three French clones whose juice is vinified separately and then blended. It’s a more than credible Pinot, soft and medium-rich, with a hint of strawberry fruit and a trace of the barnyard character so prized in Burgundy. Grape-growing isn’t a casual hobby, McCarty stresses. “Having a vineyard is a day-to-day thing,” he says. “I’ve got 3,100 vines, and it’s as if you were a nursery-school teacher with 3,100 four- and five-year-olds constantly demanding attention.” His biggest problem at the moment? “Coyotes. They love ripe grapes.”

Malibu is more than just beaches, expensive homes and a few scrub-covered hillsides. Away from the coast, it becomes a complex landscape of volcanic mountains full of narrow ravines, flat-bottomed canyons, steep bluffs and broad mesas. Because of its native organisms, soil and climate, it’s categorized as part of a coastal Mediterranean ecosystem, rare in North America. There are no actual wineries in Malibu; state and county restrictions make their existence almost impossible, and most local growers send their grapes to nearby Camarillo or to Santa Barbara County to be vinified. But differing exposures to the sun and to cooling sea breezes give Malibu scores of microclimates, each capable of producing wines with unique character.

Jim Palmer, a business manager by profession, has four acres of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese vines on his property in Decker Canyon, planted after his French-born landscape designer suggested that the land might be suitable for grapes. Palmer sent a soil sample off to the University of California at Davis, the state’s premier school of viticulture and enology. “They told us we had a mix of volcanic sand and clay,” he says. “Factor in our southern exposure, and it’s perfect for these grapes.” Palmer has also just opened Malibu Beach Wines, a wine store and tasting room, next to Zuma Jay’s surf shop on Pacific Coast Highway, across from the line of beachfront houses known as Billionaire’s Row. He plans to carry every Malibu wine available, if the producers will let him have them.

The key to making successful wine, in Malibu or anywhere else, says Palmer, is to get involved. “If you’re going to grow grapes,” he maintains, “you can’t just bring in somebody to do everything for you. You have to learn as much as you can about viticulture and winemaking. You need to take ownership of your folly.”

Two of the growers whom Palmer particularly respects for their involvement in the process are Charles Schetter and Elliott Dolin. Schetter runs the Hearthstone real-estate development company when he’s not cosseting his small vineyard of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “Charles is really a hands-on guy,” says Palmer. “When he’s in town, he walks every row and keeps a computerized weather monitor on his night table.” Dolin, a one-time Nashville studio musician (he plays electric bass) turned real-estate investor, has 900 Chardonnay vines on Zuma Mesa and has taken classes at UC Davis to help him understand the workings of the vineyard.

Some of Malibu’s more celebrated names are involved in grape-growing. Actor Emilio Estevez has a small planting of Pinot Noir on Point Dume. Screenwriter Tony Griffin, Merv’s son, cultivates Malbec and Chardonnay near Dolin. Walt Miller, Walt Disney’s grandson, has a half-acre of Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at the base of Calabasas Peak. It apparently isn’t public knowledge, but Michael Milken, the so-called “junk-bond king,” owns a hilltop vineyard behind HRL Laboratories in Malibu Canyon, yielding wines privately bottled under the Malibu Milk label.

The big wine properties, by Malibu standards, are ten or 15 miles inland, around the Mulholland Highway corridor. The largest, Saddlerock Ranch, belongs to Ronnie Semler—his labels are Semler and Saddlerock—who originally raised avocados here but today farms 65 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and five other varieties, with plans to develop 35 acres more. Movie-studio magnate and hotelier George Rosenthal, a Malibu wine pioneer who planted his first vines in 1987, owns a custom-built Mexican-style mansion in Newton Canyon, its grounds full of contemporary sculpture (including a 16-foot-high stainless-steel wine bottle), with about 30 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and other grapes. Howard Leight, who made his fortune with high-tech earplugs, has a magnificent redoubt off Kanan Road, constructed from ancient building stones imported from France, from where he can look out on his Malibu Rocky Oaks Estate Vineyards, ten acres with ten varieties. (His Chardonnay was served at Kim Kardashian’s ill-fated wedding.)

“Why isn’t grape-growing in Malibu just a rich dilettante’s hobby?” I ask Palmer. “It is a rich dilettante’s hobby,” he replies, “a vanity project. Look, there are people who say, ‘My wife likes Malbec, let’s plant Malbec, and anyway, vines are a good firebreak.’ But most of these guys are really serious about wine and want something they can be proud of, the best of the best. And why not? Malibu is already famous for movie stars and surfing; now it’s becoming famous for world-class wines.”

Cornell is a hamlet high in the mountains, closer to the San Fernando Valley than the beach. There’s a famous rustic restaurant here, The Old Place, where people like Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah used to come for steamed clams and steaks. Next door is a newer structure with a sign reading “Cornell Winery and Tasting Room.” In fact, no wine is made here, but it’s a little gem of a wineshop run by Tim Skogstrom, a former wine and spirits distributor. He thinks the potential here is tremendous. “When I first tasted Malibu wines,” he tells me, “I would have told you to stay away. Two years later, my eyebrows raised. A year after that, I said, ‘Damn, these are really good.’ It’s a process.”

Skogstrom, Jim Palmer and I sit down in the back room to taste. We work our way through three whites, then five reds, including one of Palmer’s own (see “Tasting Notes”). To my palate, the standout of the group is the 2009 Private Reserve Cabernet from Malibu Solstice Vineyard, a small property high up in Solstice Canyon, run by land developer Donald Schmitz II. The vineyard was planted exclusively with Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 1996, and it now produces a maximum of 300 cases a year.

We have just moved on to our last wine, Walt Miller’s Calabasas Peak Vineyards 2009, a 65/35 blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, when a man comes into the shop, sees us sitting at the table in the back and heads over. “Hi, Mel,” says Skogstrom. “I don’t drink anymore,” replies Mel Gibson, surveying the table, “but red wine is the one thing I miss.” I’ve had just enough to say, “You must be the only landowner in Malibu who doesn’t have a vineyard.” Gibson shrugs. “Well, I have a hundred acres of land. Maybe I should plant grapes.” Skogstrom smiles. “Go for it,” he says.

Malibu Wines: Tasting Notes

A quick take on eight of Malibu’s best recent vintages.

Whites

Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards Chardonnay 2009: A lean but flavorful Chardonnay from Elliott Dolin, with good varietal character and only a shadow of oak. $40; dolinestate.com.

Malibu Sanity Chardonnay 2009: Charles Schetter’s Chardonnay is subtle, deftly balanced and pure. $40; malibusanity.com.

Rosenthal The Malibu Estate Newton Canyon Viognier 2010: With a touch of orange muscat added, it’s lively and aromatic, without that cloying perfume some California Viogniers evince. $25; rosenthalestatewines.com.

Reds

Rosenthal The Malibu Estate Cabernet Franc 2008: Grapey on the nose, with light cherry fruit and a nice outline of acidity on the palate. $35; rosenthalestatewines.com.

Malibu Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2009: Jim Palmer’s Cab Franc has that attractive, dusty, stalky aroma that defines interpretations of the grape from the Loire Valley, and it’s light and clean on the palate. $40; malibu-vineyards.com.

Malibu Rocky Oaks Estate Vineyards Black Raven Cabernet 2008: A big, grapey nose and a generous mouthful of fruit. $30; maliburockyoaks.com.

Malibu Solstice Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet 2009: The nose is a little shy, but the wine positively floods the palate with lovely, intense cherry fruit and a hint of bell pepper—just delicious. $35; malibusolstice.net.

Calabasas Peak Vineyards Estate 65 percent Syrah 35 percent Cabernet Sauvignon 2009: Walt Miller’s big, solid, juicy wine is Languedoc-like in character. Only 15 cases were produced. $35; calabasaspeakvineyards.com.

For a great selection of local Malibu wines, visit Cornell Winery and Tasting Room (29975 Mulholland Hwy.; cornellwinery.com) or Malibu Beach Wines (22967 Pacific Coast Hwy.; malibubeachwines.com).