Semler Sets Sail for the NEW ‘BU Wine World

Like the mid 18th century Portola horsemen whose figures are painted on the cave walls located on this incredible property in the Malibu hills, the Semler family has gone exploring. The destination? The land of serious winemakers – sparsely populated territory in the ‘Bu. After several years of planning and a couple of key moves they seem to have all the pieces in place for a successful journey.

tBoW interviewed patriarch Ronnie Semler, son Shane and wife Lisa on the grounds of their highly successful “tasting park” off Mulholland Drive across from their 1,000 acre ranch tucked deep in the hills of Malibu. Ronnie quickly identified Lisa as the one with winemaker fever behind their Malibu Family Wines project. She pulled off the Saddlerock Malibu AVA application. In the late 1990s Lisa proposed pulling up several thousand avocado trees and planting vinifera. Avocado trees, she reasoned, are not nearly as robust a crop as wine grapes. Today they have 70 acres planted to the following varietals:

Cab‚ planted 1998 thru 2000‚ 36.53 acres (60% Cab)
Merlot‚ planted 2002‚ 5 acres
Syrah‚ planted 1999‚ 6.53 acres
Syrah‚ planted 2006 – 5.85 acres‚ no production yet,
Sauvignon Blanc – grafted 2006‚ 6.59 acres
Grenache‚ grafted 2006‚ 2.04 acres
Mourvedre‚ grafted 2006‚ 1.29 acres
Malbec‚ grafted 2006 – .82 acres
Malbec‚ planted 2006‚ 1.34 acres
Viognier‚ grafted 2006‚ 1.59 acres

They have two labels, Saddlerock – blends of Central Coast juice from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles – and Semler – 100% estate grown.

Portola rider carrying “sun”

They do not own property outside the ranch…yet. They do have ambitious plans to take the 25,000 case production under Saddlerock to 100,000 and to double the current 10,000 cases of Semler. Their plan is to have 100 acres under vine on the ranch.

Lisa is the family vintner who unlike so many of her Malibu colleagues has taken numerous courses at UC Davis. However, her greatest edge may be knowing her limits – “don’t ask me about the chemistry; I prefer the blending”. She concluded that, after 13 years of climbing the steep learning curve, if she and Ronnie were to get serious they needed to bring in the professionals. They invited celebrated winemakers from Central California who confirmed they had excellent growing conditions, vines and soil.

tasty red blend

So they hired two winemakers, a Santa Ynez veteran, and a viticulture specialist from New Zealand, to make sure they could get the most from what they have. If you want to see what the Kiwi had to work with down under click here and you will feel assured he can manage the many microclimates on the Semler Ranch.

They had already made the wise decision to take their harvest to Terravent in Santa Ynez [ed. Alma Rosa, Ken Brown, Summerland…]. “We were their first customer”. This decision was based on several factors including the smaller lots they could bring in at any given time during harvest and the quality of the winemaking staff there. tBoW has already confirmed that the region’s better wines are vinified at Terravent where the character of the local fruit doesn’t get washed out during vinification. Hey, we ain’t geniuses…the proof is in the bottle. [ed. he means Schetter’s Sanity, Carol Hoyt of Hoyt Family Vineyards and Bob Haagstrom of Church Vineyards].

Another key experience was not anticipated. They were able to pick the brains of some of Napa’s most knowledgeable vintners during an non-wine stay at Meadowood in Napa in 2008. The result was they got a sense of what it means to “get serious”. They decided to drop more fruit – from 3 tons per acre to 1.5 to 2. The winemakers also have ideas…and they are quite exciting.

The Semler Ranch is a spectacular spot geographically. As a vineyard it is “fairly extreme” in terms of the terrain and yet it is 100% hand farmed [ed. some of the slopes defy equillibrium]. Our goal is to actually assess each corner in the vineyard and test each as lots for blending. There could be 40 to 50 of these.

One of the qualities I find impressive is the ability of the vineyard to hold onto natural acid. We see no reason to add acid to the blends. You want natural acid in your juice in order to produce elegant wines. Our goal is to produce wines at lower alcohol levels with good natural acidity. We will focus on Cabernet as this is the cash crop. However, we believe the Southern Rhone varietals will do very well on site.

We did blend the King of the Mountain red but do watch out for the 2008 reds not yet released. The 2009s will be even better. The vintage in 2010 will be the first where we have been able to care for the vineyard to impact the winemaking. Building the winery will mark the next serious step in being able to realize the actual potential as we will be able to better control for the microclimates.

We have felt that Semler is positioned to be the flagship in the ‘Bu winemaking community. “We already are” pointed out Ronnie. His crew has installed many vineyards in the region and they are frequently asked to consult on the Malibu Wine Country phenomenon. Despite decent success they want to do better. Having interviewed enough Malibu property owners – the term vintner is so easily worn as a mantle of respect – we can say these guys are way ahead of the pack. Granted they have a decade long head start which, admirably, has impressed them with how much they do not know.

How will we know when the Malibu Family Vineyard has arrived? When their wines are more than decent or well crafted; when their wines are distinctive, something that cannot truly be said to date for any of the wineries. There is a handful of vintners who understand this distinction and the Semlers are among this tiny crew.

Malibu Wine Country is a very loose collection of hobbyists generally making ordinary wines. Most have no idea what their neighbors are doing…or what they are doing themselves. Here is the biggest vineyard looking to separate itself from the pack on a large scale along with the few that already have. Look for the 2010 vintage wines from Semler to see if they have forged a gap. These are the wines that will have the full imprint of the new winemakers working in harmony with Ronnie and Lisa. After speaking with the entire crew we will be looking to the horizon with considerable interest.