Malibu Wine Country Report

IGTYmalibu.jpgI don’t care how rich you are…you can’t grow decent wine in LA. Besides, there are too many other reasons to not even try. The idea already failed 100 years ago when Southern California was the state’s wine center. Most of the planting was northeast of the city in the high desert. Prohibition shut down the locals and the state’s wine capital moved to north to the Central Valley, Sonoma, and Napa. SoCal never recovered…until now.
There are 150 new acres planted to vinifera in the Santa Monica Mountains representing 50 vineyards. Do the math…these are small plots. Who are these mad vintners? Growing vines and making wine is not like putting in a pool with a slide. Acreage under 5 acres makes it very hard to turn a profit since 1 acre will yield only 75 cases of wine. Undeveloped land in Santa Monica Mountains makes developers drool. Planting vineyards where they see condos or gated McMansion “communities” must drive them nuts. Be serious. malibuvineyardvines.jpgYou have to have money to burn to do this. And they do. They include actors and folks who sold a very successful business like the Cheesecake Factory or Lowes Hardware; or ran hedge funds or got rich selling helicopters. God knows. Some people say you get a tax break if you plant vines because that will throw your property into a lower tax bracket. But that is not why they are doing it. I think many of this new corps are wine snobs, grape geeks, the kind who say things like “great wine is not a matter of price but of availability”.
So what about the wines? Visit Cornell Corner off Troutdale Road which is off Kanan Dume Road which is in the Conejo Valley which is one valley north and outside of Los Angeles…and find out. Now tBoW thinks Cornell is exactly the kind of cheesy name a developer would come up with. But it ain’t. Cornell has been a three building outpost on the old stagecoach route more than 100 years. If you drive there over Mulholland Highway from Calabasas the way everyone once came it IS a long way. But if you take the 101 and exit at Kanan it’s only 5 minutes on the way to the beach.
The new plantings are barely 10 years old. There is a big dog in the region, thechumashsaddlerock.jpg Semmler property with just under 100 acres planted. They have their own tasting room and a cave with 300 year old Chumash cave paintings of the Spanish Portola expedition on horseback. They recently handed over the winemaking to a real winemaker so soon there will be more to do than see the cave.
tBoW visited the Cornell Winery and ate at the Old Place next door in a downpour which only added to the cornellwinery1.jpgwonderful atmosphere of both settings. Cornell Winery is not a winery but a tasting room for local labels and gallery for local artists. The building, built in 1870, was refurbished by Denise and Tim, who own the “winery” and the restaurant next door. The restaurant is a local haunt having existed out in the boonies for more than 50 years before the new 101 was built in the 70s, when tBoW and the Mrs used to hitchhike the old inland road with two dogs. True story.
oldplace2.jpgCornell features Malibu and Santa Monica producers and vineyards. A few of the labels source juice from other regions, e.g., Santa Barbara and Lodi. However, the majority are home grown. Now, I Gotta Tell Ya, [ed. glowering above] there have been a few articles about the new winery projects. They are always portrayed as vanity deals which is easy to believe because the conditions for growing wine on this stretch of the California coast are not exactly ideal. The most notable “success” story is Rosenthal’s Bordeaux blend which is a blueprint for what not to do; grow Bordeaux varietals, and price it like another “collectible” Napa fruit bomb. If Paso Robles is wrong for Cabernet Sauvignon then Malibu must be even worse. The Semler project has produced thousands of cases of very mediocre wine for 10 years. At least they have planted Rhone style grapes. One thing is absolutely certain…you cannot grow Pinot Noir where people surf! So what can we reasonably expect of more newbies working 1 to 5 acres? Smaller tragedies? Here is what we tasted. We were surprised.
2008 Rosenthal Surfrider Sauvignon Blanc $19: Edna Valley juice in a “New Zealand” style which means grassy. It is green and grassy. 10% of sales benefit the Surfrider Foundation which is very very nice. 14.4%
2008 Republic of Malibu Beach Blonde $22: The label name winner for Republic. The wine is 91% Chardonnay and the rest Viognier which is not really discernible. However, the wine is nice with a smoky nose, light gold color, buttery feel. Estate grown on two acres in Malibu. Tiny production. A very restrained and much admired 13.5%. Bravo!
2008 Republic of Malibu Rosé Pink Lady $19: Grown in Corral Canyon which has to be the same 2 acre vineyard, right? Chalky nose and flavor. IGTY likes it because it is not sweet. And that is correct. However, Mrs. tBoW likens the flavor to Kaopectate which is probably not where the winemaker was aiming. Not a bad wine but you can buy a lot of great Rosés for under $20. 13.9%
2007 Cantara Barbera $32: Juice from Lodi which is a long way from Malibu. The owners live in Camarillo which is close enough I suppose. Apparently, they do not have any Malibu plantings. They must be very friendly. For such a young wine it shows very little tannins. Instead the wine is soft and sweet. Tastes Italian. Denise says it is a great everyday wine for any meal. Yes but not at this price. Another much appreciated low alcohol wine at 13.5%.
2007 Milan Vineyards Maximilian $45: It was only a matter of time before we met a bottle named after a much-loved family member. It’s like the group of people who buy paintings of landscapes and flowers. These vineyards are in Topanga Canyon [ed. tBoW loves Topanga]. This is a more sophisticated wine. It is an outlaw blend of 50% Merlot, 25% Cab Sauvignon and 25% Syrah. And it is grown in my backyard! Great mouth feel, silky smooth and well balanced. Medium weight, soft fruit but high alcohol at 15%. An impressive effort.
hoytmalibuv.jpg2006 Hoyt Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon $19: Off the map and off the web! But a wine with some age. And it tastes like Cabernet Sauvignon; meaty, chocolate, some veggie quality. Slight sweetness. Mrs. tBoW likes it. Our second U20. 14%
2005 Malibu Valley Vineyards Reserve Syrah $15: It’s a vintner like this that gets tBoW excited. All his wines are $15 so people will try them! Brilliant! These new winemakers stuff their dog’s beds with hundies so push the bottles out the door ferkrissake. And this is nice wine with a little age. Nice dark robe. Some BBQ sauce on the nose which I like. Some tannins which with the decent fruit shows it is trying to be serious. Taste the vanilla oak. Wonder how long? The hands down U20 winner! 13.6% makes it another big drinkability winner.
saddlerockNVtawnyport.jpgNV Saddlerock Old Vine Tawny Port $20: Saddlerock is the second label of Malibu Family Wines. This is a nice non-vintage wine. The oldest plantings on the Semler ranch are Cab and Merlot from 1987. Wonder what is in here. Nice nutty flavor with a caramel core. Nice wine. 19%
The Old Place is quite a place and definitely worth a visit. If you are coming to LA skip Universal Studios or Rodeo Drive and go here instead. Read about the former owner Tom Runyon and learn something about the way it once was in the Malibu Hills at the link above.
We bought two bottles at Cornell and toted them into The Old Place.
2007 Malibu Vineyards Vortex Sangiovese $39: The price is too high and tBoW got fooled by the vortex of Malibu winery names thinking this would be the $15 bottle by Malibu VALLEY Vineyard. The wine tastes like Sangiovese. It had that nice acidic backbone with a lean kind of sweetness. Mrs. tBoW does not like this style. It is Old World which is somewhat surprising for a New World wine. Light body weight. Had it after the killer wine of the evening which was tough competition. Great alcohol level…12.9%
malibusanityPN08.jpg2008 Malibu Sanity Pinot Noir Schetter Vineyard $42: Hey! I thought I told you to not even try to grow Pinot Noir down here ya knucklehead. IGTY said we had to buy this bottle. He was paying so tBoW said go ahead. There was every reason to expect something unusual…even bizarre. If you can’t grow Pinot Noir in Paso Robles how can you grow it 200 miles further south? Well, put me in the barrel and stomp my fruit. This was very good wine. Pretty, light cherry red color. Delicate weight and delicately balanced flavors. juliettelewissux.jpgCherry style with bacon bits. So easy to drink. You have never had a Santa Rita Hills Pinot as light on its feet. Paul Lato makes sinewy if genteel wines that are still masculine. This is 100% girlie and completely charming. Think Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. After dinner tBoW spotted a bottle of 1998 Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche on the bar (empty) at the Old Place. I started up a conversation with Tim (proprietor in both entities) and mentioned the Sanity Pinot. “Oh yeah, that guy is a total Burgundy freak.” Well no shit. 14.5%

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