The Summer 2010 Best of the ‘Bu Revu at Charlies in Malibu

Malibu Wine Country. The very thought captivates. How could this be? Domestic wine country suggests thousands of acres and acres of vineyards with names like Rutherford Bench or Navarro River or Sonoma Coast. Even the Paso Westside. The idea that there could be a Malibu Wine Country begs the question…where could it be?

For right now Malibu Wine Country is more an idea than anything else. It is something that COULD BE, or that MIGHT BE, given time and experience. This little blog has been tracking the IDEA and intends to continue tracking it just to see what happens.

Recently, a Malibu restaurant РCharlies in Malibu Рhosted a Malibu Wine Tasting dinner and tBoW was able to attend. Four Malibu vintners attended and shared their thoughts on winemaking and their wines. The tBoW team shares our observations and impressions in call and response style. Dotoré takes the lead while tBoW gets to follow.

First a quick review of Charlies: a delightful and welcome stop on Pacific Coast Highway north of Topanga and before the Malibu Pier. Wally Moran manages the staff and keeps everything moving efficiently. The food is very good with three inspired prix fixe choices as well as ala carte. Worth a visit just for the cool vibe.

D: Over the better part of the last year, as part of the tBoW tasting team, I’ve had the occasion to taste dozens of wines from Malibu, as well as interview a significant number of the “playas”–winemakers, restauranteurs, wine store owners. So what’s going on? Is there a there there? In my opinion, not yet.

With one very notable exception, lots of people are talking a good game, but I’m not sure they’re talking about the right stuff.

The entry ticket to winemaking is having enough income to own property on which you grow grapes. In Malibu especially, this is self-evident. Lots of money there. But Malibu, unlike, say, Napa or Sonoma, has no indigenous wine culture whatsoever (kind of like Santa Ynez, in my opinion). Therefore, there is no history upon which to draw–it’s a completely blank slate. And the people writing on the slate have no firm base of knowledge, other than that they “like wine”. So if they like Chardonnay, they grow Chardonnay. If they like Cab, they grow Cab. They’ll hire a winemaker based largely on convenience, cost, and his/her ability to make wine that the growers “like”. Well, this is good for the grower’s ego, but doesn’t necessarily lead to good wine.

tBoW: Simply stated, Malibu winemakers with a point of view about wine in general are few and far between. Is this a handicap? Only if as a winemaker you want to make great or even sell-able wine and understand there is something more to reaching that goal other than liking wine and hiring the nearest “expert”. The Malibu folks who DO know something about wine stick out like a Saguaro cactus in the middle of a vineyard.

D: Therefore, in a geographically miniscule area, wines are produced that can be based on Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah–you get the picture. Some blending grapes are sourced from the Central Coast, some from Napa. There is no consistency of vision, therefore wines vary widely from winery to winery in style, varietal, alcohol level, as well as from vintage to vintage.

Not to mention price point.

tBoW: Price point is perhaps the simplest way to measure winemaker savvy. The rules are simple. If your product is new it must be priced competitively and in line with other like varietals. If you are domestic you should be aware of pricing for international offerings in your varietal group. Finally, in a recession pick a relevant price and knock it back 20%. We recall the late 2009 LA Times article on the small production premium Cabernet Napa winemaker who declared he would never reduce the price on his $125 heavy-glass high shoulder bottle of the same-old Napa Cabernet. He cared nothing about a bad wine market. His wine is not about supply and demand. Hell. It may not even be about quality or distinction of product. He joined the Robert Mondavi Napa Lifestyle Club.

D: Today, in the summer of 2010, there is no defining quality to Malibu wine, other than some of the grapes were grown in Malibu. The exception is Charles Schetter, the maven of Malibu Sanity, or, as we refer to him, the “Don Quixote of Wine”. He grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Obsessively. He has a crystal clear vision. He takes classes at UC Davis and studies hard. He micro-manages his vines. He knows EXACTLY what he wants and knows how to combine didactic knowledge with hard work to achieve his goal. This is the type of vision needed in Malibu. He’ll get what he wants, dammit!

Malibu vintners take¬†note. Until more people like Charles are growing grapes and overseeing their winemaking in Malibu, with his type of vision and work ethic, wines from the ‘Bu will likely be seen strictly as a curiosity and vanity project. But, with more guys like Schetter, who knows what surprises are in store. Stay tuned.

tBoW: Short summary…there are at least two distinct regions in Malibu; the coast which seems to be well suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; and the inland which is suited for “hot” varietals such as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. Is there a place for Cabernet Sauvignon? Maybe at the higher elevations.

Four of Malibu’s leading wineries were represented at the Charlie’s dinner. Here are my notes on the wines and the very fun evening.

2008 Malibu Sanity Vineyards Chardonnay $28: This wine is still young. Has mineral flavors and some oak. First wine of the evening showed well. Firm. Goes very nicely later on with the light lemon tart. Benefits from aeration right now. A serious wine that we look forward to tasting in a year. This wine and his Pinot are why Charles Schetter is the most serious winemaker in the ‘Bu. 14.2%

2007 Church Malibu Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir ~$37: First release from this vineyard 300 yards from Zuma Beach! Pinot Noir nose with cola and black cherry flavors. New world for sure. The vintner announces “Anthony has rated it 93 and said it has Burgundian qualities”. We are happy for vintner Bob Haagstrom but suggest the wine is more like Sonoma or Santa Rita Hills than Burgundy. We learn the winemakers are Kris Curren and Bruno D’Alfonse, high profile Santa Rita winemakers of Sea Smoke and Sanford, respectively. They kept the wine in barrel 30 months. We wonder why and learn because the vines were only¬† 4 years old in 2007! Next question…who is Anthony? 96 cases were made from four year old vines on his 2 acres that are terraced. We really want to see this site. If 4 y.o. vines can produce a decent Pinot Noir that smells and tastes like Pinot Noir then we are interested in subsequent vintages. 14.3% which is quite commendable. [ed. FYI we have since visited Church Vineyards and will report on this incredible site in short order]

2008 Semler Sauvignon Blanc $22: Nice enough. Not too grassy. Pleasant with soft fruit flavors. 100% estate juice. Semler is a study in what needs to happen for Malibu Wine Country to become more than an idea. This is the largest planting in the region with dramatic inland vineyards off Mulholland Highway. They have the tasting room, summer movies and even 400 y.o. Chumash cave drawings. What they need is an experienced winemaker and they finally appear to have made the commitment to taking the vision and making it a reality. They have two Рa Santa Barbara winemaker and a New Zealand assistant winemaker, both with impressive resumes. We will not taste  their influence until certain wines from the 2009 vintage are released. The 2010 will be all theirs.

Cielo is the other inland region big dog. Rosenthal deserves mention however, Semler and Cielo are creating the pressure for Rosenthal to diversify beyond the ubiquitous and overpriced Rosenthal Cabernet Sauvignon. Not that Cielo does not suffer from the same pricing predicament. Cielo makes a wide range of consistently decent wines (albeit with alcohol levels too high for the tBoW palate), a decision Rosenthal has also made.

2007 Cielo Malibu Estate Vineyard Saddlerock Malibu Cabernet Sauvignon Purple Mountain $55: This Cabernet Sauvignon is BIG and high. The juice is thick, a heavy weight. Director Bill Hirsch offers “this is the best wine we produce.” 15.4%

2006 Woodstock Collection Blackbird $60: What an interesting blend – 50% Petite Sirah and 50% Petite Verdot. When informed of the unique blend one Napa vintner commented: “nothing petite about that wine.” Jason Moore is the 34 y.o. winemaker for all the Cielo wines including the Woodstock collection which is Napa fruit. We have to think Jason played a key role in suggesting this blend. Wine is dry with a long finish. Perfect for the BBQ. 15.1%

Bill is vexed by the relentless comments of the tBoW tasters that imply we know more about his wines than he might like to acknowledge, including they are too high in alcohol! He disappears with Charlie’s manager Wally returning with a bagged bottle. He pours a white wine into our glasses which are hastily rinsed with water or, in at least one case, drool. The cool drink relieves the nascent big red head pain like a nurse in a battlefront medical tent. Stymied by the flavors one of the team says he will not rule out Chardonnay.

2009 Woodstock Collection Honeypie $32: This is the most popular wine in the house. A delicious blend of Chardonnay and Muscat with just the right sweet Muscat to offset the Chardonnay (is it steel fermented). Makes you wonder why more wineries do not copy this blend. Kudos.

2008 Woodstock Collection Black Widow $75: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Petite Sirah. Lovely, sweet, jammy. Lighter on its feet than the other wines. Sugar Ray Robinson in the company of Larry Holmes and Iran Barkley. 15.4%

At this point in the tasting it is clear that Bill is determined to convert the delicate Pinot palates of¬† the effete tBoW tasting team to big reds or bury us in the process. This prompts Dotor√© to holler “Don’t you have anything bigger?” Bill answers with his finest Cielo of this evening.

2007 Woodstock Collection Red House $75: Lively nose. Best of the big red set if that is what you like. tBoW is having difficulty getting this point across that although these are all very well made wines they just do not connect with palates that prefer a softer and lower alcohol wine such as a Pinot Noir (excluding most Santa Rita Hills examples that routinely cross the 15% barrier) or a Beaujolais. Having noticed the strong musical influence in wine naming at Cielo why not make a Dire Straits or Steely Dan style wine? We love Jimi and the Beatles but we also listen to other bands that rock as hard or produce classic songs but are different. Bill ponders for a moment and excuses himself to share Cielo with a table of hopefully more sympathetic tasters. 14.9%

Try Charlie’s and any one of these wines if you want to experience the best of Malibu…for today.

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