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GRAPE EXPECTATIONS : Part-Time Growers in West San Fernando Valley Find Climate Allows : Backyard Vineyards to Yield Much Satisfaction--and Drinkable Wine

May 14, 1987|MARC HAEFELE | Haefele is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer. and

From the loamy soil of Woodland Hills, Tony Tasca's vineyard is blooming its way into early fruit. The vines, taut on their supporting wires, are shoulder height. Among the spreading canes and unfolding leaves are tiny grapes the size of broccoli buds, but much greener. There are 100 vines on less than an eighth of an acre, and Tasca knows them all by name.

"I pulled out some rows of good stuff--orange muscat and muscat canalli. Very aromatic and sweet grapes. But the birds and the bees always got them," said Tasca. "So I got tired of fighting and replaced them."

Remaining are rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and French Colombard, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, plus a few experimental and rare varieties unusual anywhere in California.

Tasca is a sturdy man of 72, with a full, dark head of hair and the coloring of someone who likes to spend his free time outside. He's been an aircraft engineer, a San Joaquin Valley farmer and a designer of solar energy systems.

Small Vineyard

Now he devotes much of his time to growing grapes and making them into wine on a fragment of the half-acre lot surrounding his home near Warner Ranch. The grapes share the land with an assortment of fruit-laden trees and a coop of plump Rhode Island Red hens.

It takes an odd, increasingly rare combination of attitudes, personality and commitment to grow your own wine, even on a small scale.

According to Tasca, who is completing his bachelor's degree in early medieval studies at California State University, Northridge, it also requires a feeling for history, a sense of place, a love of growing. Maybe that's why grape growing isn't a thriving, expanding hobby in Los Angeles, where many homes change hands in less than the three years it takes a vine to produce its first fruit.

And in fact, although grapes flourish, it is nearly impossible to grow great wine grapes in most of Los Angeles County.

"It gets too hot--up to 108 degrees or more," said Tasca on an early spring day when his vineyard was already sweltering in the upper 90s.

Called 'Undistinguished'

This heat eventually evaporates the fruit's acidity, even as it ripens the grape early and concentrates its sugar. The result is a heavily alcoholic vintage of scant character, the kind of wine the critics term "flabby" or "undistinguished."

Tasca says that "a little craftsmanship," meaning addition of fruit acid after harvest, can mitigate the flabbiness.

As few as a dozen people are seriously growing their own wine grapes in Los Angeles County, said Tasca. All of them, so far as he knows, have their plantings in or near the San Fernando Valley. They are the only people on Earth who can bottle wine with the appellation "Grown and Produced in Los Angeles County."

Jess Stevenson, a Teledyne engineer, heads the Cellarmasters Club, which is loosely based in the West Valley-Tarzana-Woodland Hills area. About 120 of the group's 160 members make their own wine, but only a small fraction of them grow their own grapes for even part of their output, Stevenson notes. Most of these people have started their vineyards from cuttings provided by Tasca.

"He's the only real viticulturist in our part of Southern California," said John Daume, who owns the Home Wine Shop on Ventura Boulevard near Fallbrook Avenue.

Tasca briefly owned and operated a small La Crescenta vineyard during World War II. In the 1950s, he gave up a flourishing career as a contract aviation engineer and moved his family to a grape vineyard near Fresno. The venture didn't work out, but he had the grape bug. In the early 1970s, he started again, on a much smaller scale, in his West Valley backyard.

The mulching, cultivation, sulfuring for mildew, spraying for pests and fertilizing and pruning are facets of Tasca's intense involvement. As he shows his visitor through the vineyard, he notes the red pigment in the unfurling green leaf of a "color" variety intended to make red wines darker, the abundance of buds on a rootstock vine that will never bear fruit, the relative sparsity of grapes on a Cabernet vine compared to the heavy bearing of a massive Colombard.

Tasca, after two larger winegrowing ventures, has retrenched in his small, intensely-cultivated vineyard. But according to Daume, it's more usual for Valley vintners to move upscale, even to apply the skills learned in the home winery and back-lot vineyard to professional production.

Has Camarillo Winery

Jim Ahern, for instance, is one of about two dozen former cellar masters who went professional. His San Fernando winery produces some widely acclaimed Chardonnays from Edna Valley grapes. Daume himself has established a Camarillo winery to press grapes from San Luis Obispo County.

Although going professional is a major step in a market that seems literally saturated with quality wine, those who chose to do so are likely to head for the prime Central Coast and Northern California wine country, said Daume.

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