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ABOUT WINE

Calabasas Cellars: L.A.'s Peaceable Kingdom

November 18, 1990|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

The California wine industry got its start 160 years ago--in Los Angeles County. Although Los Angeles has since been upstaged by the Napa Valley, one determined man is trying to prove that this is still wine country.

Al Plechner has chosen an unlikely spot for his vineyard. In the rolling hills of Calabasas, he has 15 acres planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot and Zinfandel. He calls his wine Calabasas Cellars.

This is not some wild man's dream to roll back the clock and prove the experts wrong. Plechner has more than wine on his mind, and he has created what is undoubtedly the world's most unusual vineyard.

Plechner is a veterinarian, and his vineyard is a wildlife preserve.

"Over the past 30 or so years, many of the wildlife species have been funneled out of the wilds and put into enclaves," says Plechner. Agencies were running out of funds to care for the animals. Plechner wanted to help. "So I began looking to see if there was a significant ecological area for wildlife where the animal care officers were happy with the relocation, and where there would be no calls from neighbors." He found it in a spot of land adjacent to Santa Monica National Park that was listed as 20-plus acres.

"But that was 20 acres as the crow flies, and there are huge canyons and gorges here," he says. "The property goes back a third of a mile. The real estate people didn't count the ups and downs, so there's gotta be 30 acres in here."

Plechner bought the land and founded Stonewood Meadows, which is now licensed by the U.S. Department of Wildlife and the state as a wildlife preserve. All well and good--but Plechner found that maintaining the property was costly. "I decided to try to produce some kind of agricultural product to sell that wasn't real perishable. And because Calabasas is supposed to be so warm, I started with almonds. But we got heavy rains, which were too much for almonds.

"Then I tried citrus, but it was too cold for that. Then I planted fruit trees along the road, but everything I was guaranteed would grow here has died."

This particular spot, Plechner discovered, is called Cold Canyon for a good reason. Temperatures are much cooler than they are in the rest of the region. "If you go 150 to 200 yards north of me," he says, "citrus will grow, but not right here. During our hot spell in June, it was 48 degrees at night because we get marine air from Malibu Canyon. It's a real micro-environment. Even daytime temperatures are 15 degrees cooler than the valley."

Finally Plechner began to think that the area might be cool enough for wine grapes. ("At the worst, the deer could eat the grapes," he now says with a laugh.) He discovered that his land is actually more like St. Helena, in the heart of the Napa Valley, than it is like San Fernando Valley. "If I do this right, I thought, and prune my vines correctly, maybe I could produce something that was exceptional."

With sons Jay and A.J. digging the holes and planting the vines, the vineyard was planted in 1977. When the grapes ripened, the Plechners discovered that they were very attractive to the wildlife. Their solution? They set out bowls of dog food for the deer to keep them so well fed that they'd leave the berries alone.

The deer left enough grapes to produce small amounts of wine. Project director Mark Shannon hauled them hundreds of miles north to Clarksburg (near Sacramento) to a winery they leased to make the wine. The first wine was made in 1980, but it was kept mostly for friends; the first commercial release was the wines made from the 1983 vintage, released in 1985.

Thus far Plechner's commercial wines have all been red since only red grapes will withstand the journey north to the winery. His Cabernet, which sells for about $10 a bottle, has typical Cabernet character, though it's lighter in style than most of the "blockbuster" Cabernets of the Napa Valley. The recent releases are a Zinfandel and a Cabernet, both from the 1988 vintage.

Plechner also has planted an acre of Riesling and four acres of Chardonnay, although the latter may well be abandoned. "It's not very hardy and real susceptible to mildew and temperature. Production is very slim," he said.

Plechner and his wife, Anne, live on the ranch with their sons, Jay, now 19, and A.J., 15. The boys do the pruning, as they have done for a decade. Although the family's not going to get rich on its wine, Plechner doesn't care. "We just want to sell enough of the wine to support the wildlife," he said.

(Plechner has been trying to build a bird of prey center, a portion of which is completed. That's the reason he chose the bald eagle as the symbol of his wine project.)

"It's happening," he says, looking at the preserve taking shape. "I love my wines and I love my vines. And they're helping to feed the animals."

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