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Moraga Vineyards: Appellation Controlee Bel Air

ABOUT WINE

January 09, 1992|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

The seven small vineyard sites are spread out over 6 acres on steep, rocky soil that rises 600 feet from the road, looking more like the hills of Tuscany than an American vineyard.

Bordeaux grape varieties are planted here, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Tasting the unreleased wine, one senses something special. It has a classic herbal-cassis aroma and a density of fruit that could come only from Bordeaux or Napa hillsides.

But Moraga Vineyards is in Los Angeles. It is Tom V. Jones' personal homage to Jean Louis Vignes, California's first commercial winemaker, who began making wine in the early 1830s in downtown Los Angeles, long before Sonoma--and later Napa--discovered the grape.

The Moraga Vineyards are 20 miles west of where Vignes had his winery. This enclosed property is hidden from public view off Sunset Boulevard in Bel Air, up dead-end Moraga Canyon, within earshot of the San Diego Freeway.

Here Tom and Ruth Jones are trying to keep wilderness a part of the Los Angeles heritage, and they are doing so with a fascinating byproduct: excellent wine.

The wine from this vineyard is being made by Napa Valley consulting enologist Tony Soter at Sanford Winery in Santa Barbara County. When the first vintage of Moraga is released in a year, it is sure to be one of the most prized in California history, in part because of its scarcity--just 200 cases were made. And no more than 900 cases will ever be made in a vintage.

The wine is special also because of the uniqueness of the place. Wine scientists say you can't grow fine wine grapes in Los Angeles, certainly not Cabernet Sauvignon. But Jones, a longtime wine lover and collector, and vineyardist Roberto Quintana are dedicated men blessed with a greenbelt that defies the typical desert scenario of the Los Angeles basin.

It was in 1959, at the age of 38, that Tom V. Jones, an electronics engineer who had just been named president of Northrop Corp., bought a home with nine fireplaces on a one-acre lot. The property was once the home of Victor Fleming, director of "Gone With the Wind."

At the time he bought the home, Jones also obtained an option on some adjacent land, a shrewd move that later enabled him to expand his holdings to its present 15 acres.

In 1961, Jones was named chairman of Northrop, a position he held until retirement in 1989.

For the next two decades the two small canyons beside the Jones home remained an unspoiled enclave in West Los Angeles, which was then fast becoming a haven for the wealthy seeking gaudy hillside estates. Most of the land was overgrown: brush on hillsides, ferns at the base of the canyon where a stream ran through. Tom and Ruth's two children played in the thickets and on slopes as they grew up.

"We knew it was unique, we knew it was special when we bought it," says Jones. "People thought we were crazy to buy this place, but we knew we were buying something man can't do--where can you find a place so beautiful, with a family of golden eagles, with hawks flying above, with two coveys of quail? Preservation of the life in this canyon is very vital to us."

Jones and Quintana, his ranch foreman, planted 40 coffee plants (to harvest the beans and make coffee), built a chicken coop (for eggs) and started an extensive vegetable garden.

Meanwhile, he sought a spot in Napa or Sonoma where he could plant grapes and make wine. Assisting him was an old friend, Harry Wetzel, chairman of Garrett Corp., who owned Alexander Valley Vineyards in Sonoma County in 1975.

"We looked at a number of places, but Ruth made the point that we'd be absentee owners," says Jones. "Then I realized that what we had on our ranch was a chalky sandstone, an ancient ocean bottom limestone with fossils in it. This is what we look for in the Medoc."

So Jones investigated the climate and slope and discovered that Moraga Canyon is truly unique. "We get 60% more rain than Los Angeles, and the land rises 800 feet (above sea level) and it's steeply sloped. It looked like as good site as any to plant grapes."

Jones asked Quintana, who then knew nothing about wine grapes, to plant the first vineyard. In 1978, 40 vines went in. To the amazement of some, they thrived. In 1980, planting was undertaken in earnest.

The odd contours of the land forced Quintana to plant each of the seven vineyard areas differently. Each vineyard has its own name, though the wine will bear only the name Moraga.

Quintana soon became a student of the science of viticulture. "He's a genius," says Soter. Using the most up-to-date technical data and with assistance from experts at UC Davis and Fresno State, Quintana dealt with problems as they arose, including a costly plant virus that set the project back three years.

Over the years, Jones acquired additional land here. The biggest purchases, six years ago, came after two homes on a ridge above his property were condemned after slides made them unsafe. Both homes were on uncompacted fill, deemed unbuildable.

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