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A WINE ROMANCE : Wineries make a comeback in the Antelope Valley.

November 20, 1992|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Come to the romantic wine country of the Antelope Valley.

Sound like a joke? The valley--best known for moderate-priced housing, desert dust storms and shuttle landings--is indeed not high on the list of those seeking languid afternoons sipping white wine in quaint tasting rooms.

But two wineries established in the last couple of years want to change that impression.

"People don't realize that the Antelope Valley has an almost identical climate to Paso Robles, where they grow a lot of wine grapes," said Steve Godde, who oversees Cameo Vineyards about 10 miles west of Lancaster. In 1990, he began making wine.

"It is a misconception that you have to be near the coast to grow good wine grapes," said Frank Donato, who with his wife, Cyndee, founded Antelope Valley Winery in Lancaster, also in 1990. "We have the right weather, we have the right soil."

Both operations are relatively small now, but there is historical precedent for the Antelope Valley as a wine center.

"In the early part of the century, everyone here had at least a few acres in grapes for wine," said Godde, 31, whose family has been farming in the Antelope Valley for more than 100 years. In the early 1900s, Godde said, there were two major wineries in the area as well as several backyard operations. Then in 1920 came Prohibition.

Almost overnight the wine grape business was wiped out and the vineyards in the Antelope Valley were replaced mostly with alfalfa.

When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, grape-growing did not make a comeback. "It takes at least four years after planting before grapes are ready to be used," said Godde. "Instead of starting grapes all over again, most of the farmers here stayed with alfalfa."

Just about all that was left to show from that early era of wine production were the woody roots of old vines that plagued builders during the housing boom of the 1980s.

Godde became interested in resuscitating the wine business in the Antelope Valley when he was an agriculture economics student at UC Davis. He took several classes in viticulture, the growing of grapes. He also studied enology, the science of wine making.

Ten years ago he started growing wine grapes at his family's 300-acre farm. He now has about 25 acres in grapes, with most of the rest in alfalfa.

"One of the advantages of grapes is that they need less than half the water of alfalfa," Godde said.

Initially he sold his grapes to several wineries, including Ahern, located in an industrial park in San Fernando. In 1987, Godde struck a deal with Ahern to produce a private-label line of Godde wines. In 1990 he bought the winery outright, including its large grape crusher, storage tanks and automatic bottling machine.

He named the winery Cameo after his family farm.

He now produces a number of different wines under his Cameo Vineyards and Godde Estate labels. They include several Chablis and Zinfandels, a Burgundy and a wine from a relatively new variety of grape, Symphony, developed at UC Davis. Some of the grapes for the wine he produces comes from his own vineyards, the rest he buys from other growers.

Last year, Godde produced 3,000 cases of wine. This year, he hopes to bottle 5,000 cases. His wines retail for about $3 to $8 a bottle.

The only wine specialty shop in the Antelope Valley, Chatelaines in Lancaster, sells the Cameo line. "It doesn't sell like the Berringer for us," said owner Dixie Davis, "but it doesn't do too badly. "People here are proud of it."

Godde got Frank and Cyndee Donato interested in grape growing. The Donatos, who grew up in Canoga Park, had little experience in the field. "I made apricot wine as my biology project in junior high," Frank said, "but that was about it."

They moved to Palmdale in 1978 to take advantage of lower house prices. He got a job with a title insurance company, and she worked as an escrow officer. In 1986 they moved to a 6.5-acre ranch west of Palmdale and planted apple and peach trees.

"Steve came to us in 1989 and suggested we use some of the land to grow grapes instead," Cyndee said. "He said he'd buy what we grow and create our own label.

"We got so excited about it that we bought our own winery."

In 1990, the Donatos purchased the McLester Winery near Los Angeles International Airport, including about 100 barrels of already processed wine. With grapes bought from other growers, they did their first grape crush in August of that year and two months later they had their first bottling.

Because their equipment is not as automated as Godde's, their bottling sessions have a barn-raising kind of spirit. Every few months they bring in about a dozen volunteers to work the hand bottler.

"Wine people are really into it," Frank said. "They love to get involved with something like this. They can look at a bottle of wine and know they had something to do with it."

For a day's work each volunteer gets three bottles of wine plus a lunch prepared by Cyndee. "It's a lot of fun," Cyndee said. On an average day they can fill, cork and label about 400 bottles.

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