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A Vine Grows in Malibu

August 18, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

If this keeps up, pretty soon Los Angeles will be able to thumb its nose at the Napa Valley, give a Bronx cheer and boast, "We make Cabernet as good as you."

The latest entrant in the local fine-wine derby is an exceptional red wine made by a real estate executive at a 12-acre mountaintop vineyard. The name of the wine is Rosenthal. The vintage is 1991. The appellation is Malibu.

Uh, well, Malibu is where the grapes were grown, but since Malibu is not yet a recognized American Viticultural Appellation, this wine bears the appellation "California." But its subtitle, "The Malibu Estate," clearly indicates where the grapes were grown.

The wine, made by George Rosenthal--whose privately held Raleigh Enterprises Corp. owns several properties, including the Westwood Marquis and the Sunset Marquis--went on sale last week at select Los Angeles wine shops and restaurants.

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Rosenthal joins Moraga Vineyards' Tom V. Jones in making premium wines in the Los Angeles area. The 1990 Moraga Red Table Wine is in high demand around town--despite its $50 price tag. That price reflects not only the wine's quality but the fact that Jones' six-acre vineyard in Bel Air will never make much wine.

Rosenthal's vineyard, by contrast, may reach 16 acres when fully planted; although his vines produced only 180 cases of the 1991 wine, in the future he'll be able to make as many as 1,500 cases of Rosenthal Cabernet Sauvignon.

Rosenthal says he wants to keep the price of his Cabernet "a good value for people who appreciate fine wine." His '91 Cabernet is terrific--packed with cassis-like fruit and nuances of herbal/chocolate and violet notes. At $20 it is a relative bargain.

The Rosenthal Malibu wine story goes back 17 years. "My wife Karen (Sharp) and I were in Spain in 1977, looking at Andalusian horses when I began to think about building a rancho in the Malibu area," Rosenthal says. He thought of planting grapevines there, close to sea level, but knew that coastal fog could be a major problem. Fog can create rot and delay maturation.

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"I flew a small plane in those days, and I knew that the marine layer comes in and blankets the area but that it tops out at 1,300 feet or so," he says. "So I flew north to see what areas existed that were high enough to avoid that layer, and I saw a meadow at about the 1,400-foot level just off Latigo Canyon."

Rosenthal drove around the area, ignoring "Trespassers will be Shot" signs, until he located the man who owned the meadow. He tried to buy it, but no deal. The man didn't want to sell.

It took two full years of pleading and cajoling, but in 1979, Rosenthal acquired 25 acres and began the arduous process of testing the soils to see whether the costly business of planting a vineyard would be practical.

Rosenthal knew that the Southern California climate wasn't bad for grapes. In the 1830s a Los Angeles pioneer named Jean-Louis Vignes planted extensive vineyards near present-day downtown, east of the street that now bears his name, and made wine long before there were vineyards in Napa or Sonoma. Rosenthal also knew that wine grapes had once dotted the landscape from Long Beach to Anaheim.

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But he also knew that these grapes were hot-climate varieties that made hearty, inexpensive, rough-hewn red wines of little character. He intended to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, the noble grape of Bordeaux.

It would be a challenge. Still, the soil tests were encouraging--they showed that the meager topsoil on his property was actually tailings from the construction of a tunnel at Kanan-Dume Road, meaning that it contained a lot of rock, which is ideal for good drainage.

By 1986, all was ready. Rosenthal hired Jim Efird, an experienced Central Coast grape grower, to plant the vines. Some went in during the spring of 1987; the first usable crop was harvested in 1990. Eventually Rosenthal planted a total of 12 acres of vines, near the barns where Sharp breeds national and international champion Andalusian horses. Winemaker Bruno D'Alfonso, of Sanford Winery in Buellton, makes the wine for Rosenthal at Sanford.

The first release of the 1991 Rosenthal, in a tall, Italian-made bottle, sports a label that initially looks torn. On closer inspection one sees that the "tear" represents the 1,650-foot ridgeline that separates the property, which Rosenthal has named Rancho Escondido, from the coast.

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And yes, he's heard all the jokes about the Malibu fires: He's got a hot wine; it has a faint aroma of smoke; at this price no one will get burned. . . .

Rancho Escondido is the third fine-wine venture in the western hills of Los Angeles. There were plenty of skeptics about the first two, Calabasas Cellars and Moraga. Though Calabasas is now in hibernation, Moraga definitively established the potential of fine wine in the area.

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