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The Urban Garden : Pasadena and Vine

February 11, 1996|Jill Stewart

Alex Villicana stands in his one-acre vineyard perched above Pasadena's Arroyo, on a plot of land directly behind his family's 1920s mansion, and chuckles at the image that drives his passion: Los Angeles yuppies searching the finer stores and restaurants for the rarest California wines, Villicana 1996 from Pasadena.

That's how his bright yellow-and-midnight blue label will read, if Villicana and his neighbor and co-conspirator, Larry Stickney, who plans to harvest 350 vines in his own vast backyard this fall, can convince the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that Pasadena qualifies as a distinct wine district deserving of its own appellation, or geographic title.

"My friends are going crazy," says Villicana, 27, a residential developer in his family's longtime real estate business. "Everyone wants to come to my first harvest in August. You know, picking grapes in Pasadena?"

That harvest, a ton of merlot, cabernet, zinfandel, cabernet franc and viognier grapes, exists today as a canopy of "fourth leaf" growth--industry jargon for the fourth year since the vines sprouted. The grapes will be used to make the wines--60 cases, or 720 bottles. He points across his family's secluded, sweeping backyard, where his 600 vines are, toward a ridge-top mansion less than a mile away. There, Stickney is awaiting his "fifth leaf" of grapes. "Larry got really rich, really wonderful wine last year," says Villicana. "So I know that, even with the smog and the clay and the poor soil, we've got something here."

Tom Westberg, associate winemaker at Creston Vineyards just south of Paso Robles, who taught Villicana during four harvesting stints there, says, "Alex wanted to learn the wine business, and he did the hardest work in the winery, the jobs all the new guys got, and he really learned from the bottom up. He has just applied himself from Day One. I think he's going to be a fine vintner."

ATF officials will consider Villicana's request for an appellation, which will be submitted in the next few years, based on whether Pasadena's hills are physically, historically and geologically distinct from Los Angeles County's wine district, known as South Coast. South Coast vintners have come and gone. Just before the turn of the century, Lucky Baldwin produced award-winning wines from a 1,200-acre vineyard that is now Santa Anita's racetrack and parking lot. The first mayor of Los Angeles, Benjamin Wilson, had a huge winery between Alhambra and San Gabriel. Prohibition wiped both out.

In addition to the decaying granite and heavy clay that make up the local soil, Villicana has to cope with gophers, who love grapevine roots, and deer, who have all but ignored the six-foot cyclone fence he installed. "I was out here at 6:30 the other morning," he says, "and this deer and I startled each other, and he just sailed over my fence like it wasn't even there."

But next year in August, Alex Villicana will crack open the first bottle from his 1996 harvest, and he will know whether he has a winner. "My dream is a really rich, berry-like zinfandel that has just a lot of body," he says. "But with the challenges I've had, I'll be satisfied with just a high-quality table wine."

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