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Malibu: the vintners' playground

Acreage is scarce, the climate's tricky and water is an issue. So -- why not make wine?

May 07, 2008|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

CALLUSED palms and bandaged fingers; broken fingernails stained black with dirt -- Hollywood actor and director Emilio Estevez proudly shows off his vineyard worker hands as he walks the vine rows.

Four years ago, Estevez planted this half-acre Pinot Noir vineyard around his Malibu home. Today, wine labels featuring a pen-and-ink drawing of his front-lawn vineyard -- a wink to the ego satisfaction of bottling his own wine -- are ready to be slapped on his first serious vintage, the 2007 Pinot Noir aging in a single half-sized oak barrel in his wine cellar. Estevez, along with dozens of his Malibu neighbors, has added vintner to his list of credits.

Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, up Kanan Dume Road, along the twisting canyon side roads and even down the more urban ocean-view streets like the one where Estevez lives on Point Dume, and you'll see vineyards beside tennis courts, along hillsides and around security fences. Though no one spends millions on exclusive Malibu real estate to make a living as a vintner, planting wine grapes where the side lawn used to be is the new must-have home improvement. Total vineyard acreage in the Malibu region -- an area that reaches beyond the city limits to the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains and, by some definitions, into the top reaches of Agoura Hills in the San Fernando Valley -- is still small, with perhaps 150 acres planted to vines. In the last five years, the number of vineyards in the region has more than quadrupled.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 09, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Malibu vineyards: An article in Tuesday's Food section about Malibu vineyards said Jim Palmer's vineyard is in Trancas Canyon. It is in Decker Canyon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 14, 2008 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Malibu vineyards: An article in the May 7 Food section about Malibu vineyards said Jim Palmer's vineyard is in Trancas Canyon. It is in Decker Canyon.

Hundreds of years ago, Catholic priests planted grapes here, just as they did everywhere they settled. Michael McCarty, owner of Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica, was the first to revive that culture when he planted a 2-acre vineyard above Carbon Beach in 1985.

Now a dozen local wines -- with "Malibu" in nearly every brand name -- are for sale at ultra-premium prices at Malibu Village Wines in the Malibu Country Mart. Republic of Malibu wines are offered by the glass at Barrel Malibu, a wine bar in Malibu Colony owned by the vintner, Los Angeles attorney Michael Barnes. Barnes' Syrah vineyard acted as a fire break for his canyon home during last fall's wildfires.

Most Malibu growers, however, do not make wine commercially. They make it at Camarillo Custom Crush Winery to share with family and friends.

The recent enthusiasm here for growing grapes has gone beyond landscaping fad to avocation for some. Malibu's vineyards, primarily planted on steep hillsides, require a huge financial commitment.

At the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains near the intersection of Kanan Dume Road and Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles clothier Richard Hirsch has spared no expense on a 5-acre vineyard that clings to the slopes leading up to his Tuscan-style estate.

One hilltop away, another even larger, more elaborate vineyard estate is under construction. Down the road is the largest wine estate in the Malibu region, Ron Semler's Saddlerock Ranch, with 65 acres of steep hillside vineyards.


Managing the climate

A VINEYARD originally conceived as mere landscaping, Cielo Malibu Estate has been outfitted with a high-tech irrigation system supplied by water from a well dug through the core of the mountain. Whatever it costs, he's ready to spend it. "I'm committed," Hirsch says. "I'm too excited about the wine to question the cost."

Malibu is roughly defined by three temperature zones. Along the coast, temperatures rarely rise above 90 degrees, cool enough for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards. Less than 10 miles inland along the crest where Mulholland Drive winds, 105-degree days and sparse rainfall have persuaded vintners to plant Syrah. Halfway between is a temperate region where morning fog burns off for bright, sunny days 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the crest and where Bordeaux grape varieties typically are planted.

None is grape-growing paradise. Winters are too warm everywhere, says Corky Roche, a Salinas-based vineyard consultant who works with several Malibu growers. A few warm days in January can interrupt plant dormancy. The result: staggered bud break that can doom a vintage. "One plant can have 10 inches of growth and another will still be dormant at the end of April," he says.

In the spring, heavy fog can destroy vine flowers, wiping out an entire vineyard's crop. Mold and mildew can be devastating. Skunks, raccoons and gophers are rampant. Herds of deer can strip a vineyard clean of fruit in no time. Bees and wasps have been known to swarm a cluster of grapes and suck it dry. The birds descend in Hitchcock flocks. And the dreaded glassy-winged sharpshooter, carrier of a fatal vine affliction called Pierce’s Disease, has moved into the neighborhood.

If nature doesn't get you, the politicians will. Though some homeowners say the Malibu Fire Department has encouraged them to plant vineyards, believing that irrigated vine rows are less of a fire hazard than brush covered hillsides, there is little public support for Malibu's burgeoning wine community.

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