Wine Country Malibu: Vintners press on

The Baltimore Sun

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, Calif., 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 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 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.

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

Now a dozen local wines 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 firebreak 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 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, 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, a 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.

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, Hirsch is ready to spend it. "I'm committed," he 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 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.

In the spring, fog can destroy vine flowers, wiping out an entire vineyard's crop. Mold and mildew can be devastating. Skunks, raccoons and gophers are rampant. 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 glassy-winged sharpshooter, carrier of a fatal vine affliction called Pierce's Disease, has moved into the neighborhood.

"Malibu is the most challenging place I've ever worked," Roche says. The investment Malibu growers have made in their vineyards far outstrips any potential financial return. "It costs two to three times as much to grow grapes in Malibu as it does anywhere along California's Central Coast," he says.

The best-known winery in the Malibu region is Rosenthal, the Malibu Estate. Los Angeles businessman George Rosenthal bought the estate in the 1980s, ultimately carving 29 acres of vineyards out of a lush 250-acre section filled with old oak trees.

The estate is in Malibu's temperate zone with average summer temperatures swinging between 90 degrees in the day and 60 degrees at night, optimal for ripening fruit while retaining natural acidity. But in this bowl-shaped canyon, each vineyard is planted on a steep hillside with a different orientation to the sun. So, the range of temperatures experienced at each site is unique.

The community of Malibu winemakers is as diverse as the region's microclimates, Estevez says. The challenge is to make wine good enough to justify the Herculean effort.

Corie Brown writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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