Mixed Malibu reaction to wine ruling

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Whatever the outcome may be from the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing direct interstate wine selling, local vintners are busy readying for a bumper crop year.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Although this year’s crop has barely set, it seems 2005 is already vintage year for Malibu wineries.

Stand at the corner of Mulholland Highway and Kanan Dume Road, and the view is almost like Tuscany, with newly planted vineyards being tended on several steep hillsides and transplanted mature olive trees shading lanes that wind up the hills.

Even an important recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on wine sales has a definite Malibu bouquet. Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who’s the new dean of the Pepperdine University law school, made the winning argument before the highest court.

Two years ago, Starr was a high-powered Washington lawyer arguing a court case on behalf of California wineries. After making oral arguments before the court, Starr found himself moving to California’s newest premium wine-growing region, the Malibu coast.

“When we started this two-and-a-half years ago, little did we realize we would be living so close to the wineries that had so much at stake,” Starr told The Malibu Times in a recent interview.

Small enterprises such as the new wineries recently established along Malibu’s hills and coast are expected to benefit greatly from the ruling. The high court agreed with Starr’s contention that states could not place greater restrictions on mail or Internet-order wines from out of state than on instate sales.

Starr said the court “embraced a very important principal: states cannot discriminate against out-of-state wineries.”

Small wineries, such as two new family-owned wine enterprises in the Malibu hills, “very much need the direct shipments to get into some very major states,” Starr said.

Starr argued the suit brought by the Institute For Justice, and found the court agreeing with him on a 5-4 decision. States like New York and Michigan were found to discriminate against small out-of-state wineries by giving home state wineries legal advantages.

As many as 24 states now have to decide whether to allow California wines to be sold over the Internet or by mail on an equal footing with their own bottles, or simply ban all direct wine sales.

“So many states have seen it appropriate to allow their own wineries to ship directly to customers, that it would make no sense from a public policy standpoint” for those states to merely prohibit all direct shipments of wine, Starr said.

Back in the hills along Mulholland, the report from Washington was just one more piece of good news. Even homeowners who don’t grow grapes are excited about living near wire trellises burdened with pinot noir and other varieties.

“I think it’s great,” said Ronald Haw, a Kanan Road resident who does not grow grapes. “I guess it helps make a little extra money to help pay your property taxes.”

The Semler family enterprise, Saddlerock Vineyards and Semler Malibu Estate Wines, is a pioneer at not only planting vineyards along Mulholland, but also installing smaller grape tracts down in the city of Malibu.

Tami Semler, daughter of the estate’s heads Ronnie and Lisa Semler, estimates 30 vineyards, ranging from backyard plots to larger hillsides, have been planted in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I truly believe that in another 20 years, Malibu will be a major wine-growing region,” Semler said.

The first grape claim-staker in the hills above Malibu was Rosenthal – The Malibu Estate, in Newton Canyon. Rosenthal is producing from 14 acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes planted in 1987, and smaller plots of merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and chardonnay planted in later years.

Its award-winning wines are sold at Disney’s California Adventure wine bar, and Newton Canyon has been named a separate viticulture area by the U.S. government.

George Rosenthal trucks his grapes to San Luis Obispo for crushing, fermenting, barreling and bottling. The winery has plans to construct a winery and cave for aging the cask-enclosed fruit on the site.

Chardonnay grapes, which do better along the cool Malibu coast than red grapes, are also planted at Rosenthal, which sits a little lower in elevation than Saddlerock.

Semler’s family has owned the Saddlerock Ranch since 1979. After frosts ravaged the ranch’s avocado crop in 1991, patriarch Ronnie Semler said “we have to find another crop,” Tami Semler said. “And the cold nights and hot days just made fine grapes a natural.”

Grapes also use one-seventh as much water as avocados. Although some 5,000 avocado trees remain, thousands of trees have been uprooted to make way for 72 acres of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah grapes.

Another 28 acres is being prepared for grapes over the next few years, and plans are being drawn for a large cave and winery. Currently, grapes are picked and trucked for crushing some 150 miles north to the Saddlerock winery in San Miguel, a small town north of Paso Robles. The Semlers plan to move the barrels and crusher to the vineyards above Malibu.

The ranch’s 23 full-time grape tenders have become a cottage industry, with dozens of local landowners hiring Saddlerock to supply cuttings and send its crews to install irrigation systems and trellises along the coast and across the hills. The Semlers charge $60 per vine for the labor-intensive work.

Growing grapes in the hills has another bonus: “The Fire Department loves grapes, which don’t burn,” Semler said.

“And we don’t move any dirt, we just remove the brush and chaparral before we plant the cuttings right into the rock and natural lay of the land,” she said.

Getting back to the court ruling, Malibu’s two largest wineries are of mixed opinion about the major Supreme Court decision won by their neighbor down the hill. Semler says Internet sales are up 15 percent to 20 percent since the May 18 ruling, while a spokesman for the nearby Rosenthal winery says it’s too early to see how other states will react to the new federal ruling.

But the sales manager for Rosenthal – The Malibu Estate said it is too early to see how the 24 states will react to the federal court ruling. “The long-term effects should be good, but we’ve yet to see any of the states actually change the laws,” said Neil McNally, director of sales and marketing for Rosenthal – The Malibu Estate.

Both vineyards have work to do with this year’s bumper crop of fruit sets. Semler said more than half of the budding fruit is being trimmed away, so that the remainder gets enough sun and nutrients.

“This year is ridiculous,” Semler said. “It’s like we ordered the perfect weather.”