Malibu — a way of wine


“Vineyards in Malibu? Nonsense!” said one longtime resident.

Wrong. In fact, according to restaurateur Michael McCarty, proprietor of The Malibu Vineyard, “There’s getting to be a regular forest of them here.”

If the dozen or so vineyards presently covering some 200 acres of Malibu hillsides don’t exactly constitute a “forest,” nevertheless it’s a fast-growing, local industry. In fact, if efforts to upgrade the product continue successfully, boosters claim Malibu could become as synonymous with wine production as with beaches and celebrities. Maybe even as famous as France’s Burgundy region with “lots of little vineyards,” says one of the fledgling industry’s biggest promoters, architectural developer Michael “Mal” Layman, whose two-acre Malibu Valley Vineyards is presently being expanded to 30 acres.

McCarty, Malibu’s highest-profile (but far from largest) wine producer, first planted vines in 1985, on 2-1/2, steeply sloping, terraced acres surrounding his Rambla Pacifico home. They were mostly red wine grapes, including pinot noir and a “pure” cabernet (clones such as the cabernet franc and merlot, used extensively in blends, were added in 1988). 1992 saw the arrival of a low-production, fruity, golden chardonnay praised by wine authority Robert Balzer as “Malibu’s Montrachet” (Burgundy’s famous white wine). All bear labels designed by McCarty’s award-winning artist wife, Kim, and most are sold in his restaurants in New York and Santa Monica, in West L.A.’s 20/20 wine store and in Malibu’s ‘Bu Heaven.

Then disaster struck: The 1993 fire took his vineyard along with the couple’s home. “We picked our last harvest two months before the fire,” McCarty says. “I’m told that the temperature at the vine level was 2500 to 3000 degrees.” The vineyard, miraculously, came back, but for three years there were leaves but no grapes. “Grapevines are like people,” he adds. “They react badly to stress.” In 1997 McCarty again harvested grapes, cleared and terraced new land, and added more varieties, including the Italian San Giovese grape. After crushing, fermentation, aging for two years in the barrel, and a year in the bottle, the year 2000 will see the first of McCarty’s post-fire vintages, numbering about 200 cases (half of it blends). As with many local winegrowers, this processing is done elsewhere; in McCarty’s case, by Bruno d’Alfonso, wine maker of Santa Ynez’ Sanford Vineyards.

Louis Hill, reputedly Malibu’s first winegrower, who planted his one-acre vineyard in 1978, was also “wiped out” in 1993. Today, at 83, the man many refer to as Malibu’s “little, old wine maker” and his wife, Lyllis, have replaced the vineyard with a garden. Unlike McCarty, though, Hill never sold his wine, giving it (especially a luscious cream sherry) to friends and keeping several cases for himself. Incidentally, 200 gallons is the federal guideline for winegrowers; below that, it’s considered to be for personal use; more, and the label has to be approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and federal excise tax paid.

Much of the credit for the recent growth in local winegrowing is due to the arrival four years ago of Todd Schaefer and Tammy Sentell (a former Miss Arkansas), whose PCH (Pacific Coast Hills) Vineyards both builds and maintains vineyards. They also grow some 7000 vines of their own near Saddle Rock Ranch, another 6000 (largely devoted to Burgundy-style grapes like pinot noir and pommard, plus chardonnay) above the Malibu Riding & Tennis Club, and 40 acres in Paso Robles.

Says Schaefer, a professional beach volleyball player before he studied viticulture at U.C. Davis, “Wine growing has been a hobby for a long time in Malibu, but if everyone stays at hobby level, you’ll never know how good it can be. Now it’s being taken very seriously. We’re experimenting with a number of varieties to see which are best for Malibu and its microclimates, which can range from the coastal fogs to extreme cold and heat.” Before recommending a potential vineyard, Schaefer and Sentell first survey the hillside in question. “If it looks feasible, we’ll do a soil and water analysis to decide the best variety,” he says. Malibu’s soil is generally fine for vineyards, Schaefer says, fertile and with the good drainage and nitrogen grapes love. There has been no trace, so far, of the vine killer known as Pierce’s Disease.

But why, one wonders, the sudden popularity of vineyards locally? “I think it’s for a couple reasons,” says Layman. “For one thing, the consciousness of wine consumers about the qualities of wine, including its health benefits, has grown a great deal lately. And with Todd leading the way, you can also see what can be done with hillside properties.” Grapevines also add an amenity to a home he says, and, unlike avocado and citrus orchards in the past, they also provide the required fire break around structures, as well as control erosion. “The fire department loves vines because they’re irrigated,” he says.

To keep those vines healthy, Schaefer-designed vineyards have automated drip watering systems, and are not sprayed with chemical pesticides. The couple also suggest piping in music to keep the vines happy. “They love classical music, especially Bach,” Tammy says, admitting about 85 percent of the ambiance achieved is for the workers. And, although building a vineyard isn’t cheap, it’s not as expensive as, say, running an NFL team. “We charge an average $20 per vine,” says Todd. “That’s for everything except clearing the land.” The couple’s company also maintains the vineyards for many owners. “Our phone rings all the time,” Todd says. “We’re in the Malibu vineyards seven days a week from dawn till dusk.”

But, like many owners, it’s also the romance of winegrowing that captures them. Looking at Layman’s hillside, once covered with dry underbrush but today filled with budding grapes, Tammy says, “It’s a dream, isn’t it? But it’s a dream you can drink.”