by Sonja on September 7, 2011
On the eve of my grape harvest in Malibu I am nervous. You’d think after four years it gets easier. The opposite is actually true. Psychologically you become more confident in your actions, while the weight of your decision to plant a vineyard becomes heavier upon your shoulders. You reminisce about the daydreams of having harvest parties where friends are wearing colorful sunhats and carefully snipping each grape cluster while sipping champagne. You look through old photo albums chronicling the progress of growth, the smiles on your faces marveling at the fresh spring foliage and tiny berry clusters. And you remember the innocent years, when June gloom (our annual foggy period caused by cool oceanic air unable to make its journey past the coastal mountains) lasted mere hours, giving way to plenty of sunshine and summer heat – that perfect Malibu weather that existed before you planted your vineyard.
Malibu’s vintners have been called a lot of things – mavericks, gentlemen farmers, fools – though none of this has dissuaded the odd bunch of 40 or so from persevering amidst fire damage, frost, drought, rains and economic upheaval. The group only continues to grow each year, planting vines in front yards, back yards, adjacent ravines and the scrubby acreage on the hill. Some plant a half-acre, others three-acres, and the fortunate few a bit more. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo that reminded them of that old adage, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” This certainly applies to growing grapes in Malibu. There isn’t a template that exists. No study guide can be found. Not even a list of preliminary recommendations that will miraculously pop up in some frenzied late-night internet search. All we have here is a bunch of stubborn folks with some extra pennies in their pockets looking to create some romance.
I often say that if I knew then, let’s call it B.P. (before planting), what I knew now I wouldn’t be here making wine and writing about vineyards in Malibu and the tremendous obstacles we face in crafting a wine worthy of its name. I’d probably be overseas writing about ethnic issues in the Republic of Macedonia and growing grapes in the Balkans on an old-vine family vineyard. Come to think of it, is it too late to turn back? Joking aside, the life lessons have been tremendous…and humbling. First off, Mother Nature rules the fort. Nothing you do will change her mind. Working with her rhythms makes everyone much happier, always. Remember, you planted this vineyard for your children so that by the time they are old enough to take over, you will have actually learned to grow healthy grapes and make impressive wine.
Secondly, it is never too late for an education and it always a good idea to ask for help. Particularly when you have wonderful resources like Bob Tobias, a lifelong farmer and veteran Malibu vineyard consultant who works with Malibu’s heavy hitters as well as with the microvintners. He recently reminded me that our ventures have all been one grand experiment. We are all learning on the job, vintage after vintage. Though he added with a laugh, “To hear the vineyard owners tell, they’ve done it all by the themselves.” Christian Perez of Perez Vineyard services likes to joke in all seriousness that he should document in a contract that just because he plants a vineyard doesn’t mean grapes will actually grow consistently each year. He’s planted three new small vineyards this year.
We are all trying our darnedest but no one has the right answers. Our history just isn’t long enough, regardless of how much money is put into solving this riddle. The first vineyard in Malibu that I know of was two-acres planted in 1985 by Michael McCarty of Michael’s Santa Monica and Michael’s New York restaurants. Then came Raleigh Movie Studio/Sunset Marquis hotel owner George Rosenthal in 1988 with Rosenthal-The Malibu Estate, followed by entrepreneur Ron Semler at Saddlerock with Malibu Family Wines soon thereafter, both of whom had the resources to establish Napa Valley style estates. The rest of us created much more modest holdings though with the same hopes and dreams as the big guys – to make our own bottle of wine that we nurtured ourselves to share with others.
The question 25 years later still remains unanswered: “Is it folly to grow grapes in Malibu?” I asked Tobias one day as we were surveying the extensive spring frost damage at one of his client’s vineyards. “It depends,” he said, the standard answer all seasoned wine professionals are used to saying – and mean it. “We have proved we can make really good wine here in Malibu. If that is the answer then it is not folly. It is expensive for us to create a bottle of wine. So if we can’t sell it for enough than it is folly. And if you don’t do it really well this is certainly not a place to do it on a mediocre basis because we have such high costs involved.”
Years ago when I was writing one of my first stories on Malibu vineyards I spoke with another vineyard consultant named Corky Roche who was quite disparaging in Malibu’s ability to grow world-class grapes necessary make world-class wine. I remember being frustrated with his lack of faith in what we could actually do. My goal was to renew his sense of wonder in an unchartered territory. Today, 7 years later, the night before harvest I understand he was a pragmatist hired to make sensitive decisions with someone else’s money without a guide, handbook or history reference to follow. He would be the one held responsible once our lofty goals were shattered by the difficult reality of stolen harvests by things like powdery mildew, bunch rot, bird damage and deer devastation.
And yet, in this 2011 season where I have had to drop almost half of my fruit on account of the botrytis cineria fungus that spreads voraciously in the consistently wet and humid conditions we’ve had this summer I am thankful to get anything at all. Last year in 2010 was worse. As I walk the rows brushing aside the bruised fruit at my feet, I am already strategizing how to improve next year’s crop before I’ve even harvested this year’s. Some people will say we’re irrational. I don’t disagree. Good thing grapevines have better cellular memories than the humans who are tending them. How we manage them today affects them for years to come. We, on the other hand, forget the heartaches of the past with the first sign of bud break in the spring as short-term memories fade into the hopeful renewal of the future. This we can agree on – the vines are with us for the long haul.
The other question that remains unanswered is, “Does it matter if Malibu is an ideal grape growing region?” With the growing number of wine tasting rooms in the area doing brisk business, the answer seems to be, “Who cares?” The Malibu cache of beaches and bikinis may eventually include bottles, too. We are, after all, located next to Los Angeles in Southern California, the largest wine-market in the world with a brand name that reverberates across the globe. Though for all of our potential we are seriously constrained by our geography. Malibu will never be able to compete in scale with Napa and Paso Robles. The largest vineyards in Malibu can’t sustain their followings now as it is with estate-grown fruit alone. They have to source wine from outside regions and bottle it under their label to maintain a steady supply. Though, if we got serious about it, I mean really serious, we could compete in quality with the best of the best, though it will take several generations. Romanée-Conti only produces 500 cases a year. We can always dream. Now get back in the vineyard.