Last year’s federal approval of the Malibu Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) literally and figuratively puts Malibu wines “on the map.”
BY: Cuyler Gibbons
Photos: Courtesy of Dolan Malibu Estates Vineyards
Serious wine talk and casual conversation have a lot in common. Both often tend to focus on origin. “So, where are you from?” is a ubiquitous conversation starter, but it’s also one of the most important characteristics to be understood about any wine. It’s significant enough, in fact, that claims about where a wine is grown, and how that claim is expressed on the label, are tightly regulated by the federal government.
Now, thanks to the efforts of several area vintners, 52 wineries can officially call the 8 mile deep, 46 mile wide, Malibu Coast AVA their home. For a winemaker this is no small thing. As Elliot Dolan, owner of the Dolan Malibu Estates Vineyards, says “It legitimatizes or gives credibility to the region and it gives a sense of place and an identity to the wine. There’s an association. It’s intriguing to people, it perks their curiosity, it’s definitely an advantage and it also reconnects Malibu to what was a previous history of wine grape growing.”
An official AVA designation requires a lengthy and complicated application and review process, administered by the federal organization, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Gaining approval involves a multiplicity of requirements, but the bottom line is that any area seeking official designation must prove that it is truly “distinctive.” That is, the region in question must demonstrate that it possesses a unique set of identifiable conditions. Those conditions are broad in scope: encompassing soil types, geography and climate, as well as the underlying geology and even the human history of the area.
Dolan was one of several vintners who spearheaded the effort to obtain official AVA designation. He cites the efforts of John Gooden, owner of Montage Vineyards and President of the Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance, along with Charles Shetters of Malibu Sanity and John Freeman of Colcanyon, as being particularly instrumental in the success of the application process. As a group they have several initiatives in the works intended to leverage their new official designation to increase market awareness among the public and to educate group members about pertinent wine issues. Currently, only a handful of the AVA’s members have public tasting rooms–Rosenthal and the popular Malibu Wines (which pours Semler wine and entertains tasters by the busload)–among them.
With plans for partnerships with local organizations such as the Malibu Real Estate Association, pouring at charity events and competitions and an annual Taste of Malibu Wine Festival, the vintners of the Malibu coast are gearing up for their coming out. A coming out that is in many ways overdue. Malibu’s wine-making history dates back 200 years to the original land grant from the King of Spain to José Bartolome Tapia, who planted the area’s first vineyard on the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, and were followed 30 years later by Mathew Keller and his Rising Sun Vineyard in Solstice Canyon. Eventually phylloxera, fires and finally prohibition put an end to Malibu wine production. Until the mid-80s that is, when Michael McCarty, of Michael’s restaurant fame, established the first “modern day” vineyard on the Malibu coast. His vineyard still remains, producing excellent wine, but does so now along with 50 some new neighbors.
An official AVA to call home does not guarantee quality wine. That still comes down to the choices made by the individual winery’s ownership and the skill of its winemaker. The wineries of the Malibu Coast AVA are almost exclusively “boutique” operations, producing a few thousand cases each (though several produce over 100,000). If the wine I enjoyed at Dolan Estate Vineyards is at all representative of its neighbors however, then the Malibu Coast AVA is destined to be known for its quality wines.
In fact, with just the second bottling from the 900 Chardonnay vines planted on the south slope of his Malibu estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Dolan won a silver medal at the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A feat rendered all the more impressive when you hear that the competition included several well-established and revered brands such as Cakebread, Trefethen and Rombauer. By the next year, Dolan’s Malibu Estate Chardonnay took the Double Gold Award, beating out the aforementioned better-known brands. Dolan’s 2013 Malibu Estate Chardonnay was his first to carry the new Malibu Coast designation, signaling the AVA’s official arrival on the quality wine scene.
For many, Malibu undoubtedly still conjures images of surf, celebrities and Beach Blanket Bingo, but take a close look at the festivities these days and you’ll notice a lot of really good, locally produced wine on hand.