At a recent tasting of a dozen or so Malibu-based wineries in Westlake Village, each producer generally poured no more than two wines and provided no print material. This prime property is a land, however gorgeous, beyond the niceties of modern marketing. Part of that is these wineries -- who are making some lovely syrahs and cabernets -- have so little wine to begin with; for instance Malibu Vineyards, with its 400 case annual production, claims, "We really don't serve to the public," meaning you need to be on the list or no dice. Colcanyon Estate, at a mere two acres of vines and 103 cases a year (probably not even the amount of wine drunk at Oscar after-parties), has even less wine.
The over 50 total Malibu vineyards (due to the regulation against winemaking in L.A. County, all grapes are taken to places like Camarillo and Lompoc to become wine) should theoretically be overjoyed right now, as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has just in July approved the "Malibu Coast" as the latest American Viticultural Area, or AVA. This is a big deal, as it confirms that the area lends itself to wines of a certain distinction, character, and quality; think "Napa Valley AVA," or if you know your specifics and your Santa Barbara pinot noir, "Sta. Rita Hills AVA." An AVA is a seal of approval that moves bottles and raises price points.
They aren't overjoyed, however, for the Malibu Coast AVA might be frozen in place at August 26's L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting. At that event the supes might approve a Land Use Plan (LUP) for the Santa Monica Mountains that will ban all new vineyards.
"Supervisor [Zev] Yaroslavsky's proposed changes to the longstanding Land Use Plan for the Santa Monica Mountains are part of his noble goal to preserve Southern California's natural landscape," the recently banded-together vineyards said in a press release. "We are not in opposition to what he has achieved over his many years of service to his constituents, but what we do take issue with is that grapevines seem to have been singled out and that the methods used to obtain Coastal Commission approval for this measure were not within the bounds of common process."
"Chances are very much against us -- they're organized and we're not," says Don Schmitz, owner of Malibu Solstice. "Plus Zev's made it clear it's his swan song, his legacy. The government has presumption of correctness, and who has the money to fight this?"
Not surprisingly, Yaroslavsky's office has a different take on the issue. Ben Saltsman, his Planning Deputy, points out the very long process that this LUP has taken. "Since the Coastal Act passed in 1972 and amendments expanded it to five miles from the coast, people who wanted to get the most basic permits to put in a new horse corral or a new bedroom needed to go both to the County and the Coastal Commission. That took roughly three years and thousands and thousands of dollars to get approval. The two-government approach was supposed to be over by the early 1980s." Of course, the two sides never could agree on a new method.
"Now the County and Coastal Commission are at the point of having a plan that's extremely beneficial to everyone who lives and works in the Santa Monica Mountains," Saltsman said, adding the plan passed two County approval votes in February and the Coastal Commission approved the plan 12-0 in April. If approved at the August 26 meeting, "Then the Santa Monica Mountain Coastal Zone will have for the first time in thirty-five years a certified LUP."
That accord isn't one that sits well with the vineyard owners. Today slightly less than 200 of the 94,000 acres of the new Malibu Coast AVA are planted in grapes. Both sides of the fight seem to agree that Malibu didn't threaten to go Sonoma; Saltsman himself admits, "We have not seen a huge push for vineyards in the last few years."
Local advocate, grape-grower, and self-billed deliverer of "PR & Marketing to the Thirsty" Dan Fredman suggests, "There is just not very much land in the AVA that suits itself to the large, easy-to-farm spaces required to turn a vineyard into a moneymaking proposition on the scale people are fearful of. The majority of folks with vineyards up here tend to be people who've planted their vineyards because they love wine and want to grow their own grapes."
But, after all, this is Malibu, center stage for nasty land use tussles throughout California's post-settled period. Just a hundred years ago the Rindge family fought, as in fired upon, sheriffs to keep their land theirs -- it wasn't until 1928 that the Rindges gave in and let the PCH wind its way up the magical coast. Saltsman argues the plan, and the ban, protects "the extremely sensitive habitat of the Santa Monica Mountains." The funny thing is the vineyards claim they are doing the same thing.
During our current drought, it's not surprising both bring up water use, but then make opposite claims. "We've had complaints from homeowners that their wells have been sucked dry," Saltsman says, "because their neighbor's vineyards are soaking up so much water." The grape-growers argue vines take no more water than other types of not-banned agriculture, let alone equestrian use. Plus after vines take root, vineyards often like to dry farm, since stressed vines make better grapes.
The two also take opposite sides on the issue of erosion. "Since grape vines are deciduous," Saltsman says, "when they lose their leaves, the rain and wind beats on the soil, causing erosion."
Vineyard owners, meanwhile, suggest the vines' deep roots help hold soil. No one makes that case better than Ruth Gomez at La Vina Gomez de Malibu, who relates: "We bought an agricultural-zoned 8.3 acres in 1990, built our home/farm in1996 and '97, and started with alpacas using them for brush clearance. El Niño in 1997 meant we lost up to four inches soil -- the amount was easily assessed by the amount of dirt missing from the cement bases of fence posts -- and so we looked for a way to hold soil. Our geology studies/report for home construction cites '0-5 feet soil' on red lava/blue basalt base rock. So we took to heart several suggestions for grapevines due to fast growing, deep tap roots." Their land has held since then.
Gomez also worries about the LUP not only banning new vineyards, but also containing language that could mean the removal of non-permitted existing vineyards. "The LUP could force us to shut down since we put our vineyard in not knowing there was a permit required," she admits. "That could definitely impact our income stream in our impending retirement. We think of it as our organic garden that prevents soil erosion. And even the Fire Department inspector loves it." (That's a big argument for the vineyards, for as Fredman half-jokes, "You don't want to use horses as firebreaks ... oh no, Flicka's on fire!")
Ultimately, though, this is about questions much bigger than a supervisor's legacy or a vineyard's award winning syrah. It's about how much we think public good trumps private rights (assuming we can even define what is good or what are rights), and comes down to a struggle over the very word nature itself. Gomez argues, "Vineyards are esthetically beautiful, happy, and peaceful destinations."
Saltsman sees it this way: "Vineyards have a unique look. A lot would consider them very pretty, but they are markedly different from the natural habitat and land forms in the Santa Monica Mountains. As I think Supervisor Yaroslavsky said at one of the meetings, 'You wouldn't plant a bunch of vineyards in Big Sur and you shouldn't do it here.'"
If the ban happens, perhaps that new AVA will have to use the marketing slogan, "The best wines no one can grow or buy!"