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This week "Malibu Coast" becomes an AVA

Date: 05/15/14

by Christy Canterbury MW

This week “Malibu Coast” becomes an AVA. Given Beverly Hills and Hollywood lie due east of the AVA, there is a sense of shared glitz and glamor with Napa Valley, the region that launched California’s modern wine scene and made it world famous. Still, Malibu and Los Angeles County feel a long way away and not just because Napa Valley is over 400 miles north.

Though Napa set California’s modern wine era in motion, Malibu is no newcomer. The first vineyard was planted there in 1824. By the mid-1800s, Los Angeles County led California in wine production volume. Nevertheless, post-Prohibition, it took over half a century for this valley-pocked portion of western Los Angeles County to see its first vineyard plantation.

Unlike its more urban counterpart, Moraga, just across the freeway from the Getty Museum, producers in the Santa Monica Mountains have long wanted to specify their sense of place. Moraga uses the California AVA, but out on the coast, producers have been more likely to use the Los Angeles County AVA. Moreover, two previously established AVAs – Malibu-Newton Canyon and Saddle Rock-Malibu – will lie within this new one.

While the beaches may be packed with bikinis and swim trunks, the hills offer a large and sparsely populated, green expanse that is unusual in US metropolitan areas. Malibu Coast is 46 miles long and eight miles wide.

Interestingly, this new AVA is still working to get its roots firmly established underneath it in its volcanic soil. With barely 30 years of age on the oldest plantation, most vines are much, much younger. Elliott Dolin of Dolin Malibu Estate says the region’s resurgence began around 2005. In fact, his estate vineyard’s first commercially sold Chardonnay was produced only in 2009. With 210 acres planted under the care of 48 commercial growers, the average parcel size is tiny. The largest plantation is only seven acres.

Not only are the plantations small and the vintages but once a year for these producers working to figure out the region’s nuances. The AVA ranges from sea level to 3,100 feet, and its vineyards are planted at varying elevations. A smattering of varieties is planted, but Cabernet Sauvignon leads with 54 acres, followed by 15 acres of Syrah, 13 of Merlot and six of Chardonnay. Maritime effects seriously influence the vineyards, and 30-40 degree diurnal temperature fluctuations are typical. In addition to these many factors, growers are still working out how best to manage rainy vs. drought vs. normal vintages. Dolin admits, “Our unique climate has yet to be fully explored.”

For the time being, producers are also figuring out production. Currently, no vineyards have dedicated wineries; all operate from custom-crush facilities or piggyback on wineries in the Central Coast.

The new AVA will apply to any wine that has yet to be labeled, so even reds from a vintage or two back that are not yet on the market could bear the new AVA. Of course, at some point, the producers simply have to get these wines on the market. The AVA application process began in early 2011. While nothing has been contested within or outside the TTB, the AVA has been waiting on a final sign-off to publish it in the Federal Registers for most of 2014.

Once the labels are printed and applied to the glass, it may not be easy to find the wines given their small production. Most are sold in local restaurants or direct from the winery. If you collect AVAs, it definitely pays to establish a relationship with the producers.

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