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News Analysis: AVA Malibu Wrongfully Maligned?

by Christy Canterbury, MW
July 31, 2015

Malibu’s first vineyard was planted in 1824. It has made a comeback in the last 30 years, with its big revival beginning ten years ago, according to Elliot Dolin of Dolin Malibu Estates. Granted AVA status almost exactly a year ago, it’s been under fire ever since.

Six weeks after the AVA status announcement, Los Angeles County commissioners forbid new vineyard plantings. This week, a new challenge arose: a proposed 10-month extension of the ban on new plantings in the north Santa Monica Mountains.

Why? In the last year, the county received 51 applications for new vineyard plantings, encompassing approximately 500 acres.

Some opponents focused on the ridiculousness of fear mongering over alcohol and the infringement of property owners’ rights. Others bellowed over the discrimination displayed toward grapegrowers rather than other farmers, whose crops require more water and yet are not sanctioned. The Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance, however, focused on education.

Last fall the Alliance’s response was last-minute. This year, it launched a well thought-out, grass roots campaign. Focused on water usage and erosion control, President John Gooden and spokesperson Dan Fredman met many times with various county Supervisors to educate them on grapevine physiology, sustainable farming methodology and vineyard/winery economics. Furthermore, the Alliance appealed to wine drinkers and the media. An online petition to oppose the vote gathered 718 signatures, the Alliance asked wine lovers to email the county commissioners directly and media coverage in major area newspapers ramped up in the last weeks leading into the meeting.

Beginning last fall, the county’s premises and the vintners’ and wine lovers’ responses were:
1) Erosion: Many property owners planted vineyards to control erosion, as vine roots sink deep into the ground to keep soil in place. Additionally, vineyards serve as firebreaks, an important advantage in a wildfire-prone region.
2) Pesticide run-off entering streams: Organic and biodynamic farming are common in Malibu.
3) Excessive water use: Irrigation is applied through highly efficient drip systems, and vines need water stress.
4) Destroying natural beauty: This is ironic considering the tourists flocking to wine regions around the globe to enjoy the beauty of vineyards and its (vinified) fruits.

Braced for the worst, the campaign marched into the courtroom this Tuesday. Approximately 30 people spoke on behalf of the grape growers while only four presented for the opposition. Then came an unexpected compromise, presented by County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. It met unanimous approval.

Unsurprisingly, restrictions apply, but they pose little concern. Water must come from municipal sources rather than wells, and it must be applied via drip irrigation. Pre-approved erosion-control plans are required, and neither landscape contouring nor planting on slope grades of 50% or greater is permitted.

In response, Fredman commented via email that no one recalls anyone ever contouring as there is simply no need in these undulating mountains. Regarding water, flood irrigation is impossible given California’s drought, not to mention the region’s slopes. And, who would use RainBird sprinklers?

Interestingly, it seems real estate speculation behind the scenes may have inspired the ban extension. Speculative developers submitted permit requests in hopes of making their lots more attractive to potential buyers. While the smallest application was for less than one acre, the largest was for 40. Of the pending permits, 28 of 51 received approval this Tuesday.

For now, the county will implement studies and report on the findings toward the end of the year. In the mean time, the almost 200-year-old tradition of wine grape growing can continue and even grow in the Santa Monica Mountains while the education campaign continues. What’s next? It’s hard to say. Stay tuned.

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