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AVA status creates new identity for Malibu vineyards
When Elliott Dolin purchased his Kanan Dume-adjacent home in 2001, so began the process of brainstorming a use for his nearly two acres of untouched land.
“We began remodeling and contemplating landscaping plans and the architect suggested a cutting garden,” Dolin said, laughing. “I’m still not entirely sure what a cutting garden is, but it seemed like a place to have tea and crumpets. It didn’t strike a chord.”
Instead, Dolin, who had belonged to a wine collectors group for several years, decided to take his passion to the next level and plant some vines of his own. With almost ideal conditions for grape growing — “A beautiful south-facing slope with great sun orientation and excellent soil conditions,” Dolin said — the decision seemed to be a marriage of purpose and beauty.
“We planted the vines not only for aesthetics, but with the intention of actually producing wine,” Dolin said. “The first test was whether or not we liked it; the second was whether we’d be willing to serve it to our friends.”
Having now produced three vintages of Chardonnay and Rosé, with the first being his 2009 grapes, Dolin’s wines have gathered accolades including a silver and double gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. And now, thanks to three years of effort from Dolin and other local vintners, Charles Schetter, Jim Palmer and John Gooden, as of July 18, the Malibu coast has officially been deemed an American Viticultural Area — a wine grape-growing region recognized by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a branch of the United States Department of Treasury.
“Prior to this, we could only indicate on our labels that the wine came from Los Angeles County or California, which is very nonspecific,” Dolin said. “Malibu conjures up an image; it’s a world-renowned location. It was important for us to identify ourselves as from this area.”
The region that the Malibu Coast AVA covers is approximately 46 miles long and 8 miles wide, comprised mainly of the Santa Monica Mountains with 198 acres of vines in production.
The designation comes on the heels of the approval of a Local Coastal Program for unincorporated Los Angeles County and unincorporated Malibu, championed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, which places stringent controls on specific types of agriculture and recreation in the Santa Monica Mountains, including grape growing. While Dolin’s parcel is subject to the City of Malibu’s LCP, and therefore exempt from the new proposed regulations, he said he will still feel the residual effects from his fellow wine producers.
“It affects us all on several levels; we’re all supporting one another,” Dolin said. “We think it’s unfair to discriminate against vineyards and not other forms of agriculture. We recognize the environmental concerns, but there are ways to mitigate those. Many of them have been exaggerated and myths have been circulated.”
For Dolin, the idea of transforming the Santa Monica Mountains into a tourist attraction similar to Napa Valley is not the goal of developing the grape-growing culture in Malibu. He and his fellow vintners, “have no interest in developing a Highway 29 in the Santa Monica Mountains.”
Dolin and the other vintners, as part of the Coastal Coalition of Family Farmers, plan to present their case to the supervisor prior to the final execution of the LCP at the end of the month.
Despite the milestone of AVA certification, Dolin says his vineyard is still in a constant state of growth in terms of grape-growing knowledge and the diversity of varietals he’s able to produce.
With strong support from Malibu restaurants and businesses like the Malibu Pier Restaurant, Nikita, Geoffrey’s, Gravina, Tra di Noi, V’s, PC Greens and Vintage Grocers, who carry his products by the bottle and glass, Dolin has recently set out to add some red varietals, incorporating grapes from vineyards at higher elevations in the Santa Monica Mountains, to his already successful Chardonnay and Rose for his 2012 vintage he is releasing shortly.
“The AVA gives us a sense of identity and a sense of place,” Dolin said. “The goal was always to produce high-quality wines from grapes grown in Malibu, and I’m not alone in that.”