Last month, vintners in Malibu Coast celebrated the U.S. government's designating their region the newest wine appellation in America. This month, they are fighting for the right to keep growing grapes. On Aug. 26, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors will vote on a measure to adopt a Land Use Plan for the Santa Monica Mountains, which includes the entire American Viticultural Area (AVA). The plan bans future vineyard plantings, but vintners fear it could lead to removing vines too.
“If they pass this, I have to take my vineyard out,” said Jim Palmer of Malibu Vineyards. “They’re trying to make vineyard guys be the bad guys, but if anyone’s a good guardian of the land, it’s vineyard owners.”
The Land Use Plan for the Santa Monica Mountains is a local proposal to keep the area protected as outlined by the California Coastal Commission. Established in 1972, the California Coastal Commission regulates the use of land and water in the coastal zone, allowing local governments to decide the ground rules for development in their area.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, sponsor of the measure, said that existing vineyards will be safe. “Any legally permitted vineyard is grandfathered in,” Yaroslavsky told Wine Spectator. “The backbone of this plan is preserving what is there. Preserving the ridgeline, preserving the mountains as they are, protecting the wildlife, the water quality, protecting the oak woodlands, the sycamores and the chaparral.”
But Malibu-area vintners are nervous that enforcement of the rules might lead to confusion over what a “legally permitted vineyard” is. Some vineyards were originally planted as landscaping and not as commercial ventures, other vineyards may have expanded under existing permits, which may no longer be considered legal.
The recently approved Malibu Coast appellation is 46 miles long and 8 miles wide, comprised mainly of the Santa Monica Mountains. The entire AVA compasses about 44,000 acres, only 200 of which are planted with vines, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Malibu has a history of vineyards and winemaking going back to the early 1800s–during the mid-1800s, the Los Angeles area was a hub of wine production. Prohibition put an end to that momentum, and modern vineyards weren’t planted until the 1980s. There are currently about 50 vintners in the area, but no production facilities are permitted, only vineyards. Because production is small, most wines aren’t distributed beyond the L.A. area.
Vintners petitioned the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for AVA status in 2011, and their proposal was approved in July. Up until now, most wines made from grapes grown in the area had Los Angeles County or California on the label, though two other AVAs already existed in the area, the Malibu-Newton Canyon Valley AVA and the Saddle Rock-Malibu AVA. Both of those now lie within the new AVA.
“If you look at the big picture, any new AVA needs new vineyards to grow and survive,” said John Gooden, owner of the 1-acre Montage Vineyard. “That’s why it’s so important to challenge the rules. This is a farming issue and a land-rights issue.”
Many vintners are blaming Yaroslavsky, who is in his final term. “He’s rushing to get this finished so he can leave a legacy that he saved the Santa Monica Mountains and ride off on his white horse,” said Gooden.
They also feel they're being targeted unfairly, and that vineyards should be considered an asset because they provide an effective firebreak and help soil erosion. “There’s never been a ban on vineyards in California,” said Gooden. “If the Coastal Commission says they can ban vineyards here, where will they do it next?”
Yaroslavsky pointed out that the vineyard interests in the Santa Monica Mountains are a tiny portion of the 52,000 acres he’s trying to preserve, adding that there are thousands of places to plant grapes in California, but only one Santa Monica Mountains. “I’m a wine connoisseur myself, though connoisseur might be too strong of a word,” said Yaroslavsky. “We love wine country. We love Napa and Sonoma. But we also love Big Sur and the Yosemite, and we don’t expect to find vineyards there.”