Tasting Rooms and a Little History on Malibu’s Wine Trail
If you thought Malibu, California, was only about frolicking on prime beach real estate, there’s another reason to kick up the sand.
Head a few miles inland to higher elevation where lush rolling vineyards thrive on the hills and in the canyons of the picturesque Santa Monica Mountains. It’s official wine country here with two AVAs (American Viticultural Area, similar to an appellation in France). Malibu’s wine culture is turning heads, and its tasting rooms invite guests to enjoy fruits of the local vines—and to stay a while.
A native Angelino, I am not the only one surprised to learn serious wine growing has been taking place in Los Angeles own backyard for almost 30 years. More than 100 acres of vines grow between the Rosenthal Malibu Estate (Malibu-Newton-Canyon AVA) and Saddlerock Ranch (Saddlerock Ranch-Malibu AVA). Sunny days and ocean-cooled nights create microclimates and mini-microclimates inside the hills, resulting in extraordinary conditions for producing exciting award-winning wines.
Add to that almost 50 independent vineyards.
So as any curious wine lover should do I hit the trail and, one flight at a time, sipped my way through Malibu’s four tasting rooms: Rosenthal Wine Bar and Patio, Malibu Wines, Cornell Winery and Tasting Room, and Sip Wine Bar. All are within minutes of each other off Kanan Road, the “trail” that dissects the hills from the 101 Freeway in the north to Pacific Coast Highway in the south where it meets the beach.
While sampling the range of refreshing whites and luscious reds I was also taken by the unique personality of each venue—from hip and lively to low-key and intimate.
We live just an hour drive from Malibu so my husband, Louie, and I took it slow and visited the first two tasting rooms over a couple of weekends. Then we sampled a wine tasting tour and left the driving to a limo chauffeur (more on this later).
Rosenthal Wine Bar and Patio on Pacific Coast Highway across from Topanga State Beach is Malibu’s only wine tasting room on PCH (look for the giant wine bottle atop a giant lifeguard stand). Its spacious interior with beamed ceilings, fresh-cut flowers, and picture windows framing ocean views set the mood for an afternoon of savoring its two labels, Rosenthal Malibu Estate and Surfrider.
George Rosenthal, film industry magnate and businessman, is Malibu’s pioneer vintner who in 1987 planted the area’s first “modern-day” vineyards (since Prohibition) on his 235-acre estate retreat, but not before conducting years of extensive and thoughtful research with experts studying the area’s geology, soils, and climactic conditions.
“The Malibu area produces its own unique wines,” said Rosenthal. “The area is small, but there are significant vineyards.”
With a warm welcome Riley Rhodes, tasting room manager (he has been with the tasting room since its original location near Pepperdine), led us through a delightful journey starting with the 2012 Surfrider Viognier (deliciously clean and floral) and the 2009 Rosenthal Malibu Estate Chardonnay made in the classic Burgundian style by French winemaker Christian Rogaunant. It was crisp and light with hints of honey; I could have sipped this all afternoon.
In addition to Chardonnay other varietals grown on the Rosenthal Malibu Estate include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Viognier, Petit Verdot, and its crown jewel, Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Surfrider label is Rosenthal’s tribute to the sea he loves and to which he likes to give back (Surfrider Beach is a favorite Malibu surf spot). For each bottle purchased a percentage of the proceeds is donated to foundations that maintain the quality of the ocean.
Surfrider wines—produced from California Central Coast varietals—include Pinot Noir, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, and Orange Muscat.
We moved to the grassy outdoor patio in time to enjoy the sunset and live music (there’s live entertainment every weekend). Some guests brought their own picnic baskets while others purchased fabulous fare from the gourmet food truck parked on the property. Our order of sweet potato fries with truffle aioli paired splendidly with our bottle of the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
The following weekend we made our way to Malibu Wines, six miles from the coast on Mulholland Highway. The tasting room is completely outdoors (only in LA!) with plenty of tables, umbrellas, and shade trees and surrounded by sloping vineyards. Guests dressed in their best weekend casuals were already queuing up at the iron gates, picnic baskets in hand, before the 11 a.m. opening.
“Our tasting room is always a lively place,” said Amy Lawrence, tasting room manager, who developed her own appreciation for the “wine way of life” when she lived in Italy. The tasting room has a popular local following, she says, and also attracts tourists, especially on weekends when live entertainment brings in the crowds (they also have movie and food truck nights).
In the fresh outdoors impressive samplings of the two labels produced by Malibu Family Wines caught our attention: Saddlerock Brut, the 2011 Saddlerock Pinot Noir, and the 2010 Semler Estate Malbec.
Saddlerock Ranch, owned by entrepreneur Ron Semler and his wife, Lisa, is located across Mulholland Highway on land where cattle and sheep once grazed when it was part of the Spanish Land Grants between the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
That terrain has since been sowed into a landscape of peaceful vineyards. Varietals grown on the expansive estate (the Semler label) include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Grenache, Malbec, and Viognier.
Wines under the Saddlerock label are produced from California and Central Coast varietals—Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Rose, Sparkling Brut, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Orange Muscat, Zinfandel, and Old Vine Tawny.
The atmosphere at Malibu Wines was hopping (a typical weekend day) as guests celebrated birthdays, couples sat starry-eyed, and guitarists provided hours of relaxing music.
We discovered another way to see the best on the wine tasting trail with American Luxury Limousine, one of the earliest tour companies to offer wine tasting tours in Malibu.
The pampering started when Alec, our chauffeur, picked us up at our doorstep and navigated the roads for us the rest of the afternoon. Stretching our legs and oblivious to the LA traffic scene outside darkened windows, we soon pulled up to Cornell Winery and Tasting Room on a quiet, rustic stretch of Mulholland Highway nestled in the unincorporated community of Cornell.
Not far from The Rock Store, the world famous biker hangout (Jay Leno often drops by on one of his motorcycles), Cornell is a legacy to the area’s early history. Owned by Tim and Denise Skogstrom, the tasting room showcases an exceptional collection of acclaimed local and California boutique wines as well as hard-to-find treasures.
The venue is an eclectic combination of tasting room, wine store, art gallery, and gift shop. We sampled the seasonal “light and lively” 2012 Argot “Slang” Rose, perfect for spring and summer, and the 2010 Castro Crest Cuvee, a deliciously smooth blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Merlot from Calabasas Peak Vineyards.
Art enthusiasts will appreciate the permanent exhibit of exquisite oil paintings and sculptures by local artists.
Under the canopy of old growth pines and ancient oaks Cornell is tranquil and a world away from city life. If the flow of visitors was any indication, though, Cornell is as popular as its higher profile counterparts down the road.
Unlike the other tasting rooms, however, Cornell’s hours of operation are limited (Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
Take a few steps outside Cornell Tasting Room to find The Old Place restaurant, another vestige of Cornell history. Once the town’s original post office (which operated from 1884 to 1904), the building remains a local landmark in its present-day incarnation serving Saturday and Sunday brunch and dinners Thursday through Sunday.
Sip Wine Bar, a half-mile from Cornell on Sierra Creek Road, is Cielo Farms Vineyards’ tasting room, owned by Los Angeles clothier Richard Hirsch. This hidden gem is a whimsical throwback to the ’60s. The vibe is cool and funky with seriously outstanding Woodstock label wines named after songs from the music festival that made history in 1969: White Rabbit (Chardonnay), Deep Purple (Petite Sirah), and Blackbird (Malbec and Petit Verdot), to name just a few.
Wine tasting in Malibu has finally taken off, but it didn’t happen overnight, according to Mark Christiansen, president and CEO of American Luxury Limousine, who began offering wine country excursions six years ago.
“It wasn’t until recent years that wine tasting tours in Malibu have become so popular,” said Christiansen, “…because it has taken time for the wine culture here to develop. Now, the tasting tours are 80 percent of our business.”
American Limo provides exclusive experiences for clients such as picnic baskets, reserved tables at tasting rooms, and a tour of the zoo at Saddlerock Ranch (yes, there is a zoo) otherwise only offered through Malibu Wine Safaris.
Safari tour leader Jeff Bezjian (who also works at Malibu Wines) hopped into the limo and was our personal guide as we cruised slowly around the expansive property passing zebras, llamas, water buffalo, and horses. We also had the special privilege of viewing amazingly preserved cave paintings on the walls of giant boulders that date back to the indigenous Chumash. Launched in summer 2013 the safari tours (inspired by a trip to South Africa) are the Semlers’ way of sharing the area’s natural beauty and little-known history of the region.
Wine country is alive and well in Malibu. About a half hour drive from Downtown Los Angeles and minutes from Santa Monica Beach, its tasting rooms have become a destination within a destination where wine lovers—and those keen to learn about wines—come to sip, explore, and simply enjoy amazing local vintages that will surprise.
And yes, expect to see a famous face or two in these parts. After all, this is Malibu.