How Malibu Coast Finally Became an AVA

A Q&A with Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards’ Elliott Dolin

Thinking maybe your awesome community garden could qualify to become an American Viticultural Area (AVA)? If you can memorize this Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau manual, write a 46-page petition, and wait through years of bureaucratic delays then maybe, just maybe it has a chance.

Elliott Dolin (Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards)—who spearheaded the Malibu Coast AVA campaign with John Gooden (Montage Vineyards), Charles Schetter (Malibu Sanity), and John Freeman (Colcanyon Estate Wines)–shared what it took to make his wine region the newest California AVA this past July. (Currently Malibu is in the process of fighting the recently approved Land Use Plan which may require vineyards to be ripped out.)

What sort of things do you have to submit?

“You have to demonstrate a unique set of conditions. Geographical conditions, geological conditions, and climatic conditions and maybe even to a certain extent, historical conditions that differentiate this particular region that you’re identifying.”

How much paperwork was involved?

“Fortunately I didn’t have to handle it. You’d have to be the right type of personality to put something like that together. It’s like the worst term paper you’d have to ever write in your life.”

Why wasn’t Malibu Coast an AVA sooner?

“Because there wasn’t enough of a movement and nobody had a vested interest in creating it. Rosenthal was there, they had their AVA. Semler was there, they had their AVA. And there were a few isolated growers and it wasn’t until there was enough of us in a group that recognized that we needed to establish a sense of place and credibility. So we got together, we engaged the consultant, we contributed initial funding and then we went back to the other 50 growers and asked everybody to kick in. Which most of them did and everybody benefited ultimately.”

Was there any concern that it wouldn’t go through?

“When it comes to the government, you never take anything for granted. But we didn’t really see any reason why it shouldn’t. So we didn’t take it for granted but we also know the government works in strange ways.”

What about Malibu differs from L.A.?

“Malibu, you’re on the ocean and three miles in you’re at sea level and then three miles in you’re at 3,000 feet. There are a very few other places in Malibu where there’s that differential in elevation in such a narrow space. So look at Palos Verdes, you’ve got a bluff but then you go back down and it’s flat. But as far as from the ocean to the top of the mountain in L.A. County we’re different than in any place else. It gives us a variety of climatic conditions to grow different varietals of grapes. If we were all at where Rosenthal and Semler are, 2,000-2,500-foot elevation inland primarily, we’d be growing Bordeaux varietals or even some Rhones. But where we are close to the coast and we’re in eyesight of the ocean it gives us an entirely different set of conditions so there’s a lot of variety within our AVA that you might not otherwise find.”

What do you think the future of wine is in Malibu?

“The AVA is good news and bad news. It’s good news because now you have attention. The bad news is, now you have attention. So you have to be making wines that are worthy of the attention otherwise it’s going to work the other way around, it’s gonna get us a bad reputation. We’ve always been committed to making the best wines and hopefully the others are encouraged to follow suit. It gives those of us that are serious another level of motivation.”
For fall of this year, Dolin, which currently is known for its Chardonnay, will expand its production to include a new line of Central Coast Pinot Noir wines from vineyards Talley Rincon, Bien Nacido, and Solomon Hills. The wines will be available on its website starting tomorrow.