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Malibu Tasting Room Stars Local Wines

Smallest producers welcome at Malibu Beach Wines

by Jane Firstenfeld
Malibu Beach Wines
Jim Palmer (from left) sells wines from his eponymous label at the new venture Malibu Beach Wines tasting room as well as bottles from Carol Hoyt of Hoyt Family Vineyards and Shawn Halahmy of Shai Cellars.
Malibu, Calif.—This beachfront community best known for movie stars, surfing and feuds with the California Coastal Commission has a new, more inclusive attraction. Owner/winemaker Jim Palmer designed a tiny tasting room in the village of Malibu to showcase artisan wines made mostly by local garagistes.

“We are trying to create a community-based place, open to all,” Palmer told Wines & Vines, adding that he has not set minimums for the wines he stocks. “We’re not excluding anybody. I haven’t set restrictions on anything.” Palmer purchases wines by the case, and his trained staff pours, tastes and sells bottles for a set mark-up.

Beside the scenic Pacific Coast Highway northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Malibu is within the vast Los Angeles County AVA established in 2004. Malibu’s two largest producers have tasting rooms and long-established, exclusive AVAs of their own: Rosenthal, The Malibu Estate produces some 4,500 cases from 30 acres in the Malibu-Newton Canyon AVA; Malibu Family Wines, makes 15,000 cases from its 65 vineyard acres in Saddle Rock-Malibu AVA.

Palmer (not the Hall of Fame pitcher/underwear model, but an accountant and entertainment manager) planted his 4-acre vineyard in 1997 and founded Jim Palmer’s Malibu Vineyard in 2003. Palmer’s is one of Malibu’s largest vineyards; he estimated there are currently about 50 vineyards with 500 planted acres.

“About 20 or 30 are producing wines,” he said, although like himself they use crush facilities in neighboring Ventura County or farther north in Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo counties; winery permits are not available in Malibu.

Palmer labels his estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah wines with a “California” AVA. “I had a choice: LA or California,” he recalled. He and his neighbor growers are working together to establish a more inclusive Malibu Coast AVA, with Newton Canyon and Saddle Rock as sub-appellations.

Like entrepreneurs in other cities, Palmer faced years of challenges before the soft opening of Malibu Beach Wines in September. Despite its international fame, Malibu is in fact a hamlet: More than half of its residences are second homes, leaving a permanent population of 5,000 to 6,000.

“You can win a seat on the City Council with less than 1,000 votes,” Palmer said. “There are zero degrees of separation in this sleepy little beach town filled with billionaires.” Charged with protection and regulation of all California’s coast, the Coastal Commission “spends most of their time dealing with Malibu,” he said. Larry Ellison, billionaire chief of Oracle, owns 11 beach houses there but still needed seven years to finally secure a permit for a Malibu branch of the posh Nobu restaurant.

So Palmer’s three-year negotiation to open his modest tasting room was relatively swift, if not pain-free. “There’s no easy answer,” he said. “It takes perseverance, not giving up. I had a lot of conditions from the city.”

First and last of its kind
The 1,200-square foot space shares a building with a surfboard shop. Palmer has no illusions of forming the nucleus for a “wine ghetto” like those in Santa Barbara or Carmel-by-the Sea. His is perhaps the last on-premise liquor license to be issued in Malibu. The city council, he said, has since declared a moratorium. Malibu Beach Wines will, for the foreseeable future, be the village’s first and only tasting room.

Palmer plans to stock half the store with local wines and the rest with small boutique wineries, providing a forum to micro-producers.

On the shelves, in the glass
To demonstrate, Palmer and two other vintners poured their wines at a media event Oct. 19. In Santa Barbara County, Shawn Halahmy has produced 300-350 cases of red varietal wines from sourced grapes each year since 2008. Operating under the Shai Cellars label—and without a winery, tasting room or even a wine club—he welcomed the opportunity to pour at Malibu Beach.

While keeping up with his day job as a Realtor, he hand sells his wines. “It’s hard work, word-of-mouth, grassroots,” he said. “It’s me going out there.” Halahmy avoids most retail stores—even larger specialty wine shops—and sells most of his production in small restaurants. He believes Malibu Beach Wines’ concentration on artisan wineries like his makes it a great fit.

Carol Hoyt is the mother of two preteens, co-owner and chief bottle washer of 1,000 case Hoyt Family Vineyards, half a mile up Kanan Dume Road from the Pacific Coast Highway. Like Paso Robles and other California coastal winegrowing regions, Malibu has two distinct grapegrowing microclimates

Hoyt’s 2 vineyard acres on the cool coastal side are devoted to Chardonnay. The winery sources red varieties from Santa Ynez and Paso Robles, and it processes the wines in Santa Maria.

“When we planted our vineyard 12 years ago, we were one of six vineyards,” Hoyt said. “Now there are more than 75. At first, Malibu didn’t want to put in vineyards: They didn’t want to ‘look like Napa.’ Now, they love them.”

Hoyt’s Chardonnay grapes thrive in dense, clay soil—a boon in arid Southern California. “Just a little rain will keep our grapes happy. I’d love to grow more, but we’ve planted all we can,” she said, ruing the cost of Malibu land.

Hoyt Chardonnay has become well known, she said, and is poured in eight restaurants.

Malibu Beach Wines is open daily from noon until 8 p.m. at 22775 Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

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