AVA Approval Step by Step

Malibu Coast wineries and vineyards offer latest example of leveraging well-known names for branding

by Jane Firstenfeld
Elliott Dolin, owner of Dolin Malibu Estate, led the charge to develop a new Malibu Coast AVA.
Malibu, Calif.—Since the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced its approval of the Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) on July 18, some 50 grapegrowers in two California counties will finally be able to give their grapes an appealing and appropriate name of origin.

The fabled beach community north of Los Angeles has been home to vineyards for some 200 years. Its first AVA, Malibu-Newton Canyon, was established in 1996; a second, Saddle Rock-Malibu, was made official in 2006. Both of these remain “single-vineyard” AVAs requested by growers (Rosenthal and Semmler, respectively) with the required 30 acres planted to grapes.

The remaining grapegrowers in coastal Los Angeles and southern Ventura County were limited to branding their product “Los Angeles County” or a generic “California” label: Neither were conducive to upscale wine sales from tiny vineyards lacking dedicated wineries, most of which rely on Ventura custom-crush operations to bottle their pricey wares.

Elliott Dolin planted a single acre of grapes at his Dolin Malibu Estate in 2006, and today the winery produces 1,800 cases annually: Chardonnay from his 900 vines and Pinot Noir sourced from premium Santa Barbara and Paso Robles vineyards.

He sells about 35% of production direct to consumer online and at tasting events; the remainder is mostly hand-sold to nearby restaurants and retail. “We are now working with some distributors and brokers” to reach a wider audience, Dolin said. “When you’re small, you need to stay away from the big guns.”

Dolin, a one-time professional musician, still works his day job as a commercial real estate investor. “It’s almost impossible to start a brick-and-mortar winery in Los Angeles County,” he commented. Off-hand, he could name only three: the venerable San Antonio Winery in urban Los Angeles; Moraga Vineyards in tony Bel Air, and Agua Dulce in the county’s distant, inland northeast, which achieved its own Sierra Pelona AVA in 2009. WinesVinesDATA tallies 40 wineries in Los Angeles County—only 13 are bonded wineries; Ventura County posts 32 wineries—24 are bonded.

Prior to the ruling, Dolin said he tried to negate the perceived stigma of a “Los Angeles County” appellation by including his Dolin Malibu Estate brand on his label. Now, he explained, he will be able to label any previously bottled wines as well as upcoming vintages with the new Malibu Coast AVA. Other vintners who helped create the AVA included Charles Schetter of Malibu Sanity, John Gooden of Montage Vineyards (a brand of Bev Pak Inc.) and John Freeman of Colcanyon Estate Wines.

Fast track to AVA
While many AVA proposals become mired in legal entanglements that delay or eventually preclude approval, the Malibu Coast got a quick start and rushed to the finish line. It took just a year from submission to final approval.

During the mandatory period for public comments, 23 of 23 were positive. Only a single commenter expressed even a twinge of doubt: “Sounds like a good idea as long as there (are) enough wineries to support such an AVA,” Stuart Lenoff said.

Dolin recalled the process. “A core group of four of us met with AVA consultant Ralph Jens Carter. We mapped out our strategy and determined the cost. We all contributed, then went to all the other growers. At the end of the day, it was enough.”

For Dolin, “The longest process was after the public comment period closed. It was just waiting for a signature” to become official. “It went so smoothly from the beginning, and Ralph Jens Carter was exemplary.” Carter, based in Sonoma County, was also a key player in establishing the Agua Dulce AVA.

“It’s almost hard to believe,” Dolin said. “We are so excited. I know there’s a lot of confusion with AVAs: This is very straightforward. The L.A. County designation was almost a negative. Malibu being Malibu, everyone has heard of us,” he said.

Although the Malibu-Newton Canyon and Saddle Rock-Malibu AVAs are within the boundaries of the Malibu Coast, the vineyards there may continue to use the existing appellations, the TTB specified.

The 44,590-acre AVA “is bordered by the city of Los Angeles to the east, the cities of Oxnard and Camarillo to the west, and the communities of Thousand Oaks, Conejo Valley, Calabasas and Greenwich Village to the north,” the ruling states. The ruling becomes final Aug. 18.

Two more to consider
Two additional California AVAs are awaiting approval and public comments.

One would add a 16th appellation to Sonoma County. The proposed Fountaingrove AVA includes 38,000 acres northeast of Santa Rosa. To date, only two positive comments have been posted. Read the proposal and comments here. Comments must be received by Aug. 29.

The second proposed AVA would expand the existing Fair Play AVA in El Dorado County by approximately 1,200-acres (2 square miles). The existing AVA includes some 33 square miles, with about 250 acres of producing vineyards. Currently, 78 wineries operate in El Dorado County.

Randy and Tina Ross, owners of 1,200-case Saluti Cellars, presented the proposal. To date, no comments have been posted. See the proposal and comment here prior to Aug. 16.

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