Thursday, July 15, 2010

MALIBU WINES: CORNELL WINERY


Cornell Winery

The Malibu wine scene has been more vineyards than tasting rooms.  That is changing, however, as some of the over-four-dozen vineyards in the Malibu Hills have now opened to the public.  Malibu Family Wines and Rosenthal were the first to open tasting rooms.  Cielo Vineyards has opened Sip recently.  Tasting rooms are sprouting up from the ocean to the hills, so Southern California wine lovers can get some wine tasting on in less time than it takes to have lunch at Neptune's Net.

Not all the vineyards and wineries in Malibu are open to the public, but many of the ones that aren't have their wines available at a winery and tasting room which acts as a cooperative, Cornell Winery.

Beginnings

Tim Skogstrom of Cornell Winery has been in the wine business some 20 years, on the distribution end with Young's Market Company, in sales and marketing with Francis Ford Coppola, and now as a winemaker and wine seller in the Malibu Hills.  The knowledge Skogstrom picked up while working in all aspects of the wine industry, plus a keen sense of how to make things happen, brought him out of the corporate wine world and into his position as one of the most fervent advocates of the Malibu wine scene.

In 2006 Skogstrom had an opportunity to partner with Morgan Runyon, whose father owned some land in a little place in the Santa Monica Mountains called Cornell.  At least that's what it was called in the early part of the 20th century, when the tiny mountain community sprang up.  Tom Runyon had been cooking steaks at his restaurant, The Old Place, since 1970 and was beginning to slow down.  Nearly 90 at the time, the elder Runyon was set in his ways and somewhat resistant to change, but Skogstrom's ’s friendship with Runyon's son, Morgan, brought an opportunity to present a business plan.  Tom loved it, Morgan loved it, and so began the story of Cornell Winery & Tasting Room.  Tom Runyon passed away in July of 2009.  This posed a question to Morgan and Tim: what’s next? 

Today Skogstrom runs the Old Place restaurant with his partner, Morgan.  They serve steaks and clams just as Tom and his wife, Barabra, had for more than 40 years.  The restaurant has matured in the sense that they now have regular hours and serve a full menu.

Malibu wines had been on Skogstrom's radar for several years. "I knew several people making wine in Malibu," he said, "and in tasting through several vintages I began to notice a sharp increase in quality."  Setting out to become a retailer focusing on wines produced between Los Angeles and Monterey, he eventually narrowed that focus to the wines of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Cornell Winery and Tasting RoomThere's Wine In Them Thar Hills

"We harvest grapes differently here than in, say, Napa.  The climate, the land - the terroir - dictates that we take grapes at a different time, at a different growth stage, to get the best results," said Skogstrom.  "The wines of Malibu are of a very high quality.  Conditions being different, Malibu might be on the verge of becoming the next big wine region.  That won't happen, though.”

“Malibu is all zoned rural residential, so there's little to no agricultural land.  In Malibu, that residential land is very expensive.  You can't grow a vineyard on the property because of the zoning, but you can grow anything you want - like grapes - in the fire clearance zone that surrounds the property.  Such a limited space for grape growing means most producers make a very limited quantity of their wine.  That's why what is happening with the growth of interest in Temecula wines can't happen in Malibu.  Temecula is all ag land, priced so winemakers can actually hope to make a living from wine production.  You can never really hope to make enough affordably-priced wine from Malibu vines to cover your expenses.  There'll never be enough Malibu wine to go around.”

History Lesson

Skogstrom is a fount of information on the wine-producing history of Southern California: "You couldn't make wine in L.A. County until about 6 years ago!  The sole exception was San Antonio Winery in downtown L.A., which received a special dispensation to make wine during Prohibition, because they made sacramental wine for use in the church.  Wine used to be delivered to your back door like milk!  There were over 200 wineries in L.A. County before Prohibition.  Agua Dulce, up in the Antelope Valley, was the first winery to open in Los Angeles County since that time.

“After Prohibition was repealed - the federal part - it was up to local governments to actually reinstate the three arms of the wine business, consumption, production and sales.  Well, L.A. County reinstated sales and consumption, but not production.  That didn’t happen until the 21st century.

"Things are more complicated for Malibu because of the Coastal Commission.  They have a lot to say about what goes on in Malibu, and they generally don’t want to allow any kind of development at all.  Even though we have around 50 vineyards in the Malibu Hills, we still haven't figured out how to produce our wines on site.  We have to take the grapes to a facility like Camarillo Custom Crush or Terravant in Buellton to have the wine made.”

The Old PlaceEsprit de Malibu

At Cornell Winery, Skogstrom doesn’t just make his own wine.  He also stocks, sells and pours for tasting the wines of some 20 other vintners in the hills of Malibu.  He carries wines by Malibu Sanity, Hoyt Family Vineyards, Bodegas Gomez de Malibu, Colcanyon Estates, Casa Dumetz and many more.

I mentioned how Skogstrom’s practice of making wines from his competitors available in his tasting room carries  with it a real picture of camaraderie.  The image of helping struggling winemakers brought a smile to him.  “Well, there aren’t too many struggling winemakers in Malibu.  There are some millionaire winemakers here.  For them, wine is a sideline.  It’s more than a hobby to them, but for most of them, it’s not the biggest thing they have going on.  Griffin Family Vineyards, Tony is Merv Griffin’s son.  Jim Palmer, George Rosenthal, Ron Semler - these guys aren’t exactly hurting.  Charles Schetter of Malibu Sanity - if he didn't collect wine, he'd collect coins or something else.  Whatever he does, he wants to do the best way he can.”

Reasons To Believe

Skogstrom promotes Cornell Winery as strongly as he recommends his colleagues’ wines.  “We have the tasting room on the grounds, local artists hang their works on our walls, The Old Place restaurant right next door, Charme D'Antan architectural antiques, right across the street is the Peter Strauss Ranch Park.  You can come and do some wine tasting, bring a picnic to have across the street, browse around Charme D’Antan, see some art and get a great steak at The Old Place.  You could make a whole day of it.”

“More Americans should drink local wine,” is his advice to all who will listen.  “Wherever you are, drink local!  Are they drinking Napa Cabs in Italy?  No, they’re drinking Italian.  What do they drink in Burgundy?  They drink Burgundy!  Drink your local wines!”

Once on a corporate fast track, Skogstrom lives a completely different life now, and doesn’t miss the rat race one bit.  "Life in Cornell is good.  It's pretty simple.  I grow Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Roussanne.  I like Rhone Varietals.  Our restaurant is where the general store used to be years ago.  Beautiful scenery, great family - both my own and my extended family of employees - doing something I'm proud to do.  I guess I don't need the $100,000 car.  I'll just take the good life instead."

Location

A flight of eight wines at the Cornell Winery tasting room costs $15 and the menu changes weekly.  The room is open Thursday through Sunday each week, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.  Sometimes they're open later, until 9:00.  Call to find out.  Directions.

Cornell Winery
29975 Mulholland Highway
Cornell, CA 91301
818.735.3542