The seven small vineyard sites are spread out over 6 acres on steep, rocky soil that rises 600 feet from the road, looking more like the hills of Tuscany than an American vineyard.
Bordeaux grape varieties are planted here, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Tasting the unreleased wine, one senses something special. It has a classic herbal-cassis aroma and a density of fruit that could come only from Bordeaux or Napa hillsides.
But Moraga Vineyards is in Los Angeles. It is Tom V. Jones’ personal homage to Jean Louis Vignes, California’s first commercial winemaker, who began making wine in the early 1830s in downtown Los Angeles, long before Sonoma--and later Napa--discovered the grape.
The Moraga Vineyards are 20 miles west of where Vignes had his winery. This enclosed property is hidden from public view off Sunset Boulevard in Bel Air, up dead-end Moraga Canyon, within earshot of the San Diego Freeway.
Here Tom and Ruth Jones are trying to keep wilderness a part of the Los Angeles heritage, and they are doing so with a fascinating byproduct: excellent wine.
The wine from this vineyard is being made by Napa Valley consulting enologist Tony Soter at Sanford Winery in Santa Barbara County. When the first vintage of Moraga is released in a year, it is sure to be one of the most prized in California history, in part because of its scarcity--just 200 cases were made. And no more than 900 cases will ever be made in a vintage.
The wine is special also because of the uniqueness of the place. Wine scientists say you can’t grow fine wine grapes in Los Angeles, certainly not Cabernet Sauvignon. But Jones, a longtime wine lover and collector, and vineyardist Roberto Quintana are dedicated men blessed with a greenbelt that defies the typical desert scenario of the Los Angeles basin.
It was in 1959, at the age of 38, that Tom V. Jones, an electronics engineer who had just been named president of Northrop Corp., bought a home with nine fireplaces on a one-acre lot. The property was once the home of Victor Fleming, director of “Gone With the Wind.”
At the time he bought the home, Jones also obtained an option on some adjacent land, a shrewd move that later enabled him to expand his holdings to its present 15 acres.
In 1961, Jones was named chairman of Northrop, a position he held until retirement in 1989.
For the next two decades the two small canyons beside the Jones home remained an unspoiled enclave in West Los Angeles, which was then fast becoming a haven for the wealthy seeking gaudy hillside estates. Most of the land was overgrown: brush on hillsides, ferns at the base of the canyon where a stream ran through. Tom and Ruth’s two children played in the thickets and on slopes as they grew up.
“We knew it was unique, we knew it was special when we bought it,” says Jones. “People thought we were crazy to buy this place, but we knew we were buying something man can’t do--where can you find a place so beautiful, with a family of golden eagles, with hawks flying above, with two coveys of quail? Preservation of the life in this canyon is very vital to us.”
Jones and Quintana, his ranch foreman, planted 40 coffee plants (to harvest the beans and make coffee), built a chicken coop (for eggs) and started an extensive vegetable garden.
Meanwhile, he sought a spot in Napa or Sonoma where he could plant grapes and make wine. Assisting him was an old friend, Harry Wetzel, chairman of Garrett Corp., who owned Alexander Valley Vineyards in Sonoma County in 1975.
“We looked at a number of places, but Ruth made the point that we’d be absentee owners,” says Jones. “Then I realized that what we had on our ranch was a chalky sandstone, an ancient ocean bottom limestone with fossils in it. This is what we look for in the Medoc.”
So Jones investigated the climate and slope and discovered that Moraga Canyon is truly unique. “We get 60% more rain than Los Angeles, and the land rises 800 feet (above sea level) and it’s steeply sloped. It looked like as good site as any to plant grapes.”
Jones asked Quintana, who then knew nothing about wine grapes, to plant the first vineyard. In 1978, 40 vines went in. To the amazement of some, they thrived. In 1980, planting was undertaken in earnest.
The odd contours of the land forced Quintana to plant each of the seven vineyard areas differently. Each vineyard has its own name, though the wine will bear only the name Moraga.
Quintana soon became a student of the science of viticulture. “He’s a genius,” says Soter. Using the most up-to-date technical data and with assistance from experts at UC Davis and Fresno State, Quintana dealt with problems as they arose, including a costly plant virus that set the project back three years.
Over the years, Jones acquired additional land here. The biggest purchases, six years ago, came after two homes on a ridge above his property were condemned after slides made them unsafe. Both homes were on uncompacted fill, deemed unbuildable.
After the homes were condemned, Jones bought both, “not to become a big land baron, but to protect the remainder of the canyon,” he says. Soon after, he succeeded in vacating a tract map of 12 home sites that had been approved for the area--a rare reversal of the trend toward development in West Los Angeles.
Estimates of the value of such land vary, but one resident of the area said a buildable 1-acre lot in Bel Air would sell today for $2 million.
A small amount of homemade Cabernet was made in 1984 and two barrels were made in 1985. The wine was good, says Jones.
“It was a lot better than good,” says Steve Wallace, owner of Wally’s in Westwood, who tasted it and was wowed. He encouraged Jones to go commercial. Jones was willing, but he needed a winemaker. Wallace suggested Soter, former winemaker at Chappellet and now producer of the exceptional Etude wines.
“I dodged Steve for a year and a half,” Soter admits. “I didn’t want to make wine from Los Angeles grapes.”
He feared the project was going to be all pizazz and no substance. “I thought it would be a glitzy Los Angeles/Hollywood scene, but then I visited the property and it’s remarkable. Tom and Ruth have real sensibilities about their environs. I was wonderfully impressed with how they were dealing with the ranch.”
Soter is still amazed by the ranch. “Probably more than any other property I’m associated with, this one ranks as the most different,” he said. “It is so singular and it does yield a unique kind of wine. It doesn’t taste like anything from Napa. It doesn’t have the same flavor profile, but it’s excellent.”
The 1989 Moraga will probably be released at about $35 to select shops and restaurants and to friends of the winery who are on a mailing list.
Of the wines made thus far, Soter was more impressed with the 1990 and 1991 vintage wines. “When you walk into a situation you’ve never been in before, your chances of making a great wine right off the bat are next to nil,” he says. “Still, the 1989 says a lot about the potential of the place. I really never thought we’d have fruit as concentrated as we do.”
Today Soter admits that he agreed to make the wine “on a leap of faith. But the thing that convinced me most was that I realized that Tom has the spirit and the support to see this thing through. And we have Roberto, whose great dedication is a key part of the whole execution here.”
He said it might be possible to make 2,000 cases of wine a year off this ranch, but it wouldn’t be as good as 800 or 900 cases, carefully chosen. “The grapes are just about hand-selected,” he says. “What we’re growing out there are bottles of Moraga wine, not gallons.”
The simple, elegant label on the Moraga wine was designed by Napa label designer Chuck House. The bottles are antique in color, tapered Bordeaux glass with deep punts--the indentation in the bottom.
The first six-bottle case of Moraga was sold at a charity auction in Los Angeles in early December (on a pre-release basis, to be delivered in a year) to three Los Angeles wine lovers--Larry M. Seibel of the Wine House in West Los Angeles, restaurateur Piero Selvaggio (of Valentino, Primi and Posto) and Dr. Richard Fleming, a physician.
The three paid $1,700 for the first six bottles, which includes a luncheon at the Jones home.
“I look forward to that luncheon so I can thank Tom personally,” says Fleming. “I admire greatly anyone who has the commitment to fine wine to use that property for vineyards. My hat’s off to him. He’s done a great service for wine and for Los Angeles.”