Newport's Veteran Party Guy Now Its Novice Winery Owner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Moriarty may be best known as the savvy promoter of notorious 1980s parties, such as his "Pimps, Hookers, Drug Dealers and Lawyers Ball." The bacchanalian affairs drew as many as 3,000 people, many of them barely clothed.

"I've been banned from every hotel ballroom in Orange County--plus the Spruce Goose," said Moriarty. "People still come up to me and say either, 'I got married,' or, 'I got divorced because of your parties.' "

At 53, the mellowing playboy --a member of the Segerstrom clan who turned their lima bean fields into South Coast Plaza--is using his entrepreneurial skills and family agricultural knowledge to develop a different legacy: Newport Beach's first and only vineyard and winery, called: Newport Beach Vineyard and Winery.

"I don't recall another vineyard in the town--unless the Indians were growing them. I don't think they were," said Bill Grundy, president of the Newport Beach Historical Society. "It sounds like a fun thing for Newport."

At least one wine expert said Moriarty picked the right spot to put down roots, calling his 3.5 acres overlooking Upper Newport Bay one of "the best places in the world to grow grapes."

Last Thursday, Moriarty harvested more than a ton of Bordeaux-style grapes from his one-acre vineyard in Newport Beach. The grapes will yield about 850 bottles of wine, which he hopes to sell in two years. Moriarty's first vintage last year produced a bottle of Back Bay Cuvee that recently won a silver medal in the Orange County Fair Wine competition. The remainder of the first harvest--30 gallons of wine--continues to age in a single barrel.

"It definitely shows promise," said Blair Wallace, publisher of the Underground Wine Journal, a Costa Mesa-based national magazine for winemakers and connoisseurs. "The location is really intriguing, since it has similarities to Bordeaux," a coastal region in southern France.

Coastal vineyards were once commonplace in Southern California's early 20th century landscape, long before any grapes were harvested in Napa, Sonoma or Temecula. In fact, Orange County became famous for its citrus only after disease--then known as Anaheim disease, now renamed Pierce's disease--wiped out 40,000 acres of vineyards in the central county.

But rising land prices, more than disease, ultimately destroyed the local wine industry. A few boutique vineyards in the Los Angeles area have taken root over the past two decades. They are operations started by wealthy men whose passion for quality wines outweighed bottom-line concerns.

Tom V. Jones, former chairman of Northrop Corp., owns Moraga Vineyards, planted on eight acres in Bel Air. His wines--which sell for $125 a bottle--have become a favorite of critics in the past decade. George Rosenthal, who makes his money in Los Angeles real estate, started Malibu Hills Vineyard in the late 1980s. It now produces 5,000 cases of wine annually from 24 acres of vineyards in pricey Newton Canyon. And Moriarty's small vineyard is planted on a multimillion-dollar bay view land.

"It's ideal grape-growing land," said Moriarty, a longtime bachelor. "It's just expensive."

The fledgling vintner says his patch of land has unique terroir, a French term that encompasses all the environmental elements--soil, climate, water, sunlight, and topography--that go into growing grapes.

Moriarty grows five classic Bordeaux varietals--cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec--which he blends.

By the time Moriarty sells his first bottle of wine, he figures he'll have put nearly $500,000 into the vineyard, winery, and planned wine-tasting room.

His goal is to produce small quantities of quality wine, starting at least at $50 a bottle.

"We should make money," said Moriarty, a tall, muscular man with calloused hands who looks more like a cowhand than heir to a Segerstrom family fortune. "That's the idea anyway."

Moriarty got the idea for a Newport Beach winery while heli-skiing in Italy and seeing vineyards next to villas. A wine connoisseur who went to college in France, he also knew of the Malibu vineyards and figured his Newport property could produce a similar crop.

He hired a $200-an-hour consultant, but soon found he could learn more by attending wine auctions and dinners, and picking the brains of winemakers. He also visited wineries in California and Europe.

"It's not competitive in any way," said Tricia Levine of Moraga Vineyards. "Everybody has different methods of working that they share. There's tremendous camaraderie."

For Moriarty, growing the vines was the easy part. A landscape contractor, he also grows finicky orchids for sale.

"Grapes are pretty much a no-brainer," Moriarty said with his usual bluntness. "They grow like weeds."

In two growing seasons, Moriarty hasn't had any problem with disease or pests that have plagued the Temecula vineyards of Riverside County. He attributes his good luck to cool, coastal weather and the 165 species of insect-eating birds in the 740 acres of the neighboring Upper Back Bay, a state ecological reserve.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter, an insect that is a grape's biggest enemy, carries bacteria that causes Pierce's disease, which has caused $40 million in losses in Temecula in recent years.

The novice winemaker did encounter one setback. After planting his first vines, he decided to check on them that night. He found 20 rabbits nibbling his crop.

"It was like they were lined up at a buffet," he said. He set up barriers until the vines grew beyond rabbit-nibbling height.

Because of the complex permitting process--he needed approvals from city, state and federal authorities--Moriarty was not allowed to ship his grapes to a winemaker. Instead, he had to learn to make his own wine.

By reading books and visiting wineries, he pieced together a makeshift, one-man operation in a garage to take the grapes from the vine to the bottle. Moriarty even hijacked the motor from his wood chipper to power his de-stemming machine.

His plans include a tasting room in nearby Santa Ana Heights, and a wine cave next to the vineyard to store the French oak barrels containing his wine. The cave also will include a small dining room above the storage area, where Moriarty plans to throw small dinner parties.

Right now, the novice vintner is busy in his garage fermenting the grape crush in a large bin--and wondering exactly how much Fermaid--a product that gives the yeast a boost--he should stir into the mix.

"Man," he said, looking at the batch, "I hope I didn't put in too much."

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'Postage Stamp' Vineyard

More than a ton of grapes were harvested Thursday from Newport Beach's only vineyard and winery. Grapes from 700 vines on the one-acre plot will be used to create a blended Meritage wine.

Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times

Source: Newport Beach Vineyards and Winery

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