Newport's Veteran Party Guy Turns Into Its Novice Vintner

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 wealthy Segerstrom clan that turned its 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.

"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 1/2 acres overlooking Upper Newport Bay one of "the best places in the world to grow grapes."

On Thursday, he harvested more than a ton of Bordeaux-style grapes from his one-acre vineyard. The grapes will yield about 850 bottles of wine, which he hopes to make available commercially 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--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 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 Anaheim Disease, since renamed Pierce's Disease, wiped out 40,000 acres of vineyards in the central county area.

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 last 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 over the last decade. George Rosenthal, who makes his money in Los Angeles real estate, started Malibu Hills Vineyard in the late 1980s. It produces 5,000 cases of wine annually from 24 acres of vineyards in pricey Newton Canyon. And Moriarty's small vineyard is planted on 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.

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

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

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

"We should make money," said Moriarty, a tall man with blue-collar muscles and callused hands that make him look more the 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 the 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 consultant for $200 per hour, but soon found he could learn more by attending wine auctions and dinners, and picking the brains of winemakers. He visited wineries in California and Europe.

For Moriarty, getting the vines to grow was the easy part. A landscape contractor, he specializes in growing finicky orchids.

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

In two growing seasons, Moriarty hasn't had any problem with the disease and pests that have plagued the Temecula vineyards of Riverside County. He attributes the 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 novice winemaker did encounter one setback. After planting his first vines, he decided to check on them that night. He found 20 rabbits nibbling at his crop.

"It was like they were lined up at a buffet," he said.

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 wine on the premises.

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.

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

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