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Finally, a winery in Bel-Air

Times Staff Writer

IT never rains during harvest in Southern California -- except this year. On Sept. 20, Scott Rich, the winemaker for Moraga Vineyards, Los Angeles’ lone commercial wine grape grower, had planned to harvest the last of Moraga’s Sauvignon Blanc. Instead, he stood on the porch of Moraga’s weathered barn listening to the dreaded sound of rain pattering on the roof, wondering if he’d begin picking the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in three weeks, as planned.

Located in a narrow Bel-Air canyon that runs parallel to Interstate 405, Moraga’s vineyards are an incongruous sight to Getty Center visitors as they ride the tram up to the museum. To anyone driving up Moraga Drive, the vineyards’ ivy-covered stone wall is typical of the manicured neighborhood of pretty white clapboard and stone homes. It’s not until the vineyards’ wooden driveway gate swings open that there’s any clue that these hills are home to one of California’s most highly regarded Cabernets.

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Finer wines

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RICH has expected the 2005 vintage to be Moraga’s best ever. For the first time, the juice from its grapes won’t be trucked up to rented space in someone else’s Napa Valley winery. Instead, Moraga has a brand-new on-site winery, the first to be bonded in the city of Los Angeles since the start of Prohibition in 1920.

It completes the consolidation of Moraga’s operations that started last year with the excavation of a barrel cave 100 feet deep into the hillside of the vineyards. Moraga’s L.A. facilities and eight acres of vineyards now are on par with some of Napa’s most celebrated small wineries.

Still, unseasonable rain can wreak havoc in a premium vineyard. “The vines will suck up water like crazy, diluting the flavors,” Rich says. “For the reds, the biggest danger is mold and mildew.” But that won’t happen here, he says, not this year.

An on-site winery, particularly one with small fermentation tanks and state-of-the-art cooling and heating capabilities, dramatically improves the odds of making amazing wine.

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“We can pick exactly as the grapes ripen, picking only those rows, or even parts of rows that are ready,” says Moraga’s owner, Tom Jones. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes can hang on the vine until the untimely rainwater has evaporated. With the reds, workers will be able to hand-trim the leaves away from the grape bunches to slow fungus growth. Harvest can be staggered, with each bunch picked as it reaches optimal ripeness.

The pressure to compromise is gone, Jones says. No expensive refrigerated trucks are idling in the driveway, waiting for a full load before heading north on an eight-hour drive, he says. “You are obviously conscious of inefficiencies when that happens.”

Jones may be an iconoclast in believing that it makes sense to grow grapes and make wine on some of the most expensive residential real estate in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t squander his cash -- even on things he loves. The chief executive of Northrop Corp. for 30 years before retiring in 1990, Jones believes in making a profit on even backyard ventures.

“Part of the love is to make it a success. It wouldn’t suit me otherwise,” Jones, 85, says. “If you can’t sell it for what it costs to make it, plus a profit, then you’ve failed.”

And at $125 a bottle for his Cabernet, which includes 20% Merlot, and $65 for his Sauvignon Blanc, Jones certainly makes a profit on Moraga wine. He sells out his annual production of 600 cases to a list of 500 loyal mail-order customers, a handful of Parisian restaurants including Alain Ducasse, and a number of the most expensive restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles. Hotel Bel-Air carries Moraga as its “neighborhood” wine. And the wine is usually on the shelf at the only two stores that Jones allows to stock it: Wally’s in Westwood and the Beverly Hills Cheese Shop.

Is it good enough to be one of California’s most expensive wines? British wine critic Jancis Robinson called it one of her favorites when she tasted through a flight of 1994 and 1995 California Cabernets in 1999. But she hasn’t tasted it since, she says. American critic Robert Parker gave the 1993 Moraga Cabernet an 89 on his 100-point scale.

That was enough criticism for Jones, who has declined to send samples to any more critics. Anyone who wants to judge Moraga wines has to arrange for a visit with Jones at the vineyard. “I don’t want to be rude about it, but that’s the way I feel,” he says.

With the completion of the winery and barrel cave, Jones says his dreams for Moraga have been realized. “I may be an engineer,” he says, “but it’s emotional. I’m excited.”

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Jones and his wife, Ruth, planted their first grapevines at Moraga in 1978 “out of curiosity,” he says. As they learned more about the land around their home, they realized the potential of their backyard vineyard.

On the canyon bottom, thin topsoils covered gravel that went down 30 feet, the result of water running down this spur of the Mandeville Canyon fault line over the course of a millennium. That perfect drainage for vines is matched on the hillsides with fossil-filled ancient seabed soils, much like the soils of Bordeaux.

The climate is textbook for wine grapes, with end-of-summer temperatures swinging 25 degrees between the warm afternoon sun and the late-night chill.

Moraga’s first commercial vintage was 1989. “Because we are in a neighborhood, we kept the vineyard to the least amount of things that the neighbors could complain about,” Jones says. The office is in a business area near the 405 at the mouth of Moraga Drive. There have never been any public tours.

But when it became economical to build an on-site winery -- shaving at least 10% off operating costs -- Jones took his case for building a winery to his neighbors, going door-to-door to visit everyone with contiguous property and those who live on Moraga Drive. “ ‘Here’s our plan.’ ‘What are your feelings?’ ‘And would you go so far as to sign this saying you support us?’ ” Jones recalls asking the neighbors. He got 210 signatures.

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A grass-roots beginning

BY Bel-Air standards, the Jones’ construction project has been a piddling affair. Compared with the billionaire who built a faux French chateau or with the Italian industrialist who constructed a cantilevered tennis court over the canyon, Moraga’s 2,800-square-foot winery, with its low-slung roof and stacked stone facade, positively fades into the landscape.

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The Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock chickens cackling in the coop next to Moraga’s barn make more noise than the new winery. (Long before Martha Stewart made fresh eggs fashionable, Ruth Jones was dropping basketfuls off at the doors of her friends. President Reagan, who was one of Tom Jones’ closest friends, often took home a basket.)

When the couple first saw the 1939 ranch-style home built for film director Victor Fleming (“Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz”), they knew they were home. “The stables were still there from the days when Fleming and [director] Howard Hawkes were the only people who lived in the neighborhood. Clark Gable kept his horse here,” Jones says.

In the years before the aerospace executive started terracing the steep hillsides for vines, the native chaparral was so thick, he says, that the local teenagers grew marijuana on the hillside, certain it would escape detection.

Jones, an ardent conservationist who has now been a trustee of the California Nature Conservancy for 50 years, saw 15 acres of untouched land and readily paid the $450,000 asking price, big money in 1959.

“Ruth and I were born and raised in California. We love this environment. To see it disappearing into cement,” says Jones, his voice trailing off in sadness.

In anticipation of the first crush at the new winery, Jones was up at dawn most days early this month, walking through the vineyards and bantering in Spanish about the condition of the grapes with his crew of six full-time workers, most of whom have spent much of their adult lives tending Moraga’s vines.

On the first Saturday of this month, Jones, Rich and vineyard manager Carlos Contreras sat down to taste Sauvignon Blanc grapes at the vineyard picnic table, a reconditioned slab of the old Santa Monica Pier. Rich, Moraga’s winemaker since 1996, spends the harvest months jetting back and forth between Moraga and his winery in Napa Valley, Talisman Cellars.

After crushing the grapes in six sandwich bags, Rich poured the juice out into six plastic bowls. Each bag of grapes represented a separate vineyard section. Each tasted dramatically different as the men took sips from the various bowls. Only one block delivered the nectarine and ripe banana flavors they were looking for. Several grape samples had the pepper scratch at the back of the throat that signals under-ripe grapes.

“It’s not what they taste like,” Rich says. “It’s whether we think they will taste better with more time on the vine.”

It would be four days before the first two-thirds of the white grapes would be harvested. The grapes were hand-carried, crate by crate, into the winery’s separate “cool” room to be bladder-pressed in whole clusters. The juice was bucketed from the crusher into a holding tank to allow the sediment to settle out.

Within the week, Rich transferred the juice to 75-gallon stainless steel barrels for fermentation. The wines might be ready to bottle by late May, at the latest, early July. After that, they will be stored in the new caves for a year before being released.

This week, Jones and Rich will start tasting samples of the red grapes, with harvest beginning in early October. The grapes will be picked selectively on as many as 10 different days during that month.

There are 19 open-topped one-ton fermenters sitting in the winery, ready for the red grapes. After crush, the grape must will spend as long as a month in the fermenters, then it will be basket-pressed. Next, the wine goes into French oak barrels for its first year in the caves. After bottling, it will age two more years. “It feels so much better this way,” says Jones, who has been stepping into the winery’s cool room to check on the Sauvignon Blanc as it ferments. “It’s a wonderful smell.”


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