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The Grapes of L.A. 

Winemaking can once again be local

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000
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The broadcast media had a ball with this month‘s little story that Los Angeles County was about, once again, to allow people to make their own wine in marketable quantities. It was such a condign idea that the Board of Supervisors is expected to pass the ordinance next month, albeit past vintage for most growers.

The only real question seemed to be why, in this convivial, grape-friendly realm, people were not being allowed to do in Los Angeles County what they were famous for doing in the California counties of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, Napa, Lake, Stanislaus, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and even little Amador.

It seems the 80-year ban on local commercial grape pressing dated to the Volstead Act of 1919 -- better known to Eliot Ness fans as Prohibition. Until then, Greater Los Angeles was one of the primary grape-growing areas in the United States. The county’s iconography ignores it, but on the city of Los Angeles‘ official seal, the wine grape gets pride of place at the very top -- even above the Stars and Stripes and the Bear Flag (the ordinance doesn’t apply in the county‘s incorporated cities).

A lot of things happened in Los Angeles County between 1919 and 1933, when Prohibition ended, but none were good for the wine biz. One of them was real estate development, which built over most vineyards. Another was an ugly grape pest called the sharpshooter beetle (this same bug is now desolating Riverside County vineyards). With one thing and another, while plenty of L.A. amateur locals (including me) still grow and press their own, commercial vine growing and winemaking just about disappeared. The high end of the grape-growing business moved way up north to Napa County. The low end took a hike east, to Cucamonga (whose acid, chilled “chianti” afflicted the pizzerias of my youth) and then jogged up to the Central Valley. So you no longer saw scraggly vine rows running up the Baldwin Hills and among the orange groves in the north San Fernando Valley. By the 1960s, by one estimate, commercial grape growing had all but vanished from Los Angeles County.

And then people started drinking wine like never before. California wine. Vine growing came back down the coast. And now it’s here -- but not like in the old, pre-Volstead barrelhouse days, when you bought the stuff by the bucket, jug and pitcher. The new trend is toward a prestige product. And a lot of fancy grapes are being grown in county areas where, guess what, you aren‘t officially allowed to press grapes into wine.

This stricture has particularly displeased a handful of boutique viticulturalists, determined to prove that L.A. County can still be considered prime wine land. A few vineyards (one associated with Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica) have been operating in the Malibu area for more than a decade. A vintner mentioned in the Times the other day has planted in the Malibu Hills. But none of these guys is allowed to press his (they all seem to be male, although female winemakers are quite common elsewhere in this state) grapes in the jurisdiction in which they are grown. The Malibu Hills vintner seemed to be slightly exaggerating his plight. (He told the Times he had to truck his grapes 170 miles to San Luis Obispo to get them pressed. But there are plenty of operators in Santa Barbara County and even closer to Los Angeles County who would be happy to do the work.) But why should there be any trucking involved?

There are many undeveloped acres left in the 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County, some of which might have the right conditions for growing premium grapes. But it still isn‘t clear to what extent local winemaking can make a profit in a rising property market that has already driven out just about every other form of commercial agriculture except a little livestock grazing. There’s a Brentwood man on Moraga Drive who grows what is said to be a fabulous cabernet on a steep lot near the 405. But, though most people I know can‘t afford the wine, I suspect his holdings would bring in far more as real estate. You wonder the same about those various Malibu operations. Are we talking livelihood here or mere prestige? This isn’t yet clear.

There is an idea out there -- probably propagated by those thick, slick real estate monthlies -- that a rich man‘s home ought to be his chateau. In Los Altos recently, I noted that many fledgling Silicon Valley high rollers are putting little vineyards on their pint-size estates. These promise to be hands-off operations; I read that the owners pay contractors to tend the plots and press the results. So don’t expect to see your e-trade millionaires out there with the shears at dawn next month, doing the grueling morning work of clipping and packing the bunches 50 pounds at a time into wicker baskets the moment the grapes mature, then dragging them in for the afternoon pressing, and at sundown, stuffing themselves at richly laden outdoor tables with their own red-stained hands. The contract owners also won‘t share the ecstasy of siphoning -- with an occasional errant swallow -- the bubbly opaque juice out of the stainless-steel fermenter pot into jugs, or racking it from jugs to bottles. Or enjoying the product in the following year. I’d like to think that our L.A. County winemakers will, once they get legal permission, do it all the old-time way: by the labor of their own hands. And I look forward to purchasing, tasting and consuming the results myself.

A Quid for a Quo?

If you really wanted zero coverage on your big Los Angeles news event, you had it during the Democratic National Convention. I don‘t think anyone planned it this way, but Los Angeles County health-department officials almost dodged all coverage of their latest scandal. Which was, in any case, broken by our local City News Service, followed by the Daily News, and left strictly alone by all those other news folks hanging out at the Convention Center.

This latest outrage appears to have ended the county career of the Department of Health Service’s number-two official, Dr. Donald Thomas III, and resulted at least in the reassignment of Dr. Janet Aiso, who headed DHS‘s pharmacy division. Thomas, who has retained an attorney to contest his firing, and Aiso were accused of being somehow involved in an imbroglio that ended up supplying over $1 million worth of federally provided prescription drugs to two private clinics without the requisite vote by the Board of Supervisors.

One of these clinics, the Los Angeles--based John Wesley Community Health organization, has reimbursed the county. The other, Metro South Provider Network of Inglewood, declared bankruptcy in May and never paid back $900,000 owed. MSPN was run by Dr. Jeffrie Miller, who reportedly remains on the county payroll as director of graduate and medical education at King-Drew Medical Center.

According to DHS spokesman John Wallace, an in-house investigation of the matter is to be concluded next month. But right now, this scandal seems to stem from the too-common practice of allowing county-employed doctors to create on-the-side businesses that then contract with their own public employers. A previous case reported here was that of the now-ended clinical operations of former King-Drew eminence Dr. Ludlow B. Creary, presently in retirement. According to state records, Creary had other businesses that also contracted with the county.

At the same time, we have an unresolved union pay dispute that could -- conceivably -- take about 800 county doctors out on strike. The key disagreement is that the newly unionized doctors want to continue to claim their megaflex benefits, by which nonorganized county employees are allowed to purchase their own insurance plans and even roll unused benefit cash into their pensions. The county insists that unionized employees don’t get this package, and that has indeed been the past practice -- although Union of American Physicians and Dentists regional administrator Joe Bader insists that megaflex doesn‘t cost the county any more than conventional benefit plans would.

So here’s a possible compromise: Give the county doctors their megaflex, with the return agreement that they be forbidden to continue their highly problematic practice of doing business on the side with their county employers. Would this please everyone? Probably not. But as scandal follows scandal, putting up a contracting firewall in the DHS seems like an increasingly good idea.

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