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Rule Change Could Spell Disaster for Malibu's Burgeoning Wine Region

Malibu vineyard
Malibu vineyard

In recent months, there's been a lot of excitement around the burgeoning wine scene in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. The Malibu Coast has just been approved for its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) by the U.S. government’s Tobacco and Tax Bureau — meaning that the wines coming out of the region are unique enough to deserve their own designation, and can use “Malibu Coast” on their labels.

But the hope that Malibu could become a serious wine region could be squashed by a change in the California Coastal Commission's Land Use Plan for the Santa Monica Mountains. The changes, which were introduced in April by L.A. County Board of Supervisors Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, would ban all new vineyard plantings in the Malibu AVA zone and even require that many existing vineyards be ripped out.

The changes are set to go into effect pending a vote August 26.

On Friday, winegrowers in the region put out a statement objecting to the changes. It states that "vineyards planted without permits must now be removed, with no recourse for retroactive permitting," and details a litany of grievances relating to the changes in the rules.

At issue is the conservation of the Santa Monica Mountains. But the winegrowers say the plan is misguided: "The scientific evidence presented at the Coastal Commission hearing was out of date and did not specifically address the effect of vineyards on the environment." 

The winegrowers believe they in particular have been treated unfairly in the process. For instance, "organic farms" will be allowed under the new rules, but organic vineyards will not. Also, equestrian facilities, which must also be permitted, will be allowed retroactive permitting, while vineyards will not — even though, they claim, equestrian facilities use more water, and vineyards actually help with erosion. They also say that most of the growers in the region use varying levels of sustainable, organic or biodynamic farming, and the pesticides used adhere to those principles, as well as following the appropriate guidelines established by the city, county, or state.

In fact, many of the residents with vineyards on their properties initially installed them after fire department officials suggested that vines were good fire breaks and would also retain soil on steep hillsides.

I reached out to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's office, and got his Press Deputy, Joel Bellman, on the phone. Bellman expressed frustration that he was only hearing about this from the press now, when the process has been ongoing. I stated that my questions were pretty simple: What is the reasoning behind the change in rules in the first place? Why is there an exemption for organic farms but not vineyards? Why is there a way for equestrian facilities to retroactively get a permit but not vineyards?

Bellman asked to see the press release from the winemakers and promised to get back to me. But when I emailed him the release from the winemakers, I got an email back about an hour later saying that Yaroslavsky's office would have no comment. 

While the winemakers say they hope to shed light on the issue and get a fair hearing from the California Coastal Commission, all indicators (including comments made by Bellman when I spoke to him) point to the rules going through without changes on August 26. 


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