Cornell Winery & Tasting Room has the sort of oenological smarts combined with ambient charm that you normally have to schlep all the way to west Paso Robles or the Central Coast’s Edna Valley or Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County to experience. Tim Skogstrom left a successful winemaking/marketing career in Napa Valley to open the Agoura Hills tasting room in 2007 — and it’s become L.A.’s best wine experience.
After two decades among the giants, Skogstrom had grown skeptical of large-scale operations while developing an affection for California’s many tiny but talented producers. So his tasting room, adjacent to a 19th century post office that’s now the wildly popular Old Place restaurant, gives the curious a chance to jump off the well-trod wine path. And in one of the prettiest settings in Southern California.
High on Skogstrom’s list are the Malibu winemakers who have worked hard, made some bad wine along the way, but emerged triumphant with buttery chardonnays (Elliott Dolin), smooth syrahs (Jim Palmer), and robust cabernets (Don Schmitz). Their wines, along with such standouts as a rosé from Santa Barbara’s Republic of Pink or a one-off bottling from Paso Robles pioneer J. Lohr, might be among the tasting of five wines for $15 offered Thursday through Sunday in a picturesque barn constructed by Tom Runyon (yes, of that canyon).
The drive along Kanan Road to reach Cornell quickly sets the stage — the vine-covered hills of the Saddle Rock and Rocky Oaks vineyards — then a brief jaunt on Mulholland Highway to the rustic wood building across from the Peter Strauss Ranch. Embedded atop the steps is a peacock mosaic; once inside, tasters pass rows of bottles on their way to a massive wood bar topped by a sign that reads, “Dogs Welcome, People Tolerated.” Crystal chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, the walls and shelves tastefully decorated with artisan edibles, jewelry, ceramics, paintings and books.
I first happened upon Cornell three years ago, when Skogstrom told me why he was enamored of the boutique winemakers. “With the corporate producers you get adulterated, pornographic wines that are perfect year after year,” he said. “With Malibu you taste the land, the weather. The 20,000 cases a corporation makes don’t translate into terroir, it’s the one-barrel winemaker who’s going to give you something distinctive.”
So when the Woolsey Fire roared through Malibu and its environs late last year, hitting the area around Strauss Ranch extra hard, you had to fear the worst — not knowing that Morgan Runyon, Tom’s son, had anticipated a blaze of this scale would come again (he’d watched the Old Topanga Fire char 18,000 acres, destroy 359 homes and leave three people dead in 1993).
With a self-engineered system of hoses and pumps, Runyon, in a firefighter–esque canvas jacket and metal helmet, battled the flames himself — and won. But he couldn’t save the bridge. The fire got so hot that it melted the steel-and-concrete span, cutting off the access to Cornell from Troutdale Road. A new bridge, eight months in the making, looks like something out of Bladerunner, especially when viewed against the charred backdrop of Strauss Ranch. But everyone at Cornell is glad it’s back.
I’m marveling at how pristine the tasting room looks, considering the smoke that must have filled it. You wouldn’t know that one of the most devastating fires in California history had blown through, razing 96,949 acres and 1,643 structures and killing three people.
Then Cornell manager Peter Burgi pulls out a picture of Morgan Runyon, his face blackened with soot, standing outside the barn.
Burgi, whose knowledge of the people behind the wines is one of the reasons you have to visit Cornell, tells me about the friends from Palisades High School who are behind the Pali Wine Co., whose pinot noir is part of the tasting today. How they wouldn’t normally sample a wine from a company as large as J. Lohr, but this Pure Paso blend of cabernet sauvignon and petite syrah has been crafted in an homage to the winery’s first bottling in 1974.
As we taste a Dolin chardonnay, he ticks off the names of the Malibu winemakers, like Elliott Dolin, who were affected by the fire. It’s heartbreaking. Some of the vineyards, he speculates, will replant. Others have already thrown in the proverbial towel.
In the meantime, there are plenty of small winemakers, from L.A. to Monterey, as Skogstrom likes to say, who’ll be on sale at the Cornell Winery & Tasting Room. I already have my eye on a wine by Dragonette, the new darling of the Santa Ynez Valley, that I’m pretty sure Cornell is offering for a good $10 under the list price at tony market. I’ll be back.
29975 Mulholland Highway, Agoura; (818) 735-3542, cornellwinery.com