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Los Angeles’ urban wineries

The urban wine scene in Los Angeles is both surprising and historic. Decanter takes a look at four producers making wine in the City of Angels.

‘I read that you could not produce world-class wines from Los Angeles County. Which didn’t make sense as we have this beautiful Mediterranean climate,’ says Patrick Kelley of Cavaletti Vineyards. The spirit of winemaking in LA is both dynamic and collaborative as if the industry was brand new.

In fact, some of the first grapes in California intended for wine were planted here in the late 18th century. The grounds of the Mission San Gabriel in LA are also home to the oldest vine in California – the Ramona Vine – believed to have been planted in 1775. A commercial winery was opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1833. And to this day, San Antonio Winery, established in 1917, is the oldest and largest-producing winery in Los Angeles.

While the original seal for the county of LA included a grape cluster, the county became a forgotten wine region as Napa Valley and others grew to prominence.

The Los Angeles Vintners Association – founded by Byron Blatty Wines, Cavaletti Vineyards, and Angeleno Wine Co. – was created to spread the word about LA-grown wine and the group aims to revive the rich tradition of Los Angeles winemaking. It is collaborating on a project to make an Angelica sweet wine from the ancient Ramona Vine at the Mission San Gabriel. The wine is currently in barrel at Angeleno.

Byron Blatty Wines

Mark Blatty, die-hard Dodger fan and proprietor of Byron Blatty Wines, says: ‘There’s no style of wine yet for Los Angeles County, and I’m not sure there ever will be. From the coastal regions and mountains to the high desert, there is a lot of experimentation and varietal diversity.’

Established in 2014, Byron Blatty Wines is expanding with its first-ever tasting room to open this summer in Highland Park.

While Mark and Jenny Blatty don’t own any vineyards, they manage the Malibu Coast vineyard that produces fruit for their flagship Cabernet Sauvignon – Proprietary Red – which retails for $150. We want to make serious wine for people who are serious about wine,’ Mark says. With Los Angeles being the second largest wine market in the country behind New York, serious wine enthusiasts aren’t hard to find.

Sourcing grapes requires agility and strong relationships because vineyard availability comes and goes. For this reason, many producers, Blatty included, source from outside Los Angeles County to supplement gaps in the fruit needs. Though most of its wines are made from Los Angeles fruit, it chooses not to appellate with the various sub-AVAs within Los Angeles County. This was an intentional choice to lead with ‘Los Angeles’ on the bottle, says Mark. ‘In established wine regions, an AVA helps delineate quality, but for us, it would just confuse people who have never heard of the Sierra Pelona Valley AVA, for example,’ he adds.

Cavaletti Vineyards

Kelley has no formal winemaking training. In 2011 he started tinkering around and making wine and in 2016 proclaimed to his wife that he would start a wine label. In searching of a name, and realising that so many were taken, his wife came up with ‘Cavaletti’, which is a horse jump.

Kelley aims to make ‘wines of personality and place’ from Los Angeles County, A deep believer in LA fruit, he owns a quarter-hectare vineyard at his home, leases five vineyard properties in Ventura county (0.5-1.5 hectares each), and farms the Schoolhouse Vineyard, a special vineyard directly on the San Andreas Fault in Los Angeles at the top of the Sierra Pelona Mountains.

The vineyard was planted by some of the first homesteaders in the area in the 1890s and farmed actively until 1960. It was ignored until 2021, when Kelley started farming the vineyard. Yields are minuscule, but Kelley hopes to have a harvest with the amount of rain in Los Angeles this past winter.

Kelley comes from a background in sales and marketing, so the idea of selling Los Angeles wine wasn’t daunting to him. ‘The best part of being in wine is the ability to build a community,’ says Kelley. The Cavaletti tasting room opened in 2020 and has created a local community with wine club events and events featuring other Los Angeles winemakers.

Los Angeles River Wine Company

Pressing grapes at Los Angeles River Wine Company. Credit: Abe Schoener

Los Angeles was not Abe Schoener’s first wine home, having made wine both in Napa and the Finger Lakes. His own brands include the Scholium Project as well as the Los Angeles River Wine Company, of which Raj Parr is a partner.

Schoener first had the idea for a Los Angeles urban winery in 2005 while visiting a friend. They were cycling through what is now the trendy Arts District, passing by beautiful abandoned brick warehouses. It wasn’t until 2014 that Schoener came up with a business plan for an LA winery. At this point, he didn’t know if there were vineyards in Los Angeles, but he figured he’d be able to find the grapes.

This materialised when in 2015, his friend Jon Bonné brought him to the 100-year-old certified organic Lopez Vineyard in Cucamonga. This visit imprinted Abe’s mission with the Los Angeles River Wine Company to work with local and historical vineyards. In 2019 he made a small amount of wine. In early 2020, with the help of socially distanced friends and volunteers, he got that vintage bottled just before the lockdown. Up until this year, all the wine was made in a parking lot in south LA with no equipment. Going forward, his low-intervention wines will be made in his new industrial space in southeast LA.

Schoener’s wines do not list appellation. In fact, most are labelled ‘California’ and also rarely designate variety. In his opinion: ‘Varietal and appellation designations on California wines are more of an obstacle to the consumer than a helpful guide. If you say a Chardonnay, then people have such narrow expectations of what a Chardonnay is going to be.’

When asked about making wine in Los Angeles, Schoener concludes: ‘The source of this feeling of honour and gratitude is less about making wine in the city and more about working with these historical vineyards that have shaped Los Angeles wine history.’

Angeleno Wine Co.

A forklift delivers fruit to Angeleno Wine Co. Credit: Angeleno Wine Co.

Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig of Angeleno Wine Co. met at Silverlake Wine. In this local LA wine shop, Dickson – an amateur winemaker – worked retail while Luftig was a curious consumer who had taken wine classes as a hobby. Over bottomless mimosas at Barbrix restaurant, they decided to go into business, and in 2015 they made their first vintage of Angeleno Wine from LA fruit. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, they were able to move into their current winemaking and tasting room facility just north of Chinatown in downtown LA. There, they became the first winery permitted in downtown LA since Prohibition.

Angeleno’s focus is on making wine from local LA area vineyards, mostly from the Alonso Family Vineyard in Agua Dulce and a vineyard in Santa Clarita. ‘We’re really focused on what LA fruit can do,’ says Luftig, going so far as to label with both the LA AVA and sub-AVAs. The pair aims to showcase the fruit, not the winemaking, and make wines in a natural, low-intervention style with minimal sulphur use.

How do you sell Los Angeles wines? ‘We talk about the history of California winemaking and how Los Angeles is the birthplace. When people hear that, they get really excited,’ says Dickson. The duo pick their own fruit and invite friends and wine club members to help with the harvest. ‘It becomes a medium for creating community,’ says Dickson.

The makers of Los Angeles wines are focused on making quality products, getting the word out to the community, and carving out a niche for themselves. ‘We’re united in our desire to elbow our way in to get a seat at the table,’ says Blatty. ‘People ask all the time ‘Why LA wine?’ and we reply, ‘Why not?’

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