Malibu is well-known as the beach community just north of Los Angeles, a hotspot frequented by the rich and famous. But what most people don’t know is that Malibu also is home to a burgeoning wine region. I love visiting this side of Malibu because it provides an entirely different perspective on the region. Going there is like escaping to the countryside.
There are more than 50 vineyards decorating the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu. The vineyards here are quite small; while some are up to 75 acres, many are less than 1 acre in size. The vines are tended entirely by hand as the steep landscape makes it impossible for large equipment to be used. And the results are relatively small and prized batches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and more.
Here are three of the most popular wine country experiences in and near Malibu and Los Angeles. Often featuring live music, decorative lighting, and a country vibe, these tasting rooms provide both a social and a sensory experience.
The Cornell Winery
This winery is the spot to get a crash course on local wine. Tucked far in the hills toward the 101 Freeway, this winery has a homey yet refined atmosphere. Think exposed wood beams coupled with crystal chandeliers and melting wax candelabras.
Cornell is stocked with labels from most of the wineries in the region, as well as from Santa Barbara and the central coast of California. For $10, get a flight of four wines to taste; flights often comprise one white and three reds. The wines from this region are known as full-bodied, high-alcohol options with hints of pepper and chocolate. Prices vary.
Viewfinder Tip: When wine tasting in Malibu designate a driver or order a car service to be safe, and plan your tastings in the afternoon to avoid the midday heat in the mountains during the warmer months.
The winery is open Thursday through Sunday, with Saturday being the busiest day. On this day, the place brings in live music, usually folk or country musicians (and sometimes cover bands). Cornell also usually offers food in the form of snacks (think tapenades, crackers, and so on). For a meal, head next door to The Old Place, a steak house. Visitors also are welcome to bring their own little picnics.
Personally, what I love about Cornell is that it has a low-key Americana ambiance that almost feels like going back in time. City life really seems to be a distant thought here. And with a small stretch of the imagination, it is a setting into which you might expect to arrive on horseback.
Rosenthal Tasting Room
This is where you can stick your proverbial toe into the Malibu wine tasting world without driving deep into the hills. The Rosenthal Tasting Room is right on the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. That means easy access if you are spending time along the coast in Malibu.
The atmosphere is one part beach bar and one part sophisticated winery. They serve two different labels. First is the Rosenthal, which made of locally grown grapes from a vineyard only 20 minutes from the tasting room. The second label, Surfrider Wines, is made from grapes that grow in California’s Central Coast. The wines vary in profiles so tasting numerous offerings will help you get a good overview.
Flights of four wines (two reds and two whites) can be sampled at the bar for $12 per flight. You also can buy a bottle ($35-$150) or a glass ($8-$16) and enjoy it in the outdoor space behind the tasting room. This outdoor area sits right at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains; on weekends, Rosenthal brings in live music and local food trucks. This tasting room is open Wednesday-Sunday; it’s best to go during off-hours to get the full experience without having to fight crowds.
This winery provides the full winery experience and then some, including beautifully manicured grounds adorned with vintage farm trucks, wooden barrels, lights strung between trees, and ample outdoor seating. Another bonus: The wines are delicious.
On the weekends Malibu Wines is quite the social scene for thirty-somethings, attracting crowds of up to 2,000 people. During the week it is much slower and possibly more pleasant for those looking for a tranquil, relaxed experience. That’s when I prefer to go with friends. Thursday nights are movie nights, and there is live music on Friday nights, as well as on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the day.
The wine tasting gardens at Malibu Wines
Malibu sells two wine labels. Semler Wines are made with grapes from the estate vineyard. The winery also produces the Saddlerock label, with grapes sourced from around California. Wine flights cost between $13-$15 for five tastes. And on Sundays there are mimosa flights for $15 apiece. Bottles run from $30-$40. And be sure to bring your own picnic.
This tasting room (it’s really more like a tasting garden) is adjacent to a 1,000-acre property that hosts everything from Los Angeles Food and Wine Festival events to private weddings. The property is a gorgeous setting with views of mountains and seascapes.
It’s also where Malibu hosts wine safaris. During a recent visit, I learned you can cruise around the property in an open, safari truck. The truck stops at numerous prime lookouts; at every stop, passengers taste wines and eat finger food. On my tour, I encountered exotic animals such as lamas, Asian water buffaloes, and, my favorite, zebras! That is what you call a hybrid experience.
Each of these Malibu wineries is worth a visit. The destinations exemplify the diversity of the entire region and pair perfectly with a day at the beach nearby. Where else can you go surfing in the morning and wine tasting minutes away in the afternoon? Nowhere, but L.A.
What do you look for in a wine tasting experience?