Those who have enjoyed wine tasting in Malibu, California, over the last several years have eagerly watched the rebirth and rebuilding of Malibu vineyards over the last four years.
The 2018 Woolsey Fire burned throughout parts of the San Fernando Valley, the Conejo Valley, and into the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu. Unfortunately, Saddlerock Ranch, where the Saddlerock estate brand wine grapes are grown, was one of the vineyards affected by the wildfire.
Once home to 12 mouthwatering varietals; Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, and Chardonnay, the number of varietals currently growing on the property has been reduced significantly.
As of 2022, Saddlerock is now home only to the most prosperous vines on the property: Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and a small experimental Chardonnay plot. Overall, Saddlerock had lost over half of its vines and an even more significant percentage of its structures, which sadly includes the Malibu Wines Tasting Room on Mulholland Highway. Yet, while it has taken a lot of perseverance and hard work, after four years, the vineyard has begun to flourish again.
After several years of rest and recovery, many of the vines have been replanted and replaced by younger vines that still have several years to go (approximately three to five years) before yielding grapes worthy of wine. After amassing years of wine knowledge and learning hard lessons on the ranch since the first varietal was planted in 1992, the fire benefitted the ranch by resetting the vines and turning back the clock to a time before there were more numerous varietals. Now, Saddlerock can focus its energy on the vines that grow the best, are the healthiest, and produce the most delicious wine. For example, the struggling Merlot vines, which never took happily to the climate on the ranch, were cleared out by the Woolsey Fire, and they have been replaced by the more healthy, hearty Malbec vines—a fan favorite.
As spring arrived on the ranch this year, approximately 5,000 vines were replanted, bumping the number of vines to around 30,000. Much of the vines with grapes that yield red wine have been grafted onto French-based rootstock known for thriving in warm, dry climates such as those on Saddlerock Ranch and will prosper in the rocky, volcanic soil that one can find all over the property. Likewise, rootstock clones that are similar to the roots found in New Zealand were selected for the Sauvignon Blanc vines, lending delicious bright acidity and refreshing fruit notes to the estate label wines.
Though destructive, wildfires are not all bad. Nature has evolved to reap all possible benefits of this natural phenomenon, especially in areas where fires are common, such as Malibu. Some trees, plants, and flowers require fire to release their seeds and continue their life cycles. Some animals depend on fire to allow their food source to flourish, such as how the endangered Kramer blue butterfly caterpillar depends on fire to help its primary source of nutrients, wild lupine, thrive.
When it comes to grapevines and other similar examples of agriculture, fire eventually helps these plants by releasing nutrients from the dead organic matter than gathers naturally on the soil over time, increasing soil fertility and clearing away decaying plants on the ground as it burns. In addition, this dead organic matter may deter organisms in the earth from accessing the soil, so as it is burned away by the fire, it would allow more oxygen and nutrients to benefit the surrounding plants.
Despite the benefits to the vineyard, there were still significant losses to the business side of the Saddlerock brand. One of the things that wine lovers and Malibu wine tasters have missed the most in the last four years was the Malibu Tasting Room, which guests could find near the ranch on Mulholland Highway. Unfortunately, after being decimated by the Woolsey Fire, the Tasting Room has remained closed ever since. However, there are several wonderful and exciting things in the works that guests can anticipate in the coming years.
Looking forward, a tasting room on Saddlerock Ranch in Malibu is in the works, as well as another tasting room to match the Malibu Wines and Beer Garden in West Hills, which is being considered for the wine warehouse in Camarillo, California. More vines will also be planted on the ranch and at another Southern California location, increasing the amount of wine produced.
Despite the damage and setbacks the 2018 Woolsey fire unleashed upon the Saddlerock brand, there has been much progress toward the rebirth and rebuilding of the ranch and the brand itself. It’s an exciting time to be on the vineyard, and there is so much to look forward to as great strides are made to ensure that Saddlerock returns with full force and grows bigger and better (and tastier!) than ever before.