Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Harvesting and Loving Life in Malibu

Hoyt Family Vineyards grows chardonnay in Malibu.
Malibu, California, is a beautiful seaside community that evokes images of expansive beaches, Gidget and Moondoggie, and fabulously wealthy celebrities – not necessarily vineyards. So, you might be surprised to learn that there are approximately 50 unique vineyard areas in the city of Malibu. And, Malibu Coastal AVA will soon be named a designated wine area.

In a 27-mile stretch of land wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains, vineyards as small as ½ acre backyards plots to 2,000+ acre expanses are growing grapes as distinct as morning-fog-loving chardonnay and pinot noir to heat-seeking cabernet and merlot. Like other wine regions of California, there are many distinct “terroirs” in Malibu, some producing artisanal wines of top quality.

Nestled in one of the many canyons and a mere half mile from the Pacific Ocean lies Hoyt Family Vineyards, the home of Carol and Stephen Hoyt and their two children. After spending some years in the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, the Hoyts moved up to this property in 2001, which promised them both easy beach access and land for a vineyard.

Carol oversaw the planting of their property in 2001, with chardonnay, merlot and malbec grapes. “We didn’t know anything,” quips Carol, adding “we basically planted what we liked to drink.”

While waiting for their first fruit, Carol decided to learn how to make wine, so with 100 pounds each of purchased cabernet and chardonnay grapes she did so in her kitchen. Carol’s Cab was the end result; the chardonnay met an untimely end when her dog knocked over the bottle and it broke.

Their first crop was harvested in 2004. Over time, realizing that the climate was not conducive to merlot and malbec (too cool), Hoyt decided she wanted to “do one wine really really well,” and grafted chardonnay grapes onto all the existing vines. She now has 1,600 chardonnay vines on just over 1 acre, all of which are hand-picked at harvest. Her award-winning “drink it all day” Chardonnay is light and refreshing, with well-balanced acid and hints of cinnamon, pear, and oak. Malolactic fermentation provides a soft buttery note. “It’s a California style chardonnay that pairs well with food but also can stand well on its own,” says Hoyt. (Priced at $30, it’s available at*

Now, like most people, I keep a bucket list of wishes. One of my items is to surf like Gidget – haven’t done that yet – and another is to work harvest in a vineyard. I recently checked off that second item when I was invited by Carol Hoyt to harvest grapes at her estate a couple weeks ago.

Carol Hoyt (center) and "crew."
Admitting that I probably had a glamorized vision of what harvest is like, I prepared myself to have my bubble burst. But I have to say, harvesting was a transcendent experience – at least the way Carol Hoyt does it.

Thursday morning, September 26, was a beautiful day, cool, but with a promise of sun. I arrived at Hoyt around 8am and found the workers going full-steam ahead, cutting the golden bunches, dropping them into 5-gallon buckets, and hauling them up the very steep slope to the giant white vats loaded on the back of a truck. (Hoyt trucks the grapes to a processing facility in Buellton, California, where the winemaking happens.)

I dove right in, filling my own buckets, and trudging up the slope time after time. It was a great workout and I found myself loving life.

As the morning wore on, more and more of Carol’s friends arrived and pitched in, as did her son and daughter and some of their friends – they took a day off school to work harvest! It was a festive event, where I met many wonderful people and experienced the great vineyard vibe that I’ve always imagined. Our group picked 2.5 tons of grapes in about 4 hours.

Afterwards, we feasted on tacos while drinking wine and sitting around the pool talking. Not bad.

Highlights of the day (besides the pitcher of Mimosas that Carol poured while walking around the vineyard) included:
Perfect, golden chardonnay grapes.
  • My first experience with a refractometer, which measures grape sugar levels (called “brix” by the experts) and indicates to the vineyard manager when it’s time to pick.
  • The “two-headed” vine – a vine that grew both malbec and chardonnay grapes (an example of grafting gone awry).
  •  A headless rattle snake that was still rattling – not sure where the head went!
  • The chickens and dogs running through the rows eating the dropped grapes (not to mention the bees).
  • And, most important to me, the wonderful feel of a giant bunch of sun-warmed grapes falling into my hand.

The only thing I could have lived without was my bloody hands, which I got from nicking myself several times with the shears. On the bright side, I wore my Band-Aids with pride, telling everyone I met about “my harvest.”

Most importantly, I learned that vineyards are in fact a magical place; that harvest is a wonderful celebration of life, which brings out the best in all involved; that vineyard owners can be the nicest, warmest people on earth; and that I am so looking forward to the 2013 Hoyt Chardonnay because I have some skin in the game!

I also know I will do harvest again, any chance I get.

Happy Harvest to all vineyard owners and winemakers, and may it be a very good vintage.

Until next time, Cheers!

*Hoyt wines are also available to taste at Cornell Winery & Tasting Room in Malibu ( and they will be pouring at the third annual Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles November 7-10 (

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