By Gary Walther
“Wine is wonderful stuff. But so many people are put off by the snobbery of it.”
Malibu Wines would applaud the Monty Python member who seemed to epitomize English snobbery. And Dakota Semler, who heads up the company, would particularly agree with the front side of the statement: wine is wonderful stuff, with an emphasis on stuff.
It’s not about grilled cherries, or bacon fat, or “whispers of smoked Gouda cheese and leprechaun breath”—this last characterization actually uttered at a major Florida tasting event recently.
Malibu Wines is about wine as sociability, about getting together around a big table with friends and family—a tavola, as the Italians say—and enjoying wine as it was originally meant to be enjoyed: as a kick-starter to fellowship.
The point is to turn the tasting room into a social venue—there is even live music on weekends. (And part of that is taking it with you by joining the wine club.) “We want people to have the same fun and opportunity to appreciate wine as people in Northern California have,” he says.
“We are very lax,” says Semler, and by that he means there’s no pressure to be a connoisseur at the flagship Malibu site or at the other three tasting rooms in Westlake Village, Sunland, and on the Queen Mary in San Diego. The Malibu site, the brand’s homepage, is “an outdoor tasting park,” as the LA Times restaurant critic Irene Virbila called it, particularly praising the Semler Estate wines. (The tasting room is on Mulholland Highway and is open every day, usually 11-6.)
“It’s a wild scene, with women in filmy dresses and floppy hats taking selfies in front of the vineyard or the vintage trucks, and picnics spread on the grass and tables of friends and birthday parties generally making merry,” she wrote in a 2015 review. (Virbila’s advice: Call ahead to reserve a picnic table.)
The company sources some of its wine from local vineyards, called the Semler Estate. They’re situated about five miles inland on the first big ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains, but the rest of its portfolio is made from purchased grapes (many wine labels do this), mainly the varietals that go into traditional Bordeaux wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec). However, the company also makes what Semler calls “small lot stuff that really flies off the shelves,” Grenache and Bouvet, among them. (His favorite though is the Estate Malbec.)
Semler says the estate wines are made for someone who is “not a wine connoisseur by any means, but somebody who is passionate about enjoying a good bottle of wine.” He talks about his wines in terms of setting: to be consumed on a safari, on a boat, on the beach. “We are not certified organic or anything. We let the wine speak for itself. All of our varietals from the estate go into French oak,” adding that the Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most popular wine.
You don’t have to be in Malibu or even California to taste Malibu Wines because the company is focused on the direct-to-consumer market, which if you think about it, is a tasting room, even if the wine arrives via UPS. Malibu Wines ships to 38 states (the other states don’t allow shipments).
One sign of Malibu Wines’ street cred is that fact that Malibu Beach Inn, the only luxury hotel on the beach in Malibu, carries the Estate label on its list—even though Semler says that it goes against the brand strategy. “We are in very few off-premise locations.”
Which sums up the Malibu Wines’ philosophy. It’s about a personal relationship. You can meet it, either at the Malibu Beach Inn, the flagship location, or one of the other three venues, and if it works, then Malibu Wines can come to you.
Or, go on a blind wine date—meaning order and taste first—and if that holds promise, then show up in person in Malibu next time you’re in the neighborhood.