Wine: The Bordeaux of Bel Air

  • Brett Anderson

Tom Jones knows how to keep a secret. As the CEO of Northrop Corp. from 1952 to 1990, he was the steward of innumerable secrets of the State variety, including the B-2 Spirit bomber. Though Jones is retired now, the affinity for discretion that he cultivated during his career persists, at least at his Bel Air, Calif., offices, which reflect the principle of stealth that informed the design of that notorious aircraft. To enter this elusive address, one must feel one’s way carefully along a lengthy vine-choked wall in search of a hidden intercom. If one is successful in discovering the call button (and is expected by the congenial female voice that answers), a segment of the wall swings open to reveal a spacious patio, which leads down a glass-walled corridor to Jones’ inner sanctum, an eclectic chamber whose vaulted ceilings and enormous walk-in fireplace suggest an English country house.

“Have you ever tried my wines before?” he asks, as if to assess what protocols have been breached. Yet Moraga Vineyards is one secret he has worked hard not to keep. “You know, my concern is getting them into people’s hands, but I don’t want to push them on anyone. We have to rely on word of mouth.”

Publicity has challenged Moraga Vineyards from its beginning, in 1978, when Jones and his wife, Ruth, first conceived the idea of planting grapes in what is essentially their backyard: 16 steeply sloped acres in exclusive Bel Air that had served as everything from a horse ranch to the residence of Victor Fleming, director of Gone With The Wind. The Joneses were not the first to observe that the microclimate of this small canyon differs dramatically from the rest of Los Angeles: Father Juan Crespi, a member of the Portola expedition that traveled El Camino Real (the route linking California’s missions) remarked in his diary in 1769 that the canyon hosted a “profusion of wild grapes and Castillian roses.” While daytime temperatures align with those of the rest of the region, the nights are 6 to 8  degrees cooler. During the winter months, the canyon receives an average of 24 inches of rain, compared to 15 inches elsewhere in the city. The Joneses also noted that the soil, an ancient seabed rich in calcium, contained numerous marine fossils and shells, much like the soil they had seen in Bordeaux. This prompted the slightly quixotic decision to plant Bordelaise grape varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first vintage of wine proved of sufficient quality that Tony Soter, founder of Napa’s Etude, agreed to take on the winemaking. Jones then confronted the problem of how to sell his small annual production (about 40 barrels of red wine and 10 barrels of white) without opening a tasting room on his front porch—a strategy on which his neighbors would surely frown.

Los Angeles’ restaurateurs provided the solution. Lovers of fine food, the Joneses poured their wines for the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Joachim Splichal, and Piero Selvaggio whenever they dined out. Word of mouth worked, literally. Moraga’s wines duly appeared on the lists of Spago, Campanile, Patina, and Valentino. Skeptics, who included Robert Mondavi, were won over with a sip. “Mondavi said the grapes would never ripen here,” Jones exults. “But I said, ‘I don’t think the wine knows its address.’ ” Mondavi’s response, after sampling Moraga: “Touché.”

Under the winemaking aegis of Scott Rich—owner of Talisman Cellars and a former colleague of Soter, whom he succeeded at Moraga—and viticulturist Mary Hall of Harlan Estate, who consults for Jones, the Bel Air estate has grown ever more popular with restaurants and private clients. The 2005 vintage is the first to be produced in Moraga’s new on-site winery (the winemaking has previously taken place in Napa), and the current releases dazzle all comers. The 2003 Moraga White ($65)—a blend of two Sauvignon Blanc clones—is breathtakingly fine, offering a minty nose and a refreshing gush of peach and grapefruit on the palate, and finishing in a complex minerality. The 2001 Moraga Red ($125) blends dark, sultry cassis and herbs with blueberry, black cherry, cedar, and cinnamon. Yet Jones’ own description states best the unparalleled (in California) sophistication of this wine: “I like the femininity of Margaux and the strength of Latour,” he observes. “Our wine marries the two and allows us to drink the offspring.” 

Given this, one is reluctant to see Jones’ secret get out.

 

Moraga Vineyards, 310.476.3051, www.moragavineyards.com

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