Malibu Wines: SoCal Sojourn

We made a trip to LA to visit some friends and see some plays. Of course, we had to find some wine along the way. Nikki did some research and found a place where it seemed we could rack up another couple appellations with a slight detour from our path back home.

View of the street by Malibu Wines
And here we are!

Malibu Wines? Malibu Family Wines? Saddle Rock Winery? Semler Winery? We’re not sure which organization is in charge here or if they’re just different names for facets of the same organizations. What we do know is the name on the big wooden gate says Malibu Wines and they serve both Saddle Rock and Semler wines. And there’s a Malibu Family Winery page which has an entirely different design and different text but is promoting the same venue. Confused? We were!

We’ll pick one name and stay with it. Malibu Wines, located in the namesake Malibu Hills, is a lovely oasis that greets visitors after a twisty drive through the canyons of Southern California. There’s a large lawn/picnic area filled with umbrella-shaded tables nestled between rolling hills lined with rows of vines. We got there only an hour after opening; throughout the afternoon, people flooded in.

Several of the tables have heat lamps next to them them; we saw someone dragging one over to their table to warm themselves against the terrible chill of the 77 degree day. Clearly, these people would never survive a Monterey summer.

Picnic area with flowers in foreground
Apparently there's no deer problem here.

The tasting bars line the exteriors of old-southwest-style stacked-rock buildings, giving it a feel that mixes surfer attitude and a Wild West vibe.

Stacked-rock building with wine tasting bar
Gimme two fingers of yer best Chardonnay.

The arrangement is simple: you’re welcome to hang out there and have a picnic, and they encourage you to buy a tasting or a bottle of wine (or three) to accompany your meal. They also provide the glasses, which were refreshingly heavy and robust. We had made arrangements to meet a friend there on the fly and never managed to book a picnic. So sad for us! Fortunately, the folks at the neighboring table were willing to show theirs off.

Malibu Wines picnic
A picnic worthy of a photograph.

You’d think this fabulous picnic was unique, but all around us, groups of people were unveiling fabulous gourmet meals. Then they’d walk up to the tasting bar and get a bottle of wine, safely ensconced in a kid’s beach bucket filled with ice. It’s a perfect combination; if I still lived in LA I’d probably go here every weekend. While the wines themselves aren’t the best I’ve ever had, they’re perfectly pleasant and the ambiance is amazing.

Along the edges of the central lawn are a live music stage, a shaded gazebo and a handful of beautifully restored vintage trucks.  Firepits here and there plus strings of lights overhead suggest that this would look magical at twilight.

I direct your gaze to the gazebo.
Vintage Chevy truck
Old red truck with hill in background
Old wooden wagon

A jazz band took to the stage during our stay and added yet another nice touch to a most excellent visit.

Jazz band on outdoor stage
Cabaret Sauvignon?

The winery is located in the Malibu Hills, and as mentioned before, the roads are both narrow and winding. It takes a while to get there. We were panicked because we were late, but lucky for us, Nikki’s old friend Magnus was even later.

Mike had carefully decorated his shirt with strategically placed coffee before this photo.

Visitors can park on the street, and valet parking is also available. Because it wouldn’t be L.A. without valet parking.

There are two labels offered here, Semler and Saddlerock.

The Wines


09 Sauvignon Blanc, Saddle Rock Malibu AVA: Not too strong on the nose (kind of faint actually). Pineapple and citrus; tartness swells, then gives way to a warm finish. “Bright and sour – a great brunch wine,” Nikki says.

09 Rosé, Saddle Rock Malibu AVA: Strawberry or even kiwi on nose. Flavor is bright yet warm. Very gentle acidity that peaks in the middle, then fades to warm candy finish. Nikki tasted hints of cranberry as well.

06 Cabernet Sauvignon, Saddle Rock – Malibu AVA: Amazing aroma – cedar, leather, earth. Warm fruit. Smell matches look of structures here. Flavor matches aroma but with a bit more fruit and rich lacquer. Tannins are a bit sharp but perfectly appropriate in this context. As it breathed the aroma of candied fruit became more prominent in aroma and flavor.

02 Cabernet Sauvignon, California AVA: Aroma has that distinctive quality I can’t quite find the adjective for but that I associate strongly with older european wines, with a little fruit peeking through. Tastes mature. Hints of lipstick, cherry, plus very present tannins. Very bold wine, I think this one really needs food to reveal its highest potential.


10 Chardonnay, Central Coast: Inviting aroma. Starts very mellow & gentle, develops into a subtle oakiness. Nikki felt it was lemony and a little oily, with a hint of lime.

07 Pinot Noir, Central Coast: Mellow fruit aroma, very appealing. Makes you want to dive right in. grape up front that then yields to strawberry. Only a suggestion of tannins before a warm finish. Not a great wine, but perfectly enjoyable. Nikki felt that the scent wrote checks that the flavor failed to cash.

09 Cabernet Sauvignon – Aroma is predominantly fruit with a whiff of alcohol. Nikki smelled raisins, cinnamon and a hint of saffron and cumin. Hint of lipstick. Flavor is fruit followed by assertive but not aggressive tannins. Tastes young. Nikki tasted something plasticky.

09 Syrah – Aroma is blackberry perfume, fading into berries and cream. Nikki smelled candied raisins. Flavor matches aroma, adds nice tannic hit at end for structure plus tobacco.  Nikki thought it tasted like a tart raisin syrup. At very very end perfume quality sneaks back in.

NV Saddlerock Sparkling, North Coast AVA: Yeast scent. Flavor leans slightly to the sweet side, with a slight perfume component and just a suggestion of honeydew melon. Nikki tasted candied almonds and said that while it didn’t have the hard acid finish that she finds unpleasant, it also didn’t have deep layers. It was pretty and perfectly pleasant.

We did encounter one problem here that occurs when a tasting venue is lucky enough to be busy, namely tasters lingering and monopolizing the tasting bar. Patrons often don’t realize that the function of a wine tasting bar is different than that of a regular bar, and they linger and do their whole tasting at the bar rather than getting a pour and moving to another area to make room for others to get a pour. It’s not a problem if the bar is big enough or the crowd is small enough, but often – as in this case – it makes it quite difficult for others to get to the bar to get a pour. I know it can be uncomfortable to encourage patrons to be considerate of others, but the responsibility falls to the pouring staff to gently encourage tasters to make room. If I have to stand there for several minutes waiting for a clearing when the pourer has clearly seen me and my empty glass, I become much less inclined to purchase that bottle I was considering.

Smiley-face balloon next to a wine barrel
Despite that, we left with expressions like this on our faces.