Feds Weigh New L.A. County Vineyard Area

Wineries and grapegrowers urge Antelope Valley winegrowing district

by Jane Firstenfeld
Antelope Valley
Antelope Valley Winery is one of only two operating in the proposed AVA.
Lancaster, Calif. -- The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is weighing approval of a third American Viticultural Area in the High Desert region northeast of Los Angeles. If approved, the Antelope Valley of the California High Desert AVA would join the Leona Valley and Sierra Pelona AVAs established in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

The Antelope Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA), founded in 2006, was behind all three proposals, supported by nurseryman Ralph Carter, who drew up the petitions. A fourth application for a Tehachapi/Cummings Valley AVA, which would include part of neighboring Kern County, is currently on hold because it does not contain sufficient vineyard acreage.

The AVWA membership consists of about a dozen winegrape vineyards and five vintners, distributed among all four of the areas. With an annual production of some 18,000 cases and 90 acres of vineyards, Agua Dulce, the only winery in the Sierra Pelona AVA, is by far the largest. Two wineries operate within the proposed Antelope Valley AVA: 4,000-case Cameo Ranch & Winery and 2,500-case Antelope Valley Winery, both in Lancaster. Cameo Ranch farms 25 acres of vineyards; Antelope Valley Winery has a single acre at its Lancaster estate and more in the Leona Valley AVA, according to its wine club manager and AVWA president, Chantel Kilmer.

According to the petition, the proposed Antelope Valley AVA contains 665 square miles, bounded on three sides by the Tehachapi, San Gabriel and Sierra Pelona mountains and on the fourth by the Mojave Desert. In 2007, when Carter drafted the proposal, there were 128 acres planted to vineyards. Grapes were originally grown there in the late 1800s, but drought and Prohibition put an end to that.

The modern industry was founded in 1981, when Steve Godde, owner of Cameo, planted 5 acres. Valley precipitation ranges from 4 to 9 inches, with little or no snow, and the growing season is 240 to 260 days. Although an average of 110 days per year register high temperatures above 90°F, nights are mild, and the growing season extends from mid-March to early November. Boundary lines for the AVA closely follow the highest elevation of alluvial fans and terraces weathered from granite and other rocks in the surrounding mountains, providing deep loamy fine sand to loam and silty clay soils, well drained and aerated in the root zone and mineral rich with low to moderate fertility.

“We’re tickled” that TTB is considering the petition, Kilmer told Wines & Vines. She explained that, scattered among as many as four potential AVAs and numerous municipalities, AVWA members face special challenges with regard to zoning and use permits. Working together as a group, she hopes, may help to mitigate some of these headaches.

Antelope Valley Winery, for instance, is in Lancaster. The winery has a tasting room and permission to host weddings and other events. “But, you cross the street, and you’re in another town,” Kilmer explained. “At the winery, I’m standing in Lancaster, but 50 yards away, where I live across the street and down the block, I’m in Palmdale.”

Shortly after the association was founded, AVWA’s leaders talked with officials from L.A. County, Lancaster and Palmdale to explain what the association was trying to achieve. Kilmer recalled, “Lancaster sat with us and worked things out. It went so smoothly. We took our draft to the county, worked it through; there were some variances, but we were trying to get them all alike.”

The group was not so lucky with the Palmdale municipal government, Kilmer said. “We took this to Palmdale: It’s been a year and half, and they won’t” go along with the association’s plans for tasting rooms and events. “The mayor is willing to listen; he’s always there like a friend.”

But the problem remains: The type of activities the association envisions require Major Conditional Use Permits (CUP), which cost some $3,000-$5,000. “We asked them to look at taking it to a Minor CUP ($1,500), and reducing the acreage requirements from 5 acres to 1 acre,” but efforts remain stalled, Kilmer said. Palmdale has recently been gentrifying, with a new mall and more modern stores, she reported, “It just screamed wineries,” she said, but so far (as in San Diego County’s Ramona AVA) the cries of this fledgling wine country have yet to be heard by Palmdale bureaucracy.

Interestingly, the city of Lancaster was at first “more worried about overuse of alcohol” than was Palmdale, Kilmer said. But even one of the area’s foremost neo-Prohibitionists acknowledged to her that the AVWA membership is proactively self-policing with regard to tastings. “Our bylaws are pretty strict,” she said. “We took suggestions from the TTB and the California Alcoholic Beverage Control. If they suggest half-ounce or 1-ounce pours, that’s our limit. And we don’t give away alcohol.”

Grapegrower and AVWA member Brad Sorsable, who sells his 1.5 acres of Cabernet Franc grapes to Antelope Valley Winery, said, “I wish they would allow tasting in Palmdale. Lancaster has approved, but if you’re in the Palmdale pocket, it’s a zoning issue. We’re hoping the new AVA will turn their heads.”

Read the proposal for the Antelope Valley California High Desert AVA and comment at ttb.gov/wine/wine-rulemaking.shtml. The public comment period closes Nov. 1, 2010.
Currently no comments posted for this article.