Located in the shadows of the Santa Monica Mountains, hugging a 30-mile expanse of the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway, sunshine-soaked Malibu isn’t just your stereotypical California beach town. This laid-back, upscale L.A. pocket is a haven for celebrities and surfers, but it’s for adventurous wine lovers, too.
We explored the area as part of our three-city California wine tour. Our road trip began in San Francisco, where we visited the state’s most-heralded wine regions, Napa and Sonoma. Next, we headed south to sip our way through Santa Barbara’s exciting up-and-coming vineyards. From there, we made the 1.5-hour southeast drive to our last stop, Malibu, where we discovered a fun, under-the-radar wine scene.
With more than 50 wineries and six tasting rooms, Malibu is a nascent wine destination. After all, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau only bestowed the Malibu Coast with American Viticultural Area status (or AVA, making it an official wine-growing region) in 2014.
But the area’s wine history stretches back to the 1800s, when the first vineyard was planted by Spanish general Jose Bartolome Tapia. And before the Malibu Coast AVA came along, there were two other appellations, Saddle Rock-Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon (which now function as sub-AVAs under the Malibu Coast designation).
As with our other legs, we sought help from Four Seasons to plan our Los Angeles itinerary. The hotel brand has the resources to deliver a luxurious and exclusive wine-tasting journey.
Scroll below to find out where we wined and dined in Malibu.
Where to Stay
Tucked inside tony Westlake Village, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village sits only about a half hour outside of Malibu, so we made it our home base.
Home to the largest spa in the Four Seasons chain and an extensive wellness program, the hotel stands out as a spa destination. Book a service in the calming Four-Star retreat if you have time.
Otherwise, a walk on the sprawling 20-acre grounds — where you will find waterfalls, tropical gardens, a pagoda and more — will offer serenity.
Where to Sip
The Westlake Village hotel crafted our itinerary, complete with a chauffeured BMW, for our day of exploration. A surprise awaited us in the car: an enormous and tasty basket of treats, including cheese, fruit and crackers — necessary fuel for our trip.
We arrived early for our first stop, Rosenthal, the only wine bar and tasting room on the Pacific Coast Highway. So we walked across the street to Topanga Beach, where we planted ourselves along the palm-tree-dotted sand and watched the surfers catch the curling waves.
With a setting like that and the cartoonishly large chairs, table and wine display in front of Rosenthal, it was obvious that an easygoing experience was in store. Behind the tasting room is a large, grassy mountainside patio that hosts live music on the weekends, occasional comedy shows and movie nights, and a photo booth. Food trucks pull up in the parking lot on Saturdays and Sundays.
Inside the bright-yellow tasting room, try the 2013 merlot (made with estate-grown grapes) with hints of dark chocolate, plum and burnt cherry and a smooth finish, or the bolder 2012 Surfrider Hang Ten, a luscious merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah blend (a portion of the proceeds for each bottle goes to organizations that help preserve our oceans).
Along with a bottle, pick up a jar of the silky Rosenthal chocolate merlot wine fudge for an indulgent souvenir.
Then it was onto an untraditional tasting. For the Malibu Wine Safari, we climbed into a cow-print open-air safari truck to get a look at the 1,000-acre Saddlerock Ranch and vineyard. A guide told us about the family owned vineyard’s origins as an avocado farm and how it’s a frequent backdrop for filming (the Food Network was shooting a show on location during our visit).
The truck pauses for tastings of Saddlerock and Semler wines (three whites, three reds) at well-chosen spots where you will want to break out your smartphone for Instagram-perfect photos of the brook, canyons and vine-covered hills. There’s even an oversized yellow frame that begs for selfies.
Even more popular than the generous pours and the scenery are the stop-offs to pet the animals, some of whom are retired movie stars. Its most famous resident is Stanley the Giraffe, who starred in The Hangover Park III and has his own Instagram account with more than 24,000 followers — he’s so popular, you must pay extra for the privilege of meeting him on the tour.
There are also stops to feed Llama Del Rey and Michelle Ollama (they are as cute as their names, if you don’t mind the slobbering), along with alpacas, Asian water buffalo and zebras.
The tour concludes with a visit to the Semler family’s quirky airstream collection.
Next up was the nearby Malibu Wines, also owned by the Semlers. As on the rest of our journey, we didn’t get the typical tasting — a metal sculpture that spells out “Wine,” similar to Philadelphia’s well-known Love piece, greets you at the onset.
Beyond the artwork, nestled among light-strewn trees, is a festive, boisterous all-alfresco sipping spot teeming with revelers. It’s where to go to celebrate a special occasion or any excuse you can muster. There’s also a canary-yellow school bus whose interior was repurposed as a place to kick back with some wine.
Our Four Seasons credentials gave us entry to the wine club member bar for a VIP tasting. Go for the local red flight — our pick among the bunch was the smooth 2013 Semler cabernet sauvignon with aromas of black cherry and notes of vanilla bean and dark chocolate. While it isn’t on the tasting menu, we received a pour of the bold King of the Mountain, filled with currant, anise, cherry and cinnamon flavors.
But the best reason to come here is for the lively scene on the five-acre grounds, especially on the weekends, when there’s live music.
Where to Dine
There’s no better lunch spot in the beach community than Malibu Farm, a restaurant that sits at the base of Malibu pier (not to be confused with its counter-service-only café at the end of the same pier). Its organic, hyper-local food has attracted a cult following and spawned outposts in Four Seasons Resort Lana’i in Hawaii and Eden Roc Miami Beach.
Opt for an outdoor table to breathe in the fresh air and see the crashing waves. The cauliflower-crust pizza topped with mozzarella, tomato and pesto is the most-ordered dish, but the corn bacon panino oozing with Gruyère is our decadent choice, especially when coupled with one of the selections on the mostly California wine list (a couple of the sparklings hail from Italy and France).
Just be sure to follow up lunch with a walk down the pier to take in the panoramas: the town and mountains behind you, surfers zipping along the waves to your left and right and the endless Pacific ahead.
For dinner, return to Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village. But before your meal, one more flight is in order. The Tasting Room is hip — dim lighting, gray walls, a metal communal table, curved wide-seated white chairs and a loungey patio — and pours Malibu Coast and California wines.
Since we had a day of the former, we tried the Paso Robles flight, which arrived in a metal basket fashioned with spaces for four stemless glasses. A highlight was the 2013 Daou Reserve cabernet sauvignon, which offers the palate hints blueberry, black plum and cocoa.
We also nibbled on a cheese plate with wedges of buttery Toma, a semi-hard cow’s milk selection; melt-in-your-mouth double cream Brie; fig jam; marcona almonds; grilled bread; and more.
We had to save our appetite for dinner at Onyx. After such heavy food, chef Masa Shimakawa’s fresh yellowtail sashimi with a round of jalapeño was a light delight paired with the 2013 Dolin chardonnay. We also enjoyed the tender steak and breaded soft-shell shrimp in the surf and turf with a glass of the 2015 Saddlerock rosé.
After a long, food-and-wine-coma-inducing day, we couldn’t wait to fall into our plush bed upstairs, yet another perk of a Four Seasons excursion.