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Saturday, Sep 30, 2023


WADE DANIELS Staff Reporter Surprise, shock and disbelief those are the most common reactions David Davis receives when he tells people that he works at a winery in the Antelope Valley. “They say, ‘How can you grow wine grapes in the high desert?’ ” said Davis, a winemaker for Lancaster-based Cameo Vineyards, which sells about 5,000 cases of wine each year. “It’s not like there’s nothing but sand dunes here, there are many kinds of soil.” The Antelope Valley doesn’t exactly conjure up images of fine wine, but winemaking and commercial grape production are growing businesses in the area, according to Vern Lawson, executive director of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. “It’s an industry that we’re definitely excited about and encouraging,” Lawson said. “The area has a long agricultural tradition, and this is a diversification of that.” The area now supports two working wineries and a large number of property owners have planted vineyards to sell grapes to winemakers, Lawson said. Vineyards of five to 10 acres are springing up throughout the valley. Wine grapes can be far more lucrative than other crops. In 1997, the average price for a ton of grapes for red or white wine was $573, while varietels like cabernet sauvignon and Merlot fetched $1,500 per ton and $1,268 a ton, respectively, according to the California Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade group. By comparison, top Antelope Valley crops like dry onions and carrots sold for $319 a ton and $80 a ton last year, according to the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s crop report. Lawson said the wine industry offers several economic benefits: the revenue from the grape crops, the revenue generated from wine, and most importantly, the boost the area receives to its image. Lawson and others have dreams of the Antelope Valley gaining recognition as L.A. County’s “wine country,” and to that end the alliance is considering establishing a wine festival. The area’s two main wineries, Cameo Vineyards and AV Winery & Buffalo Co. both established in 1990 produce cabernet sauvignon, white zinfandel, Chardonnay and other varieties ranging from about $5 to $20 a bottle. The presence of the commercial vineyards in the Antelope Valley represents a historic revival. Wineries existed in the Antelope Valley early in the century but vanished during Prohibition, according to Milt Stark, past president of the West Antelope Valley Historical Society. “There were small wineries and large ones,” Stark said. “They either shut down or were raided (due to Prohibition) and there’s been nothing commercial since then.” One operation called the Belvino Winery even distributed its wines nationally, or at least until federal agents shut it down in the 1920s, said Stark, who still has a bottle label from that company. Through most of this century, a few area families grew grapes and produced wine for their own consumption, but there were no commercial operations, he said. That changed when Cameo owner Steven F. Godde, whose family grew grapes and produced wine in the area some 80 years ago, planted about five acres of grapes on his father’s Lancaster alfalfa farm in the mid-1980s. “It was getting expensive to farm alfalfa and we were looking for new crops, and I knew that wine grapes had been produced here historically so we looked into it,” Godde said. The vines produced well enough to prompt him to buy a small winemaking operation in the San Fernando Valley and transferred all its equipment to Lancaster. The winery now has 30 acres of vines, and Godde is considering planting up to 10 more. Godde said the company had revenues of about $200,000 in 1997, which is double the figure for 1994. “We have the capacity and equipment to produce about twice as much as we make now, but we have to develop the markets,” said Davis. “This involves making a lot of contacts and pushing our niche, which is ‘organic’ wines, from grapes grown with no pesticides.” Frank and Cyndee Donato founded the Antelope Valley Winery in 1990, and crushed their first homegrown grapes in 1993. About 20 percent of the grapes in their wines are grown themselves though this will grow to as much as 50 percent as their vines mature and yield more while the rest are bought from growers in places like Temecula and Paso Robles. “Our wines are probably as good as many Napa wines, but our area doesn’t have the reputation and so we don’t get as high a price,” said Cyndee Donato. She said her husband came from a farming background and had long wanted to become a winemaker. Cyndee Donato quit her escrow business after the winery was founded. “There was a lot of money put into this business early on,” explained Donato, who said the winery is turning a profit but declined to elaborate. “After some years when the vines are producing and you have the winery equipment, you start making some money back.” The Antelope Valley winemakers are entering the market at a time when national consumption of wine is growing fast, increasing to an estimated 523 million gallons in 1997 compared to 449 million gallons in 1993, according to the Wine Institute. At the same time, California (where about 90 percent of the nation’s wine is produced) wine grape acreage has also been exploding, to 403,800 acres in 1997 from 345,400 acres in 1993, according to the Wine Institute. Industry officials predict that larger grape crops could mean lower prices for growers and producers. The state’s increasing wine grape acreage is at least a small concern for Kent and Sandy Madsen, who are among many Antelope Valley-area land owners who began growing grapes commercially in the past few years. They bought land in Acton in 1980, moved there a decade later, began planting Merlot, Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes in 1997, and dubbed the operation the Wintercreek Canyon Vineyard. “I know that the price of grapes will not stay as high as it is right now and this will affect the return on our investment,” said Kent Madsen, a dentist in Acton. “I don’t see that it would fall so low that one couldn’t make a living.”

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