By Corie Brown – (Zester Daily) / Pics: Zester Media

Moraga’s steep hillside vineyards rise behind the winery. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

Moraga’s steep hillside vineyards rise behind the winery. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media

Standing at the crest of Moraga Estate’s hillside vineyard, you can see Santa Monica Bay and feel the cool Pacific breezes that mark the estate’s wines. Moraga’s fruit ripens slowly, resulting in an elegance that eludes Bordeaux-style wines from Napa Valley and other California regions prone to heat spikes.

But that’s not why this is possibly the most expensive vineyard acreage in the world. Moraga is located in Bel Air, the most exclusive of Los Angeles’ wealthy enclaves.

On a recent visit to Moraga, I’m looking for a secondary mark on the wines, the mark of the current owner, billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Three years ago, with his marriage to Wendy Deng dissolving and a romance with Mick Jagger’s ex-wife Jerry Hall budding, Murdoch bought Los Angeles’ only post-Prohibition bonded winery and 13-acre estate for $28.8 million, an impetuous purchase sparked by an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal, one of his News Corp. properties.

Little, if anything, has been written about the place or the wines since the sale. What changes has Murdoch made?

Experienced hands at the helm

The good news for wine lovers is that Scott Rich, the winemaker and viticulturist for the past 15 years, is still in charge. His summer instructions to the eight-member vineyard crew remain the same — handpick the leaves around the clusters to give them just the right amount of dappled sun and moisture-wicking breeze. “I want to see light through the leaf canopy,” he explained. “Light gives us our tannins.”

Moraga, named for the sleepy, suburban street out front, sprang from the imaginations of former Northrop Corp. chief executive Thomas V. Jones and his wife, Ruth, who lived here from 1959 until Murdoch purchased it in 2013. They first planted grapes in 1978, when the neighborhood was still zoned for horses.

Victor Fleming, director of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind,” built the estate’s one-story ranch house in the 1930s. And, while the Joneses updated the place, it remained a modest home relative to the faux French chateaux and muscular Italianate mansions that later sprang up around it. When their friends Ron and Nancy Reagan stopped by, they’d often leave with a basket of fresh eggs from the Jones’ chickens.

Collector prestige

Moraga wines have been beloved by L.A. wine collectors since Jones started selling them in 1989. Spago, The Polo Lounge and other Beverly Hills restaurants keep them in their cellars. But the estate is private. There is no tour, no tasting room. Viewable only from the tram that takes visitors up to the sparkling white Getty Center, Moraga’s vineyards climb the steep hills overlooking the pulsing 405 Freeway.

Until the Joneses built the wine cave and winery, completed in 2005, winemaker Rich trucked their grapes to a winery near his home in Sonoma. Bringing the winemaking to Moraga was a turning point in the development of the wines, Rich said. Bringing used oak barrels into the new winery, as had been part of their aging protocol, would have brought microbes into the pristine facility. Instead, they used all new oak barrels for Moraga’s first estate vintage. The switch added structure to the wines. They’ve stuck with all new oak ever since.

Over the years, Rich introduced cover crops, limited the use of chemicals and began transitioning to dry farming to get smaller, more intense berries. “Dry farming teaches you humility,” he said with resignation. “You aren’t in control.”

Murdoch puts personal touch on famed estate

Losing control of Moraga haunted Jones after Ruth died in 2013. Already in his 90s, Jones wanted to sell the estate to someone he knew would maintain the vineyard. “The new owner needed enough wealth to not be induced to sell it to developers,” Rich said. When no one stepped forward, Jones placed the ad in the Wall Street Journal and hoped for the best. He died soon after selling to Murdoch.

Not surprisingly, Murdoch gutted the old ranch house. But he left the home’s outside appearance exactly as it had been when the Joneses lived there. Even the gardens remain as Ruth designed them. Murdoch’s fingerprints have been equally light on the wines, Rich said. “He wants us to continue to do what we do.”

Making his mark

Moraga makes one Cabernet-dominated red wine and a Sauvignon Blanc. Fifteen micro-batches representing the vineyard’s various microclimates are fermented separately to allow Rich to create a balanced blend. About a thousand cases of wine are produced per vintage.

As we tasted the wines — just as full of fruit as I remembered with the same nuance and lively acidity I love in a dinner wine — I found Murdoch’s mark. It’s the price: The red blend now carries a $185 price tag, up from $125, and the white wine is $115, up from $65.