Designer Richard Hirsh Chats About Working Malibu's Vines | Wine Enthusiast
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Designer Richard Hirsh Chats About Working Malibu’s Vines

Since his start airbrushing T-shirts and bellbottoms in Laurel Canyon during the late 1960s and early ’70s, Richard Hirsh has been at the forefront of industry-changing trends. Hirsh co-founded John Paul Richard, whose early lines established the now multibillion-dollar category of fashion-forward clothing for career women. He’s also one of the most outspoken proponents for wines from Malibu, near the northwestern coast of Los Angeles County.

Hirsh’s mountaintop estate features more than nine acres of vines planted on incredibly steep, rocky soils, from which he produces wine under his Cielo Wineyards and more budget-minded Woodstock labels. He stepped away from the drawing board and barrel room to discuss his career.

How’d you get into fashion?

My late brother, Bill, and I both worked at a clothing store on Sunset Boulevard called Zeidler & Zeidler. In the late 1960s, it was quite a scene…I realized at a very young age that fashion was my passion, and textiles, especially. I went into business with my brother initially around 1970, when I was 18. We started airbrushing T-shirts and bellbottom pants. I didn’t even know this was a fashion trend. We just kind of hit it right.

In 1986, we sold our first company, E Z Sportswear, to the Kellwood Company. It was a full domestic and import fashion update line. It appealed to the working woman. It was very, very popular. All the major department stores were jumping on this product line.

When did wine come into the picture?

During this whole time, I’m drinking fine wines, French wines. I’ve always had a wine cellar, ever since my 20s in our first house. My wife and I have always enjoyed fine wines. We were drinking ’45 Bordeaux and ’61 Bordeaux. We were living the life early in my career.

How did you find your Malibu estate?

I was literally riding my bicycle in this beautiful area, which now consists of state parks and vineyards. But at that time, there weren’t a lot of vineyards. When we bought this property in the mid-’80s from Glen Gerson, who owns Calamigos Ranch, the only vineyard we saw was George Rosenthal’s. By the mid-’90s, we started to think about what we wanted to do with it. My brother, Bill, was the project manager on the construction of our house, which was an eight-year process to get started.

When we finally started grading the house and cut the driveway in, there were a lot of cut-and-fill slopes. I’m a fanatic for details, but then I saw this ugly scraping from the grading. At that time, I started to get the buzz about vineyards in this area. So the first vineyard we planted was a Cab vineyard on one of the hillsides back in 2001.

What was the Malibu wine scene like then?

It was the Wild West out here. There was this fragrance in the air, and people just loved coming up here. The recreational area up here has become a destination for Southern California. It’s a huge market.

And now?

The weekends are crazy up here. If you drive by George Rosenthal’s tasting room on [Pacific Coast Highway], it is mobbed. If you drive by Calamigos Ranch, they’ve done an amazing job there. People from all over the world are coming. You cannot believe the people who are coming up there to go hiking or ride motorcycles. And they’re drinking wine. We’re buying more land because we see a real opportunity. The interest level up here is staggering.

You grow your wines in L.A. but have them made in Napa. Why?

[W]e really wanted to improve our Cab. So we went to Napa and met with Bradley Smith, winemaker at Silenus, where our wines are now made. Our harvest is trucked up to Napa, and we make all of our wines up there. It’s worked out quite well for the last 10 years.

Are you finding crossovers between the wine and fashion industries?

What I’m learning about the similarities of fashion to the wine business is attention to detail. All of the ideas and techniques in keeping your brand relevant in fashion apply very much to the wine business. There are wines that are in favor like certain looks are in favor. Malbec has come a long way from where it has been. Merlot? Who know what’s happening with Merlot, but that’s been my highest-scoring wine at Wine Enthusiast. So there are a lot of crossovers.

What differences have you found?

In the wine business, people are very excited to tell you about how they make wine. They share information. In the apparel business, they really don’t. They’re not that forthcoming. But if you go to a wine event, it’s time for everybody to compare notes.

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