Ian Blackburn, founder of Learn About Wine, is one of Los Angeles's biggest proponents of the wine industry-specifically the California wine industry—and he preaches his gospel through a myriad of educational classes as well as consumer and trade-driven events. Blackburn hosts an annual series under the "Stars of . . . " title: Stars of California, Stars of Paso Robles, Stars of Cabernet and recently the Stars of Santa Barbara—often at the luxurious boutique Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. The intricate backdrop of this posh establishment, with its constant loading and unloading of passengers from Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Maseratis, is evocative of the very stage Blackburn believes the noble California vintner is deserving of.
Ian Blackburn addressing a group of beverage industry professionals at The Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.
PHOTO: Andrew Hong/FRAMESNATCHER
"Many people think they have 'been there and done that,'" Blackburn told me this past January during the Stars of Santa Barbara, alluding to that region and adding, "but don't realize the radical number of changes that are occurring there."To Blackburn's point, similar complaints from those in the trade mirror his concerns as countless consumers visit the many wine-growing region in the U.S., often without any great knowledge of the area, and enjoy mixed experiences, leading to the "been there, done that" mentality Blackburn alludes to, and which frustrates those working in the industry. To visit a wine region once, and to declare solid and unyielding opinions of the wines from that region (based on a handful of experiences) is equivalent to dining at a restaurant but once, and declaring it either permanently inept because of a bad experience, or thoroughly perfect because of one great visit. To do justice to those opinions, it is necessary to revisit in order to be witness to consistencies and inconsistencies.
Blackburn's annual events offer the critical opportunity to those of the wine trade—wine buyers and critics—to experience the trends of a region as well as to take note of vintage variation. On the growth of Santa Barbara, Blackburn says that even visiting a few times a year, he can't keep up.
"There are new AVAs helping to expanding quality, and the radical fracturing of larger brands, launching newer smaller lines. With growers becoming producers, the rise of custom crush operations means you no longer need to own a winery to make a wine. If you haven't been to Santa Barbara in a few years, you have no idea what is going on there," he says.
Blackburn's point is evidenced by the sharp rise in the last few years of the under-2,000-case production brand, such as several I tasted at Stars of Santa Barbara: Larner Winery, Tercero Wines, Demetria and Solminer Wine Company.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LARNER
PHOTO: COURTESY OF TERCERO
The 2009 Larner Winery Syrah ($38) and 2009 Grenache ($40) were the most balanced and ethereal wines in the room, boasting supple and silky textures giving way to pure dark berry flavors. Larry Tercero was pouring his 2009 Larner Vineyard Grenache ($35) and 2009 Cuvée Christie ($30), both offering up elegant fruit and impressive minerality balanced by soft tannin and a zippy acidity. Producers like Larner and Tercero and others like them are paving the way for world-class wines from the region and as the wines themselves begin to shine, along with their successes come significant upturns in the local economy.
The agriculture, tourism and winery sector accounts for the number-one increase in Santa Barbara County jobs over the last five years, and the industry as a whole currently supplies over 36,000 jobs, roughly 15% of the county's entire workforce, with healthcare and business support services trailing behind by about half as much, according to reports from the Santa Barbara County Workforce Investment Board. These numbers are expected to rise.
Beyond the statistical facts, it's easy to see the growth from all the visual cues: new vineyards planted to vine, winery construction sites and in downtown Santa Barbara the emergence of "The Funk Zone," which is an area currently home to 17 tasting rooms.
Of the 150 wines present at this year's Stars of Santa Barbara, many producers were pouring the 2009 vintage as their current release. What this evidenced is a trend among several boutique operations of holding wines one or two vintages longer than might be expected, in order that they may show the benefit of a little bottle age.
My general sense of these offerings is optimistic in favor of the reds over the whites for 2009, 2010 and 2011—particularly among the many Rhône varietal offerings of Grenache and Syrah from Sta. Rita Hills, with Pinot Noir from the same region showing great vibrancy and character—production overall seemed to err on the side of restraint and wines offered more effeminate qualities over the more masculine styles often found from Northern California producers working with the same grape varieties.
Visit LearnAboutWine.com to keep up on Blackburn's events, and if you are a member of the trade, sign up to receive notifications of the "Stars of . . . " event series.
PHOTO: Andrew Hong/FRAMESNATCHER