11th Annual LAWineFest this weekend!

If you don’t have the time to plan a days-long wine-tasting trip through your wine region of choice, wine festivals are always a great way to explore a variety of wines, all in one location–and this weekend, the location happens to be my very own neighborhood.  I even have a promo code that’ll save you 50% off the $90 ticket price when you buy in advance! Read on . . .

LAWineFest commemorative glasses
LAWineFest commemorative glasses

The 11th Annual LAWineFest is this weekend at Sunset Bronson Studios at 5901 Sunset Boulevard.  The festival features an impressive list of winemakers exhibiting (and pouring) their wares.  You can even check out specifically which wines will be available on the LAWineFest website here.  The festival runs from 3 pm to 7 pm on Saturday, June 25, and from 2 pm to 6 pm on Sunday, June 27.  The $90 admission will get you wine, beer, and cider tastings, a commemorative glass and event program, and complimentary Icelandic Glacial water, Peerless iced coffee, and La Brea Bakery bread.  The popular Boutique Winery Courtyard is back again this year for an additional tasting fee of $45 for 12 hand-picked wineries who produce 1500 or fewer cases of wine a year–limited to 400 tickets each day.

Getting to and from is pretty easy, too–the location is a short walk from the Hollywood/Vine Metro stop, and they’ve got a special promotion going with Lyft.  Check out this link for a $40 free ride credit for first-time Lyft users.  They also offer discounted tickets for designated drivers at just $15 (be responsible and take advantage of one of these great deals!).

And here’s a great incentive for purchasing your tickets in advance: get general admission tickets for just $45 (it will be $90 at the door!) with the code FEST2016.  Just go to this page, click on the button to buy tickets and enter the code at checkout.

As with most festivals like this, there’s plenty to see (and taste) in addition to wine.  Beer and cider will be well-represented, and there’s also a nice lineup of “lifestyle” vendors for all things wine- and food-related.  And of course, there must be food.  As has become almost expected at festivals like this, you can look forward to some of your favorite local food trucks there (food for purchase at additional cost, not included in your festival admission).  I’m already thinking about Cousin’s Maine Lobster’s delicious lobster roll with a little chardonnay!

Having taken a quick look at the list of wines being poured, I’ll offer a couple of don’t-you-dare-miss-these recommendations.  Epiphany Wines from Santa Barbara County will be pouring four wines–try them all, but especially don’t miss their outstanding Grenache.  And my very favorite off-the-beaten-path winery, Navarro Vineyards from the tiny town of Philo in Mendocino County, will be there.  If you’ve never had their dry Estate Gewurztraminer, you’re in for a treat (that one’s in their lineup for the festival, along with a few other of their wines).  Done in the Alsatian style, it’s a beauty of a wine, bone-dry with gorgeous aromatics.  I’m looking forward to that one most of all, I think.

The feel-good part (besides the wine, of course):  LAWineFest donates a portion of the event proceeds to a charity, and this year’s official LAWineFest charity is Sunshine Kids, who help children who have cancer.

I’ll be there Saturday, Instagramming away and doing plenty of tasting–you should go, too!

Weeknight Wine – 2015 Curran Grenache Blanc

I can’t stop loving you, Grenache Blanc!

This is probably my current favorite white wine (maybe even my favorite wine, period, for the moment).  California winemakers realized about a decade ago that Grenache Blanc, generally reserved for Rhone blends, has the potential to be a blockbuster of a single varietal, and are now producing some truly outstanding wines from that grape.

I’ve remarked before that Grenache Blanc is the white wine that thinks it’s really a red wine–which may be why I love it so much–but that’s in reality very likely because it’s considered a mutation of the red Grenache grape.  In the right hands (both grower and winemaker), it makes for big flavor with huge body–all in amazing balance.

2015 Curran Grenache Blanc
2015 Curran Grenache Blanc

One of the best Grenache Blanc producers in the state (and elsewhere, as far as I’m concerned) is Kris Curran of D’Alfonso-Curran wines in the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

Her Grenache Blanc is a perfect summer wine, with BIG fruit and perfectly balanced acids.  Bone-dry, but incredibly rich.  There’s tart green apple and spice on the nose, and an explosion of tropical fruit (guava, pineapple) on the palate, with a bit of wet rock to give a touch of minerality.  It’s a very food-friendly wine, but also drinks just fine all by itself.  $28/bottle, which is a bit spendy for my weeknight wines, but since I picked up a case with a hefty club-member discount (you like wine clubs? be in this wine club!), the bottle price was knocked down to $14 (did I mention you should maybe join their wine club?).

Editor’s note:  The Weeknight Wine series will spotlight 1-2 wines each week that are great in quality but won’t break the bank.

I focus solely on small wineries. This is why.

As I ready my first few winery stories on this nascent blog, I want to keep the conversation going here.  And a current story out of the Paso Robles area is precisely the kind of thing I’d like to talk about.

When I read the first couple of stories that emerged about this last week, I was thisclose to firing off a scorchingly critical post about the evils of corporate-owned wineries.

I’ve toned that down a bit.  But only just a bit.

Here’s the current source of outrage:  Wonderful Brands, a large corporation that owns a portfolio of wineries and other food-related businesses, purchased Justin Winery in Paso Robles in 2010, one of the “original” Paso wineries.  Wonderful Brands is known for some of their other holdings, one of the largest being Fiji Water.  I don’t hold much affection for bottled water producers in the first place (and neither do our overloaded landfills), but (not so) Wonderful Brands has been an especially poor steward of the land.  And that’s been driven home in a rather shocking way by last week’s news that they are decimating their land in the Willow Creek district of west Paso in order to increase their acreage of vines.  They have been slapped with multiple stop work orders from the city and county after their “improvements” came to light.

They clearcut more than a hundred (possibly several hundred) oaks–and did so during nesting season.  Considering this part of the state is home to many birds who are endangered species and species of special concern, this wholesale destruction during nesting season is especially shocking and sad.  I am rather tuned into these specific issues via my Owens Lake Project–my biases are certainly no secret–but this was outrageous by any measure.

The clearcutting of trees, which you can see before/after photos of here, will likely create serious issues with erosion, which then threatens local streams and aquifers (which are already threatened enough in central California).  It also seems likely to create a heat island in this storied microclimate.  Any way you approach this, their land “conversion” is destructive and selfish.

And actions like this, which sadly are not that uncommon among corporate winery owners, are the primary reason I do not like them and will not cover them in this blog.  They don’t need me to tell their stories–unless and until their story becomes one of outrageous environmental destruction, and then I’ll be on it faster than a duck on a junebug.

Large-scale grape-growing outfits are rarely good stewards of the land.  And you need to be fully aware of who they are when deciding where to spend your wine-buying dollars.  Their approach to growing wine grapes is one of quantity and yield-per-acre over quality.  It’s very easy to dump tons of water on your vines and increase your yield dramatically–but the end result is poor quality fruit and dismal environmental practice.  Water in California is a limited resource.  To consider this a viable means of growing wine grapes in California is one of the most blindered, selfish, greedy approaches I can imagine.  And the wine sucks as a result, generally speaking.

The multitude of issues with Justin’s/Wonderful Brand’s destruction of the land are still taking shape, and it’s going to take action by the county to safeguard against this in the future–an oak-cutting ban has been considered but not passed in previous years, and that’s something that will likely be revisited after this.  What sort of environmental impact responsibilities a property owner must comply with should also get a closer look.  California Fish and Wildlife should have been closely involved before a single tree was cut–and there need to be limits on WHEN trees can be cut in any quantity.  Doing so during nesting season should see an outright and immediate ban.

Justin’s neighbors are rightly concerned about the impact this has on their water resources.  Most, if not all, of the neighboring property owners have well-earned reputations for sustainable farming practices.  Most of them dry-farm, which both preserves water and results in much higher-quality grapes.

And those good neighbors–in every sense of the word–are the winemakers I intend to cover here.  I want to tell the stories of people who love what they do, and who love and care for their land.  You should feel good knowing that you’re buying a higher quality, handcrafted wine, and not giving your money to folks who don’t give a second thought to sustainability.

So. What’s this all about.

Welcome to my new wine blog!  EXACTLY what the world needs, no?  Perhaps–but I think this will be fun (for all of us).

First, a little about me.  I’m a nature and landscape photographer, which you can find out more about here and here.  I’m a writer.  My major in and early career out of college was journalism.  I used to be a newspaper reporter and editor (and then the internet came along, and let’s just not talk about what happened to print journalism)–and I loved reporting.  Specifically, I loved telling people’s stories.  And I’ve never really stopped loving that, even if I’m no longer a working journalist.

Some of my faves in my wine stash
Some of my faves in my wine stash

I’m also a wine lover.  I moved to Los Angeles, California at the beginning of 2000, and experienced my first wine tasting a couple of years after that when I moved to the bay area.  Like so many of us are, I was hooked.  I am fascinated by process and varietals and terroir and every other little thing.  I kept tasting.  Sonoma County.  Napa County.  Livermore Valley.  Mendocino County.  Lake County.  Then I moved back to LA.  Santa Barbara County.  Monterey County.  San Luis Obispo County!  I began researching which wineries I wanted to try on future trips, because this was serious fun.  In researching new wineries to try, I look at two things.  One, I like to see which varietals they grow and/or specialize in.  And two, I go straight to the “about” page on their website, because I want to know their story.  Most of the time, that’s what gets me to their tasting counter.  And the great thing about wineries, especially small wineries, is that so many of them have great stories.

Now, in perhaps the best case of serendipity ever (for me), it so happens that one of my favorite places to photograph–Big Sur and the hills of the central coast–is right in the middle of one of the state’s best wine regions.  So I explore.  A lot.  I have my biases as a result of these explorations–I think the wines of west Paso Robles (west of Highway 101 and north of Highway 46) are pure magic.  I think some of the best and most interesting wines come from this very specific area.  There are still scores of wineries there I have yet to try–as well as places as far afield as I can get to.  So what does this have to do with this blog?

Well–I like wine.  I love to write.  The photography should go without saying.  I’ve got a decent palate and know my way around a wine list without embarrassing myself.  But I really get excited about the stories–and that’s what I love to talk about.  For a while now I’ve kicked around the idea of starting a wine blog, but didn’t see any need to reinvent the wheel.  There are some fantastically good wine blogs out there, and plenty of folks who are great at reviewing wines.  But again, the stories.

So that’s what I’ll be doing–when I come across a winery with something interesting to share, whether it’s in how they got their start or maybe where their winemaker came from or any number of things that make me curious enough to walk in and sample their wines, that’s what I’ll share here along with the occasional review (because opinions are a thing I have plenty of) and other wine-related chatter.

Now go get your glass, and let’s hear some stories.