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90+ point rated wines under $20
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JUNE 6-7, 2009 – The LA Wine Festival – Fun in the Sun...(sort of)

LAWineFestLogo.jpgThis event wasn't initially on my radar – I wanted to go to the Santa Barbara Futures Tasting – but the Man volunteered to help our friends at Cass pour at the event, so...since I got to get in free I decided to see what gems I could find. For the amount of wineries and exhibitors that attended the $55 fee was a fair price. Personally, I rarely attend festivals of this size because I hate large crowds and find it almost impossible to get any one-on-one time with the winery representatives, which is important to me. However, since I had two days to meander about, I decided to suck it up and try to have as much fun as I could elbowing my way from table to table. While a good time was seemingly had by all – and I can't really complain either – I have to share the three little things that they could easily change to essentially make me more likely to attend in the future...and maybe even pay for it.

1. Put the vendors in alphabetical order. Sure, it's boring, but it's done at every other tasting event for a reason. No one wants to refer to a complicated map to find their favorite winery...especially after a few hours of drinking. If you're not going to make it easy, at least have better/more visible signage. Too much time wasted trying to find who I was looking for.

2. To that end, they spent time to put together a lovely book with a map of the venue and pretty ads, but had no blank pages in the book to make tasting notes. Why would I keep this booklet when the event is over? It was a waste of advertising. Plus I had nowhere to write down what I was tasting. Every other event I've been too has at least a few extra pages, so I left my book at home. Didn't want to carry it. Total bummer. Flip side – I took more pics than I usually would have.

3. The glassware. It was clunky and hard to swirl without spilling. There had to have been better choices. Just saying.


DAY 1: My plan was to hit the International wines and a few California ones I've been dying to try. Due to the other 2000 people and my failure to constantly consult my map I had to switch it up a bit and just went where the openings took me. Following are the highlights.

LA_vina.jpgVINA ROBLES: Paso Robles, CA
They have one of the newer and larger facilities in the PR area and I really liked their Roseum and Red4 blend in past years so I decided to start the day with them. Their everyday blends Red4 & White4 (both for under $15) are quite quaffable and well-crafted. Apparently these wine are both already sold out at the winey, but available locally at the Wine House. If you see them they're worth picking up. As was the Sauvignon Blanc and the Petite Sirah, which both showed lovely structure and varietal characteristics, along with being affordable. Had a great time talking to Jerry, who was clearly enjoying his job.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

I only tasted two wines at this stop because they weren't initially on my list and I was trying to be good, but they were right next to Vina Robles and there was no line, so I decided to check out their wares. Owners Chris and Mike Brown were on hand to pour their wines that are sourced from vineyards in Lodi, CA. I'm a sucker for unusual varieties, so I had to try their 07 Barbera, which was filled with bright cherry fruit, some minerality & herbs with nice acidity, just as it should be. Also enjoyed their 06 Trio Sonata Rhone Blend. Of course, I would choose the Wine Club Only bottlings. However, if these wines are any indication of the overall quality, then CC is worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

LA_mollydooker.jpgMOLLYDOOKER WINES: McLaren Vale, Australia
I had heard good things about their wines and even already own a bottle of their 07 The Boxer Shiraz, though I had never tasted it. Man, am I glad I bought it when I did. After tasting the 07 Two Left Feet, The Boxer and The Blue-Eyed Boy, I can understand why Parker rated them so highly. They are all filled with a depth of fruit and intensity of flavor that's hard to come by in wines at this price level. If their wines are any indication of the vintage in that region of Australia wine lovers are in for a real treat. Even though I have the Boxer, I went looking for more and it seems to be fairly hard to come by so if you see it, grab it. For $25 you will be blown away. The other wines have some availibity, but I doubt for very long. Their table at the fest was very busy. Unfortunately, for Day 2 attendees, they were a no show on Sunday.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

LA_core.jpgI'm always on the lookout for new Rhone producers, as those as my favorite wines right now, and I found Core Wines through Twitter, where they were popular with those tweeting from the Hospice Du Rhone. Dave Corey started his wine adventure on the vine side, but has been making his own wines beginning with the 2004 vintage. All his grapes come from the Santa Barbara region with some coming from his own Alta Mesa Vineyard. Most of his wines are GSM blends of varying proportions though he does make a 100% Grenache and 100% Mourvedre. Two of his blends also include some Tempranillo (Ground Around) and Cabernet Sauvignon (Hard Core). On the white side he makes two blends, one Roussanne based, the other mostly Grenache Blanc. I really enjoyed all these wines as they had great flavor and finesse and Dave's passion truly shines through. Will definitely be stopping by their newly opened tasting room to get a few bottles later this summer.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

LA_demetria.jpgI will admit that while searching the Santa Barbara wine country website for new places to go, it was more their label than wine list that sucked me in. Sometimes I'm a real girl. In any case, since they're appointment only and way up on Foxen Canyon Road, they were one of my must stops at this festival. I'm lazy when it comes to wine tasting. Well, I'm glad they were here and I will make it a point in the future to get my butt out there. They produce wines in both the Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay) and Rhone (Syrah, Viognier) styles as well as a Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The Rhone varietals are biodynamically farmed. Can you tell in the bottle? Who knows. I will say their Cuvee Papou (white Rhone blend) and Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, are worth the drive. Wasn't in the mood to try the Chardonnay and the Syrah was certainly well-crafted, but didn't blow me away. Am very interested in their other white wine offerings, since good ones are hard to come by.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

KINDRED WINES: Sonoma County, CA
LA_kindred.jpgFound these guys in my pre-festival winery search. Research usually always pays off at these things and Kindred was worth the stop. This label was founded in 2005 by a group of college friends who wanted to take their food and wine industry experience in a new direction. Their wines are made at Crushpad, a San Francisco boutique wine-making facility with grapes sourced from various high-profile California regions. Had a nice chat with partner Vince Wong. Their lovely labels all feature pieces of art located in Boston's Musuem of Fine Arts. Their current offerings are a Pinot Noir from the Amber Ridge Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley grapes, a Syrah from the Thompson Vineyard in Santa Barbara and a white Rhone blend from grapes also grown in the Russian River area. The wines are a bit pricey, but inline considering the small quantities and grape sources. Really loved the white and the Pinot Noir.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

LA_derby.jpgI've known about this winery for awhile (they've been on my list), but we just never seemed to get over to them our last few times in Paso. It's almost impossible to keep up with all the new ones opening. We got the chance to speak to Giovanni, the winery's cellarmaster, who was super friendly and knowledgable, as well he should be. The winery and three different vineyards are owned by Ray and Pam Derby, who took over management of these longstanding, growing sites in 2006. The coastal Derbyshire Vineyard grows Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, The Derby Vineyard is planted to white and red Rhone varietals and Laura's Vineyard is planted to Cab Sauv, Petite Sirah, Merlot and Zinfandel. Really enjoyed the Pinot Noir and Gris, rarities in Paso, as well as the Rose and MoCab, which I would have purchased if I had the opportunity. Am looking forward to visiting their tasting room next time we're in town.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

DAY 2: This day was at least 10 degrees warmer and man did that make a difference. A lot of the reds were just too warm to get a true bead on their flavors. In addition about 1/3 of the wineries were no shows. The empty tables made the event seem sad and even though there was half the number of people, it seemed to take even longer to get a pour. Henceforth, I would recommend always going on the first day of a festival if at all possible. I'm sure from the happy faces the Sunday people felt just fine, but that's only because they don't know what they missed.

Got a chance to sample a bottle of SanTasti, a new palate cleansing beverage developed by two Cal Poly students. It's supposed to help palate fatigue during wine tastings. Like a more powerful and chemically-crafted sparkling water, it definitely does wake up the tastebuds, but I'm not sure a quick quaffing festival like this was the right venue for an accurate test. Would probably be better in a classroom or sit-down tasting, where more time is spent evaluating each wine, so cleansing inbetween would be truly helpful. It's a great story and I will be giving it another go in the future.

LA_vinesmary.jpgI checked Twitter before returning on Sunday and this winery was recommended as a standout. I've known of them, since we go to Paso alot, but until recently they were far out and appointment only, which kept me from their door. Owner/winemaker Victor Abascal's table was very busy, so I didn't have much time to chat with him, however, his wines speak for themselves. Established in 2004, Victor still works his day job in Los Angeles, while trying to live out his dream in Paso. Their focus is on Rhone blends, a couple with a little Cab and/or Zinfandel added to the mix. All are named after classic songs. My favorites were the 05 Round Midnight, a GSM blend, and the 05 My Generation, a blend of Zin, Syrah, Mourvedre & Petite Sirah. Will definitely be making a trip out to see them next time we're in town. With prices in the $20-$30 range, these wines deliver great bang for the buck.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

seawind2.jpgAnother winery I found in my research, Seawind is owned by Ken Dunkley who sources his single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from only coastal California AVAs. They are made in limited quantities, many less than 50 cases, and come from some of the best locations in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Sonoma. His 07 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir is a wine I can still smell and taste, if I think about it hard enough. I don't usually purchase wines over $40, but his Pinots are worth the money. Went back the second day for another taste, which I did share with the Man. He was wowed, too.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

LA_kenvolk.jpgI've been drinking wine made by Kenneth Volk almost as long as I've been drinking wine. He used to be the owner/winemaker of Wild Horse before selling it 5-6 years ago and starting his own label once again. This time in the northern end of Santa Barbara County. Have yet to visit the winery, since it's off the beaten path in Santa Maria, but I wanted to see if I still enjoyed his creations. He brought almost his whole line of wines which include some unusual grapes, like Negrette and Malvasia Bianco. Thinking there was still many other worthwhile wines to try – I was wrong – I skipped the more obvious wines and went for the odd varietals. Would have left the fest with his Roussanne and Mourvedre, if I could have. The Negrette and Tempranillo were good, but failed to leave much of an impression. It was a hot day, so the Malvasia was getting some love, but it was just a bit too dry for my taste. The nose was lovely and I wanted more fruit to follow through on the palate. Ken's quite a character and that shows through in his wines, whether they fit your style or not.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

TORBRECK VINTNERS: Barossa Valley, Australia
One of the more respected Australian companies out there in the market today with wines in every price point. Their wines aren't hard to find, but quality wine-making shows in every bottle. Loved the 08 Woodcutter's Semillon and will be trying to get my hands on a bottle. The 07 Cuvee Juveniles and 08 Woodcutter's Shiraz were well-crafted, but showing a bit young right now, though they are always solid wines for the price with a bit more finesse than other similar bottlings in their price range.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

Drove by this winery on our latest trip to Sonoma. Just didn't have time to stop. It's a small, family-owned winery that grows all their grapes biodynamically. Their focus is Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhones. Didn't care for the Zin, but loved the 08 Sauv Blanc, which showed true varietal characteristics with a nice balance between the fruit and acidity. Have just loved every 08 Sauv Blanc I've had from this region this year. If this is your grape seek these wines out.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

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