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MARCH 2011: Vibrant Rioja Tasting at Sonoma Wine Garden

SWGpatio.jpgLos Angeles is a very large and fractured city. Most people, myself included, tend to play where they live because commuting is such an unknown quantity. Sure you get used to leaving yourself plenty of time to get where you're going, if you have to be on time or actually respect the people you're meeting. SigAlert.com is practically your best friend. So, even though I love a good wine bar, the opening of Sonoma Wine Garden late last summer escaped my attention. I can hardly be blamed for not knowing. It's in Santa Monica and I live in the San Fernando Valley two diametrically opposed areas. When I got an invitation via Twitter to attend a tasting put on by Vibrant Rioja (more about them later) at the aforementioned SWG, I was excited and intrigued. A new wine bar, how cool. Then I became slightly concerned. A new wine bar in the Santa Monica Place Mall?

SWGwinebar.jpgWell, this recently completely remodeled mall is pretty upscale and far from the usual suburban nightmare, being 2 blocks from the beach and mostly open air. Once I went to their website, I realized this place had real potential. When I arrived, any doubts were immediately put to rest. Being a "wine garden" most of the seats are outside on the roof of the mall, in a setting that is both classy and cozy. Sort of like the patio of most of our dreams. While you can't exactly see the ocean, its presence is felt, which they cleverly temper with several outdoor fireplaces and enough heat lamps to make sure no one ever even has the chance to catch a chill.

There's a big bar inside with a very cleverly decorated ceiling – they've hung the tops of logoed wooden wine boxes – but why anyone would want to sit inside is a mystery to me. I suppose there are days when it rains... Thankfully, not the case the night I went. In fact, we enjoyed a stupendous sunset, which cast an additional soft, warm glow over the evening.

SWGriojalogo.jpgPartnering with the Vibrant Rioja campaign, they delivered a delicious 5-course tapas and wine pairing for just $40. I don't have a lot of experience drinking wines from Rioja so this was a real treat. While I do love Spanish wines, I tend to buy/drink mostly garnacha/grenache and monastrell/mourvedre. What's genius about this campaign is that it's funded by all of the winemakers/wineries in the region, giving them all equal say and exposure because they contribute equally to the success of the venture. They understand that educating people about their region is beneficial to all of them not just the major players and best done by themselves. If you want something done right...

SWGwines2.jpgAnd as people begin to taste Riojas, many will most likely explore outside of the usual suspects, thus giving the little guys more of a chance to survive. It can't be easy to get hundreds of winemakers to agree on anything. God bless them for trying. The Vibrant Rioja campaign not only holds various events to showcase the wines, but also delivers wonderful educational materials as well, allowing newbies to go as far as their interest takes them. These events are held all over the country so check out their website for more details. The Paso Robles Wine Alliance with the Paso Grand Tour and Sonoma County Vintners Association with "Sonoma in the City" events are the only two domestic groups doing anything similar to this that I'm aware of. Kudos to them for putting their region first. This campaign, however, blows those endeavors out of the water in terms of scope and backing. It's a great idea executed in a very engaging way.

I thought the Sonoma Wine Garden paired the wine fairly well with the nibbles, which would have been a vegetarian's worst nightmare. but were right up my alley. There was plenty of each to enjoy at a pace that was leisurely, but delivered the next course just when you needed it. Seconds of both were readily available if you wanted to refine your thoughts on the pairings. I tried to take notes, but am left with only impressions, as this was an informal evening with the wine, food and conversation flowing freely.

THE MENU

2009 Antano Viura with Manchego Cheese, Almonds and Castelvetrano Olives – (If you've never had these bright green babies you are missing out. Best olives ever. Could have eaten the whole bowl myself.) The wine was crisp and refreshing with mostly citrus, green apple and mineral notes. Worked well with the food, but wasn't enhanced by it. Around $12 retail.

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2009 Marques de Caceres Rosé with Bacon-Wrapped Dates – I'm quite familiar with this wine. You can get it at Trader Joe's for about $8. It's a solid wine every year made from Tempranillo grapes. The sweetness of dates overwhelmed it a bit, but also brought out some white pepper and earthiness on the finish. Ate more than my fair share of the dates. Can't resist them.

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2006 Luis Canas Crianza Tempranillo with Mushroom Crostini topped by Smoked Gouda – not my favorite course. Neither really excited me. Good but not memorable. Composed of 95% Tempranillo and blended with a small proportion of Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha. About $15.

2005 Bodegas LAN Reserva with Spicy Lamb Meatballs – Though delicious the meatballs and sauce were hard to eat with just a toothpick. Needed a utensil of some sort. The wine held up well to the heat and the lamb really complemented the dark cherry fruit, herbs and oak flavors in the wine. This wine is made from 80% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo and 10% Garnacha, seeing 12 months in oak and 24 months in bottle. You can find it for around $15.

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2003 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva with Grilled Pork Belly & Romesco Sauce – Favorite pairing of the night. The smoky fattiness of the meat went beautifully with this full-bodied wine filled with ripe red fruits, cedar and spice. Can't get enough of pork belly, especially prepared like this. Love that the Spanish age the wines for you. This one spent 2 years in barrel and 3 in bottle before release and is composed of 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, and 5% Mazuelo. It is right in its wheelhouse and is a steal for $22.

These were all everyday table wines that deliver great bang for the buck, which is why I love Spanish wines. Where else can you find top-of-the-line wines from a region for under $25? It was a great introduction to Rioja, at a price point most people are looking for right now. Since none of these bites are on their regular menu, I can't speak for that food. Yet. And it being a private party, the service was good as well. Again, not an accurate picture, but the waitstaff seemed both friendly and knowledgable about the food and wines.

Rachel Macalisang is the sommelier for the Wine Garden as well as their sister restaurant Ozumo, which is just across the way. She's in the midst of taking her Master Sommelier exams, so she knows her stuff. Wish I had had more time to chat with her. The regular list has about 25 wines by the glass (from $8-$18) and an additional 16 in their enomatic machines, which changes monthly and focuses on specific regions. April is Spain, next month will be wines from Australia. Their by-the-bottle offerings focus mostly on Old-World wines and styles, with any New World wines, i.e. from Califonia/Oregon featuring mainly Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot. Basically, hitting all the marks most people are looking for at prices that are in line for their hood.

Sure Sonoma Wine Garden may be in a mall, but you get 3 hours FREE VALET and in Santa Monica, where parking is a nightmare to find and pay for, you'd be crazy not to check it out just for that perk alone. Thankfully, they have plenty more to offer. The SWG is still fine tuning, but if this event is any indication they're going to become one of the leading hot spots this summer when people want a fun place to cool down.

For more info on their monthly events check out their Facebook Page, follow them on Twitter or go to their Website. Open Daily most days until 10pm, Fri-Sat until 11pm.



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