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Ian Blackburn, Cool Wine Dude

on 22/03/11 at 12:05 pm


By BoozeNews reporter D.R. Stewart

Ian Blackburn has a cool movie job. The kind of a job a character has in a movie where they live in cool lofts, host cool parties and do the coolest things. Your jealous mind tells you “this career does not exist.” No one could have a job this effin’ cool.

Ahh, but Mr. Blackburn does. He runs Learn About Wine, with its emphasis on wine education not being dull. He facilitates as a savvy California intermediary for international wealthy wine buyers. And he puts on events that set you up with entire Valleys/States/Countries viticulture at your fingertips. On March 23 and 24 he will having his “STARS of Napa“ and for a
small fee you have the opportunity to draft off Blackburn’s honed taste, with him picking an assemblage of heavy hitters from the famed region. This year he has Jaffe, Robert Biale, even the Sinatra Family Estates got the invite, pal. We sat down in Blackburn’s downtown lair just before his recent Oregon pinot tasting.

Blackburn started out as a DJ, of course (in such cool places as Roxbury). “I was passing out fliers to come to my nightclub nights, and now I’m 42 passing out fliers to come to my wine tasting – kind of the same thing. Evoloved or De-evolved?” Being in the club scene put him in proximity to great restaurants and he ended up working at the legendary Los Angeles restaurant Patina. Partial roll call of Patina’s alumni: Octavio Becerra — Palate. Joe Miller – Joe’s on Abbot Kinney, Tracy de Jardine Jardonaire,  Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta, Chef/Owners, JiRaffe, Mélisse.

“I wasn’t old enough to start drinking wine when I started working in Restaurants. I lied about my age – I was 16, said I was 18. I had an ID that was kinda suspicious.” Yet, despite his young age, Blackburn knew a thing or two about wine and liquor. He had
helped his mom stock the bar (she worked two jobs) and eventually enrolled at the Hotel school at Cal Poly. It would be 21 before he took his first drink, but his knowledge was already on the rise.

Patina put Blackburn in touch with the real truth about those “cool movie jobs” – you work your ass off. “It was a very difficult place to work and keep a job. I didn’t get a lot of respect from people who were 40 years old and here I am still in college. I wasn’t going to complain too much about getting snubbed all the time. At that level – you really learn. Any other level, you are kinda lazy. There was no time for laziness at the old Patina.”

To this day, Blackburn still goes at it. He will give wine seminars to newbies (which are more performance oriented). “I will have 300 people through this loft in 4 days. I don’t pretend that this is not going to be hard on me” Then he’ll prep for his next big “STARS” event, do a radio show (Blackburn was a frequent quest on Tom Leykis) or work with Spectrum on their massive worldwide wine auctions.

Being close to such an accomplished player in the wine world, Boozenews bugged Blackburn about trends and direction in the Wineworld. Some highlights:

● Be prepared to share Napa with lots of Japanese tourists. “They re-made the movie Sideways in Japan. It’s a Japanese Sideways set in Napa. Guess who financed that? It was partially financed by the Napa Valley Vintners. There was a line of 60 Japanese tourists trying to get a cup of coffee at the Bouchon bakery.”

● He thinks Zin is the next Pinot. “Right now my favorite California wine is Zinfandel because it’s truly the last authentic wine that we have. The grape that really created California wine. I think that Zin takes on a very fantastic expression of place.”

● Blackburn feels restaurants should not only be rated by cleanliness, but their ability to pay their bills. Huh? Listen: “Small wineries weren’t getting paid. If you sold it. Heartaches are many. There’s no way to really out some of those people. It would be
interesting to complete the loop, if you find out what restaurants really didn’t pay their bills. You’re going to find out what restaurants and go based on their credit rating. Don’t just give them an A, B, C in the window, give them a credit score. Artisans all over the place get screwed.  And if you’re not with a major distributor, there’s really not anything you can do to leverage the restaurant to pay you. Major distributors, yes — you gotta have Jack Daniels – you gotta be able to pay that bill. But you don’t need to have Kosta-Brown if you can’t pay that distributor.”

● He feels restaurants are going to have to offer consumers the chance to bring in more outside wines. To this end, his LAW membership includes free corkage: “40 restaurants — we give free corkage, only Sunday through Thursday. It’s the future. I’m so certain. Direct to the consumer. People will get great wines in their cellar, they want a place to drink them. I don’t blame
restaurants who want to fight it, but quite honesty the more reasons you can create for me to want to go there — I go to restaurants that don’t give me too much of a hard time. I spend a lot of money. In fact I probably bring a bottle and buy a bottle. I want to bring an 82’ first growth. I can’t afford to buy that off a restaurant wine list. But maybe I’ll bring a couple, and an order a bottle of champagne and open a first growth. I’m still spending a good amount of money. And, people that bring good bottles are probably willing to spend more than the average customer. It’s not the one glass, one bottle kind of customer. I’m totally cool with paying a corkage fee. If it’s 50 bucks, then you need to understand why.”

● Blackburn envisions technology and wine blending. “It could be a chip [on the bottle] saying this wine is what it’s supposed to be. Also, the I-Pad is the solution for a lot of problems. Restaurant lists on an I-Pad where you click and watch the video about that wine. That is brilliant. There was a restaurant that practically built an I-Pad before there was an I-Pad. The Wine Angel place. [Aureole in Vegas]. To build that computer, they spent an amazing amount – imagine if you were the Tech Company that built that, so that they could have an automated wine list. Now you can do it on your phone. You don’t even need to provide [the hardware] for the customer. Use your I-Phone, and use your app and get our wine list.”

● Blackburn even thinks red need not be so room tempaturey – “My grandfather liked Chablis with ice cubes in it. I brought him a nice bottle of Chablis and he couldn’t’ drink it, because it wasn’t sweet enough. People need to drink what they like. I am in favor of drinking red wines cooler. It’s really magical to have it at the right temperature.”

Blackburn left us with his tale of a recent meal at the French Laundry. He was working (as in Cool Job working), ushering a group of clients through Napa. Continuing on this theme of wine temperature: “One of the great experiences that we had at the French Laundry is not only did we have it served at optimal temperature, but they were optimally decanted. The wines were set days in advance, the glassware was the optimal glassware, how much better can it get. The right glass, the right wine, the right temperature, served with the perfect dish. That’s when great things happen. It was 800 dollars a person. Once is all you need. If you eat like that every day, you’ll die an early death. I almost died the next day. The gastronomic imprint on your life is pretty significant, but it’s lasting and you always remember the best parts.”

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