There’s always a palpable tension when attending any wine festival that’s equal parts intimidating and exhilarating. Will you say something weird about the legs of the wine and have to run to an entirely different section of the festival because of that weird thing you just said? Will you bump into a man wearing a straw hat and suspenders who swirls his vino with practiced expertise and announces to no one he can taste the sharp notes of cheddar cheese and fruity aromas of sun-kissed, Napa Valley fig? Will you take a sip of a wine you really don’t like and spill it out at a garbage can a little too close to that wine’s booth, so the wine guy clearly sees what you’re doing and runs after you—cork in one hand, silver wine opener flailing ominously in the other—and begs you to give his Pinot Grigio a second chance?
I don’t know.
Adding to this tension exactly one year and one month ago: I was in Dana Point, CA, the epicenter of South-of-L.A. chic, wearing a $23 dress purchased three days before via Amazon Prime that upon receipt looked surprisingly like bathroom wallpaper. But such was life at the California Wine Festival 2017, the eighth annual event of its kind, where a host of wineries and food vendors gathered to gift their goods to suspecting attendees. (If you’re counting, there’s just about 30 days until the 2018 iteration happens April 20-21 in Dana Point. Get your tickets here.)
It was the type of day writers love to describe—warm and bright with a tourmaline-blue sky of mottled, white clouds—and the festival scenery was just as worthy of adjectival prose. Set at Lantern Park high up on a hill that stood sentinel over an ocean-filled horizon of sand and waves and lifeguard towers and little umbrellas of red and blue, the California Wine Festival was itself a sight to behold. Small tents were arranged throughout the green-grassed space with neat and organized flair, a reggae band played chirpy Bob Marley tunes, and as three little birds warbled both from a steel drum and the trees above, colorfully dressed wine-goers ambled through station after station, getting their glass-fill of local juice.
The thing I like best about the California Wine Festival, (beside the obvious that it’s all about wine), is its emphasis on California-crafted fare. Every single wine poured on Saturday started out as a grape grown in the Golden State. Every single participating restaurant or food brand was based in CA. It steeped the affair in an aura of comfort and community; we weren’t just tasting wine, we were enjoying the fruits of our land. And why not showcase the bounty of earth found right below our feet, (or close enough)? Yes, the Bordeaux and Sangiovese regions of Europe make famously fine wines—maybe some of the finest—but here we are in California and let’s see exactly what this state can do.
After three hours of thorough tasting, I can tell you with firm guarantee, it’s a whole lot.
The wines I sampled were everything from zesty and crisp to rich and buttery. Earthy and warm to clean and bright. A Chardonnay created in stainless steel tanks, a rosé so fresh it made you feel like you were sailing along wind-blown Pacific Ocean shores … it was as if Santa Barbara, Temecula, Napa Valley and Sonoma got together and decided to bottle up their juicy goodness into a chorus of bucolic, edible charm, ship it off to Dana Point in the collective and on this sunny, spring day, sing their sweet song.
As I traversed back down the hill toward my awaiting Lyft—quick public service announcement: drinking even a little and then driving is NEVER cool—I realized nothing weird was said by my big mouth during the festival, no man in a straw hat intimidated me with his oenophilic knowledge, (stand-out fashion did include one awesome wine lover who sported a “50 Shades of Grape” tee and another few couples dressed in matching Hawaiian garb), but there was no snooty pretension at this festival, no sense that you simply weren’t in the know. There was only you, your empty glass and really, really good wine.