WILSHIRE BLVD. — If there’s proof that wine has transitioned from a drink for the pretentious to a drink for the people, it’s Ian Blackburn.
The founder of LearnAboutWine.com and former Santa Monica resident, Blackburn has turned his passion for wine into a full-time career, holding everything from introductory wine courses to a wine credential program.
“The wine business can only succeed if we have an educated wine consumer,” he said. “There are a lot of wine snobs out there and they’re not educated wine consumers, they’re just wine snobs.”
Blackburn grew up with a respect for wine, all stemming back to long before he could legally drink it.
“My parents didn’t have a lot of money,” said the Huntington Beach native. “We started off in a small family home, and when they opened a bottle of wine, it was really a special occasion, and I noticed that.”
“It was a special energy that was created at the dinner table, and I started to appreciate it at an early age.”
This interest in wine, and a passion for cooking that his mother cultivated, led Blackburn to Cal Poly Pomona’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. Before graduating, Blackburn had already landed a job at Checkers Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, working as the head of the wine program before he was 20 years old.
He then moved to Patina, which introduced him to a new list of high-end wines.
“It was a great place to work, I mean, everybody was coming from all over the world to eat,” he said. “I got to open up some outrageous bottles, and it just fueled my fire a little bit more.”
But it wasn’t until Blackburn left Patina and joined Young’s Market Company in 1995 that he began his true foray into wine education.
“When I got the job selling wine, I was selling a lot of wines that I’ve never heard of before, and it fueled my idea to start LearnAboutWine.com to post the things that I was finding out,” he said.
LearnAboutWine.com was in essence Blackburn’s blog but soon grew into a means of hosting wine workshops and classes.
Some of Blackburn’s first classes were held at Ocean Avenue Seafood, just across the street from his apartment above what is today the Boa Steakhouse.
Though Blackburn now lives in a loft in Downtown L.A., he keeps the Learn About Wine main office on the 22nd block of Wilshire Boulevard. He has hosted events at Le Merigot Hotel, Valentino Italian Resturant and Josie Restaurant.
“That’s the great thing about my business … I can go anywhere,” he said.
Blackburn’s first and most popular program is the Wine Camp, which offers an introductory course on wine tasting, purchasing and storing. More than 30,000 Southern California residents have participated in the program, Blackburn said.
Another important aspect of the business is its collaboration with charities.
“We benefit different charities at almost every event that we do. I believe it has a perfect fit for the lifestyle type of work we do,” he said.
Blackburn now works with Learn About Wine full time, dedicating all of his efforts to hosting classes, which have expanded to include champagne tasting courses and wine tasting events at Southern California locations such as the Grove and Loft218.
He also helps organize the annual Malibu Wine Classic on Aug. 29; the founders of the festival are former Wine Camp students of Blackburn’s
Blackburn says Malibu is an up-and-coming wine location, already with several young vineyards.
“There are a large number of wineries in Malibu that people don’t even know about yet,” he said. “The wine there is very young and very new so some of the wines are better than others but there are already some great wines.”
Blackburn believes Learn About Wine was started at a good time, right before wine rode the wave as a new L.A. fad. The trendiness of wine has led to an increase in wine bars in the city, but Blackburn worries that they won’t last long.
“While there’s a lot of wine bars opening, there’s going to be a lot of wine bars closing,” he said. “It’s a very difficult product to make money off of.”
“A bottle of vodka you can make money off of, a bottle of wine, you have to be very efficient.”
He looks to more established wine cultures, such as France, for models and hopes that eventually wine will become a staple in every bar and cafe.
“That’s something about our culture that I just don’t understand,” he said of the taboo surrounding alcohol. “Remember that it’s just fermented grape juice.”
Blackburn believes Los Angeles — which has vineyards dotted around Bel Air, Hollywood, Ventura and the Santa Monica Mountains — has the potential to become a thriving wine industry for people of all backgrounds and incomes, and this is the message he tries to impart to his clients.
“Wine should be something that can pass on a passionate story and it doesn’t need to cost a lot of money,” he said.