Cheers! Los Angeles. Have a Glass of Wine. Life is Short.

For Ian Blackburn, Downtown LA opens doors to the world of wine

Photo by Douglas de Wet


To understand a wine, it’s necessary to study the place it comes from. The flavors, colors and smells that end up in your wineglass reflect the place and time the wine comes from. The French call it terroir, which encompasses all of the characteristics and growing conditions of a given vineyard site.

People, like wine, can be a reflection of their surroundings, but unlike wine, people also can cultivate their own ideal growing conditions.

The Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles is a long narrow, post industrial neighborhood bordered by Alameda Street to the west and the Los Angeles River to the east. With First Street as a northern border and a continually expanding boundary to the south, winemaker, wine educator, Master of Wine candidate, and entrepreneur Ian Blackburn cultivates, not wine grapes, but wine knowledge.

Blackburn serves as an ambassador, with infectious enthusiasm, for two of his life’s passions: wine and Los Angeles. Through his company wineLA, Ian has hosted tens of thousands of budding wine enthusiasts at a variety of events and classes in which he seeks to inform, entertain, and educate people, ultimately inspiring them to drink high quality wine and enjoy life more fully.

During the summer of 2011, I went through Ian’s four-week certification class, Learn About Wine or L.A.W. School. The class a college level introduction course to the world of wine. Each class meeting, 20 to 25 wines were critically and comparatively tasted and discussed. There was a thick, heavy text book, hundreds of pages of reading assignments, culminating with a practical blind tasting to identify several wines and a written exam.

L.A. Metro Little Tokyo/Arts District Goldline station on Alameda and First. Like so much of downtown, it is surrounded by contstruction. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Attending Blackburn’s class changed my life by expanding my understanding and appreciation of wine, opening my eyes to possibilities of L.A.’s Metro system, and planted the seed that grew into my insatiable enthusiasm for DTLA. Listening to Ian speak passionately about the developments in the Arts District inspired me to explore and experience the bounty of the rapidly expanding and evolving Downtown.

With all of the continuing changes in the area, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Ian. The afternoon of the interview, Ian’s loft, which also serves as the headquarters for his multiple wine businesses, was abuzz with activity. He answered the door in a linen shirt and shorts.

“You’re not going to want to take photos today are you?” he asked.

Late the previous evening, he had returned home from Texas after securing a regional distribution deal for Beekeeper Cellars, a small production label specializing in single vineyard Zinfandel bottlings grown in Sonoma County that Ian runs with his close friend, Clay Mauritson.

After a quick freshening up and a change of clothes, I met Ian on the rooftop pool deck where, over glasses of Chablis, we discussed wine, Los Angeles, and the rapid growth of his Arts District neighborhood.

Collage of posted printed art and graffitti off Traction Ave. in the Arts District.
Video by Douglas de Wet

The son of two hardworking parents, Blackburn grew up in Lakewood. The family didn’t have a lot of money. Wine was not a part of everyday life, but Blackburn noticed whenever it was time to celebrate a special occasion, wine on the table. When his parents earned a bit more money, they moved to Huntington Beach, but soon after they divorced, perhaps a symptom of “working a little too hard.”

Blackburn grew up fast. At 12, he started earning a paycheck to help support the family. To work around the 20-hour-a-week limit for underage employees, he worked multiple jobs. Working hard from a young age helped him cultivate the self-confidence and entrepreneurial drive.

Eat.Drink.Americano on Third Street in the Arts District, frequent site of wineLA classes and events. Photo by Douglas de Wet

He began to develop his intense passion for wine while studying hospitality at Cal Poly Pomona. Toward the end of 1989, his education led to a fine dining internship at the soon to open Checkers Restaurant in the Checkers Hotel. One of the tasks he was given was to create a world-class wine list, he also instituted new inventory controls.

While building the wine program, he discovered how difficult it was to locate resources on fine wine. If it was difficult for him to locate information on fine wine as a professional in the fine dining world of wine, he wondered how average consumers were supposed to figure things out.

He saw a need and set out to fill it, launching Learn About Wine in 1995. He moved downtown and started renting in the Arts District.

Checkers Restaurant on Grand Ave. in Downtown Los Angeles
Ian discusses his start in fine dining. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Blackburn continued to hone his wine skills, working in many of the area’s finest restaurants for some of the most accomplished and most demanding chefs.

He worked nights at chef Joachim Splichal’s flagship Patina while Josiah Ciron was at the helm, after working mornings as the maitre’d at Checkers. He worked at chef Tracey Dejardine’s Jardinaire and chef Joe Miller’s Joe’s. He also spent time in wine distribution with Los Angeles-based Young’s Market Co., followed by stints at Kenwood and Kobrand before going full-time with his own Learn About Wine, and finally selling everything to finance the launch of Beekeeper Cellars in 2009.

Joachim Splichal’s Patina in its current Disney Hall location on Grand. Ave. perched on Bunker Hill, downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Douglas de Wet

After many successful years of Learn About Wine events and classes Blackburn felt the name, Learn About Wine, no longer fully captured what his business was about. WineLA was born.

Learn About Wine will be relaunched later this year as an online learning resource while wineLA now hosts Blackburn’s signature events, classes, and wine travel excursions.

Classes range from “two hour wine experience” introductory classesd such as Wine Camp and Palate Builder, where students “learn to taste like a pro,” to fun food and wine pairing events such Fried Chicken and Champagne and Wine and Chocolate.

WineLA also holds classes on working in the wine business, and multi-day certification classes for those really looking to build expertise in wine. Blackburn also offers wine travel events that range from day trips to Santa Barbara County, to multi-day trips in Napa and European wine destinations.

The Biscuit Company Lofts housed in the former National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) factory on the corner of Industrial and Mateo streets in the Arts District. Photo by Douglas de Wet

Blackburn continues to live and holds many classes in the Arts District. Once a busy manufacturing center composed of factories and wholesale distributors, the neighborhood became known as the Arts District after manufacturers fled and artists moved in and repurposed the abandoned industrial spaces as live/work studio spaces.

Blackburn describes the Arts District as the Brentwood of Downtown L.A. Along with the booming expansion and gentrification, some people in community and some local press have sounded alarm bells, saying changes are driving the arts from the Arts District claim. The situation is complicated. Blackburn doesn’t see change as negative.

One of the many enormous construction projects in the Arts District. This one, which takes up nearly an entire city block along Mateo St., is just down the street from Ian’s loft. Photo by Douglas de Wet
Thoughts on change in the Arts District, Video by Douglas de Wet

Extreme contrasts and disparities are prevalent, not just in downtown, but all over the country and the world. The United States in the midst of one of the most contentious elections in its history, economic inequality is at some of the most extreme levels since the Gilded Age, there are numerous military conflicts and political struggles around the globe, and ISIS wants to destroy the western way of life. A short walk from the massive developments of the Arts District, thousands of people camp on the sidewalks and below underpasses.

At the same time, DTLA’s dining scene has perhaps never been better. Beautiful restaurants and bars open constantly, offering $15 cocktails and bottles of wine that cost hundreds of dollars.

Up the hill, after winning their division, the Los Angeles Dodgers will soon be playing in the postseason, and the Rams are back in town.

The Broad just celebrated its one year anniversary, setting an art museum yearly attendance record. Soon the new, tallest building west of the Mississippi will open its doors, bringing more expensive housing, and additional luxury businesses downtown.

Angelinos have more options to enjoy themselves, and yet there have never been so many living on the streets with so little. When faced with so many options to enjoy oneself, including partaking in world-class wines, which are available at every price level.

The recently opened One Santa Fe development dominates the northeast edge of the Arts District along Santa Fe Ave. Photo by Douglas de Wet

In the little bit of time that I’ve spent around Blackburn, it’s clear he keeps a grueling schedule and works extremely hard. Pursuing the Master of Wine (MW) classification is every bit as difficult as studying for the most demanding of post-graduate degrees.

People work hard to find and provide pleasurable experiences. I asked Blackburn if, in the face of so many societal challenges, is it still okay for people to invest time, energy, and money in order to simply enjoy themselves?

Ian reflects on the freedom to pursue enjoyment. Video by Douglas de Wet

And if it is okay to seek out fun, what should people who want to experience the rebirth of downtown Los Angeles do and see?

Ian’s tips for exploring Downtown Los Angeles, Video by Douglas de Wet

Throughout the world, wine producers dedicate their lives to capturing time and place in a bottle, obsessing over every detail to reach the most pure expression of their growing site.

No expense is spared, and all of these efforts may be in vain if the forces of nature conspire against them. A life’s work and dedication to produce a product that ultimately serves the purpose of providing pleasure to the individual who consumes it. In many ways, Blackburn does the same thing.

He works tirelessly to initiate others into the world of fine wine. He teaches people to cultivate the awareness of wine, to take the time to learn and appreciate the gifts of the vineyard.

In joy and sorrow, wine is used to mark life’s occasions: weddings, birthdays, graduations, and holidays as well as job losses and when remembering and honoring friends and family who have passed.

The memories created over those inexpensive bottles of wine on the Blackburn family table in Lakewood and Huntington Beach, are cherished and enjoyed no less than those that come with an $1,800 bottle of 1997 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon served at Patina.

Wine may not solve the problems of the world, but it certainly can enhance our enjoyment and appreciation for life and assist us in remembering special time spent with loved ones.

We can all drink to that.

Metro Bikes in the Arts District, Photo by Douglas de Wet
Bread Lounge jam, Photo by Douglas de Wet
Pastries at the Bread Lounge on Santa Fe and Seventh Street in the Arts District. Photo by Douglas de Wet
Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Santa Fe in the Arts District. Photo by Douglas de Wet
Street art in the Arts District, Photo by Douglas de Wet
Angel City Brewery in the Arts District on Alameda and Traction. Photo by Douglas de Wet