Wine time in the Courtyard

COSTA MESA — Larry Graham runs a haven for wine lovers at the Orange County Fair.

A shady canopy, comfortable patio furniture and more than 2,500 wines offer fairgoers a respite from the summertime heat and barbecue smoke.

Graham is one of 300 volunteers who operate the Courtyard, a covered patio adjacent to the Parade of Products. Sponsored by the Orange County Wine Society, the Courtyard features a daily rotating list of about 80 wines.

"For wine-knowledgeable people, this has become an annual destination," Graham, the society's past president, said about the event that showcases wines entered into the 35th annual O.C. Wine Fair & Event Center Commercial Wine Competition, judged at the Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa hotel June 4 and 5.

"Year after year, we see people return here because they know that they can get quality, award-winning wine at their preferred prices," Graham said.

Commercial wines are available by the glass, many at $1 an ounce, or $3 for two 1-ounce tastings.

The wines, from across California, were judged by price and residual sugar categories. Awards were given in multiple categories.

Award-winning house wines, which were also judged in the competition, are on display at the Courtyard but not available for consumption.

The wines may be top-notch, but Courtyard visitors don't have to be wine connoisseurs to receive the full benefit of the varietals, said volunteer Alisa Livingstone, who was pouring wine behind the Courtyard's counter Thursday.

"People love to talk about wine, and everyone has an opinion," Livingstone said. "I find that it's just fun to listen. You can serve the same bottle to 10 different people and everyone has a different opinion."

Livingstone sees everyone from first-time wine tasters to those who bring specialty briefcases packed with wine-specific glasses.

Livingstone served a Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards 2009 chardonnay from Sonoma County, which won the chairman's award in the recent competition.

The chardonnay, which has a 0.29% residual sugar, is a "nice, fresh wine" and "not too oaky," Graham said.

Another wine Graham described favorably was the South Coast Winery 2010 merlot rose, which had 0.00% residual sugar.

"It has very prominent fruit [aromas] in the nose," Graham said, adding that the chilled wine is refreshing.

Other wines available Thursday were gold medal winners Coastal Ridge 2009 pinot noir and Leveroni Vineyards 2009 pinot noir, and a bronze-winning Sobon Estate 2009 zinfandel.

Although the wines rotate and won't be available every day during the fair, the Courtyard's volunteers are sources for recommendations, Graham said.

The Courtyard also holds seminars throughout the fair on everything from the different varietals to proper pairings.

A lack of knowledge about wine shouldn't deter anyone from drinking it, Livingstone said.

"Don't be intimidated," Livingstone said. "I think the bottom line is just enjoy it."

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