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A Refreshing Pause at County Fair : Gold Medal Vintages Offered in a Peaceful Wine Garden

September 29, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Amid the Ginsu knives and the super-spectacular floor cleaners and the drawings for a free encyclopedia and the demonstrations of a special new hand cream, and not far from the buzzing back-massaging pillows and signs that say "FAIR SPECIAL!" you can get a sip of 1975 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon.

For 60 cents.

It's available at the wine garden at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, which sits peacefully in one of the least-hyped buildings on the grounds, the one devoted to agricultural exhibits. You've been in that building; you know, the one with mountains of grapefruit and yard-high Chamber of Commerce posters.

The wine garden has offered fine wine here for two decades, though even Arlen Coffman and Mark Cole admit that getting a sip of a 13-year-old Cabernet is rare. It came about because the wine won a gold medal at the recent Los Angeles County Fair wine competition.

Gold Medal Winner

In this year's fair, in the division for Cabernets from the 1980 vintage and earlier, the Mayacamas Cabernet won a gold medal. And under the rules of the fair, the winery had to sell up to three cases of that wine to the fair at a set price, which is well-below what this wine would sell for at retail--if it were available. It isn't.

Except here. You buy your commemorative wine glass (with a gold-sprayed 1988 fair logo) for $2.75, and can ask for the '75 Mayacamas Cabernet. That gives you a one-ounce pour. Additional ounces are 60 cents each. Lahvosh crackers are in a bowl to cleanse the palate, and each bottle is equipped with a one-ounce pouring spout.

During hectic times, however, servers may dispense the wine out the 16-spigot Cruvinet wine dispenser, a $14,000 device Coffman and Cole borrow from the company that sells them.

But you need not stick with the Mayacamas. You could have an ounce of 1983 Beringer Reserve Cabernet (retail price: $18 per bottle, which works out to 72 cents per ounce); Clos du Val Cabernet ($14); Grgich Hills Chardonnay ($22), or any one of nearly 100 gold medal winners at this year's fair judging.

Coffman and Cole run this concession and say they make nothing at the gold medal bar.

"We don't make a cent off that bar. We run it for the fair," said Coffman. "We keep separate books on it. This," he added, pointing to another bar across the garden, "is where the profit is."

Coffman and Cole, who both have other jobs, began operating the wine concession at the fair in 1968, renting space for a percentage of sales. In those early years, the wine bar was hidden at the rear of the building, with low lighting and little visibility. Not many people even knew it was there.

In 1982, Coffman and Cole took a chance and opted to move into a larger space in the center of the building. Barbara Coffman, Arlen's wife, designed the garden and the trio, using $40,000 of their own money, equipped it with tables and chairs.

"It was a big gamble," said Coffman the other day. But the following year, his wife's wine pavilion design won a national architectural award. And that year, the building itself was refurbished and before long the public discovered they could taste the gold medal winners for a nominal fee.

Fair Wine Gardens

Wine Pavilion Inc., the firm Coffman and Cole established, now operates wine gardens at various county fairs around the state, sometimes receiving only a fee for operating during a fair. Here, however, their profits come from the sale of glasses of wine and food (cheese plates, sandwiches, wine coolers) at the bar nearest the midway.

The gold medal winners attract the public, and those who feel a bit peckish may order a light lunch from the bar across the garden. One recent day, just four of the garden's tables were used at noon, but by 12:45, almost all tables were filled and most had glasses of wine on them.

"We sell a lot of Chardonnay and Cabernet," said Pat Budmon, who has worked behind the gold medal bar since 1983. She said on her side of the garden the better wines are the attraction, and people seem to know fine quality wine.

"We have people who come back year after year, some of them with a tasting book, and they go through one entire category of wines, and they take careful notes," said Judy Pedevill, tasting bar server

Budmon said many tasters try six to 10 wines and take notes, others are merely curious and try two or three.

"Whenever anyone asks me for something unique, I suggest something like the River Run late harvest Zinfandel or the Inglenook Charbono," she said.

On the other side of the room, where plastic glasses are used to serve 4 1/2 ounces of similar wines, the most popular wines by the glass are the White Zinfandels, and it really matters very little whose. Clerks said the White Zinfandels from Sutter Home, Fetzer and Glen Ellen all have sold well this summer.

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