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For the love of wine

DiMaggio Washington traded in a career as an electrical engineer for his passion for wine

Posted: January 17, 2009 9:46 p.m.
Updated: January 18, 2009 4:59 a.m.

A bottle of DiMaggio Washington's 2005 Rancho Santiago Estates vintage estate syrah

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It is winter ... and the vines are sleeping in DiMaggio Washington's Acton vineyard. The 550 vines in his one-acre vineyard need their rest because spring will soon arrive and the plants will be expected to begin the hard work of growing the grapes for Washington's private label Rancho Santiago Estates wine.

Washington's wine is a labor of love, despite Washington's humorous description of his vineyard as "a hobby gone wrong."

"I thought it would be fun to have a vineyard to play around in," he said.

Washington, 53, moved to Acton in 1985 and built a home on a one and a half acre parcel of land.

His wine, labeled as "vintage estate syrah, 100 percent estate grown" is not for sale commercially and is available only to family and friends. However, each of the 750 bottles produced annually from 150 gallons of the deep red fermented juice of the grape represents the end result of a lifetime educating himself - and others about wine.

His vineyard, which turns 7 years old in March, produces only syrah, a grape that Washington said is well-suited for the climate of the Santa Clarita Valley.

"Syrah is very conducive with the climate we live in," he said. "From Valencia to Leona Valley to Acton the climate mimics the southern part of France. The Rhone varietals that grow in France also grow well in this area."

Washington said the five wineries in the area and 33 wine growers attest to the popularity and a growing wine presence in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

"Juan Alonso, owner of Le Chene, has at least 20 acres of vines in production," he said.

Finding his passion
"Nearly" a native Californian, Washington was born in Texas, but moved to the Los Angeles area with his family when he was a year old.

He studied to become an electrical engineer and once he obtained his degree from California State University, Long Beach, he worked in the aerospace industry in Southern California for nearly 30 years.

While traveling in his job, Washington would kill time in hotel watering holes where he gradually became more and more interested in the wine he consumed.

"As an engineer I traveled quite a bit. And like everyone else, when you have that extra time in the evening, you visit the hotel bar," he said. "After a while I started finding the better wines and by the time I was 30 I started going to Napa. Then I started hanging out with some of the wine makers."

Washington said it didn't take long for his interest in wine to become a passion to learn everything he could about wine - making more and more trips to the Napa Valley, the mecca of California wine.

"I got really hooked as I met many of the wine makers and owners," he said. "I was invited to stay at the vineyards and invited to wine dinners and I loved it. I started exploring areas of wine making and learning about vintage wine."

Washington decided to turn his casual education about wine into something more formal and enrolled in the Small Vineyard and Wine Making Program at the University of California, Davis.

"UC Davis is the leading wine knowledge school," he said. "Most of the wine makers are graduates of UC Davis."

He took Wine Making 1 and Wine Making 2 as well as Managing a Small Vineyard 1 and Managing a Small Vineyard 2.

"All the classes are for small wine makers, home wine makers and those with small vineyards," he said.

After UC Davis, Washington graduated with a certification from a one-year vintage wine program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

However, Washington wasn't finished with his formal wine education. He began a course of study with the Court of Masters, based in London.

The Court of Master Sommeliers was established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. The first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969. In April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as an international examining body. It took the Court 10 years to perfect its qualifications, which are recognized internationally. There are three stages before one attains the top qualifications of Master Sommelier: Introductory Sommelier, Certified Sommelier and Advanced Sommelier.

Since the Court's first examination was held, 167 candidates have earned the title of Master Sommelier.
Washington, who holds the Certified Sommelier title, is currently working toward earning the Master Sommelier diploma. He estimates that he has between a year and a year and a half of studies left to complete.

"It depends on when I want to test," he said.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to improve his wine education, Washington is also studying with Wine and Spirits Education Trust.

"It is also an internationally accepted wine program and its highest level is called Master of Wine," he said. "I'm working on that as well as a recognized Certified Sommelier degree."

Wine instructor
Until four years ago Washington, 53, maintained a foot in both worlds, wine and engineering. However, his passion and interest in wine won and his world is now exclusively about wine. He taught at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena for two years and for the past eight years Washington has taught Wine Studies at College of the Canyons.

"I am the only wine professor at College of the Canyons," he said.

COC offers 10 classes in Wine Studies and a certificate in Wine Studies.

For spring semester at COC Washington will teach Winest 085 Wines of California, a two-unit class that explores the major wine regions of California including the grape varieties and types of wine production.
Includes the wine styles and associated wine laws, structure and culture of California. Field trips may be required.

He will also teach a three-unit course, Winest 102 World Viticulture and Wine Styles, which surveys the world of viticulture and the wine industry. Includes the history of viticulture, grapevine anatomy, worldwide grape, raisin and wine production and consumption, world wine regions and sensory evaluations.

Washington is also the only wine instructor at Antelope Valley College where there are four courses on wine.

Wine classes at TPC
Washington has also launched a series of wine classes at the Tournament Players Club in Valencia for individuals interested in broadening their knowledge of wine.

"At TPC we are offering informal wine classes for anyone wishing to sharpen their understanding of wine.

These classes are designed to inspire a passion for wine," he said. "Come as a couple and explore new wines and regions, or come as a group for a classy and decadent day out with wonderful company, panoramic views and gorgeous surroundings. Better yet, come alone and make new friends who share the same desire. Our classroom and patio dining overlooks a majestic golf course with studded oak tree and rolling hills."

The classes, which cost $84 each per person, will be held two Saturdays a month and cover wines from France, Spain and Italy.

"I really think we have strived to create a nice environment for the classes," Washington said. "We overlook the golf course and it is a relaxed environment."

Chef Daniel Otto has crafted a casual lunch menu to accompany the wines served for tasting as part of the class.

"He gives us excellent meals to pair well with the wines," Washington said.

Washington said his classes are geared to expand the wine education of the attendees and to give people more understand of wine.

"It helps people to select a wine at a restaurant, or to choose a wine from the wine aisles at the grocery store or just simply in conversation with friends," he said.

Washington said anyone associated with the food and wine industry also benefits from his classes.

"The local wine bars have sent their staff to previous classes and many of the TPC staff are going to attend," he said. "It helps those who are often asked to make recommendations on wine, it helps to understand how to pair food with wine, all those kinds of things."

Washington said his goal in selecting which wines to serve in his glass is to keep the wine authentic to the region.

"I try to select a wine that is a typical representation of that region," he said. "I try to select what grow well there and what typically comes from that particular wine region.

Why wine?
Washington said it is hard to explain his passion for wine.

"It is a difficult question to answer but one of the most fascinating things about wine is the overall complexity of wine as a beverage," he said. "Wine has so many varietals because of the climate and soil conditions and each year it becomes more intriguing because it changes and evolves. So much of it based on weather conditions and each year it's a surprise what you're going to get and that all adds to the overall interest of wine."

Washington said another fascinating aspect of wine is how it pairs with food.

"It pairs so well with food and that makes it more interesting to enjoy food with wine," he said.

The increased interest in wine and home wine making excites Washington.

"Some students say, ‘I have the passion, now I need the knowledge.' I enjoy sharing that same passion my students have," he said. "I honestly like conveying the information, getting that information across."

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