Dinner at Pear Valley

Although there are many wonderful restaurants in the Paso area, there is something extra special about dining at a winery.

Pear Valley, makes estate-grown wines from 25 different varietals. Their winery on Union Road is surrounded by rolling hills covered in vines and oak trees. This was the perfect location for a Winemaker’s Dinner.

Although the original plan was to set tables along the vineyard and have guests enjoy dining in the the open air, the unexpected cool August evening resulting in the dinner being moved to the spacious event room. Guests could still enjoy the vineyard views through the large windows.

Prior to dinner, there was plenty of time to taste wine at the bar, chat with the staff, stroll around the property and mingle with other guests.

The Hurricane Kitchen catered the event and provided a couple of passed appetizers prior to guest being seated. Honey Roasted Tomato Brushetta and Grilled Shrimp & Vegetable Skewers were served with the recommendation of pairing with 2018 Tom’s Oak Chardonnay or 2017 Mourvedre.

The other perk to going to a winery for dinner is that the wineries often bring out wines that are not currently available. This was the case at Pear Valley, and guests were able to get a sneak preview (and chance to purchase prior to release) of the new vintages. Chef Richard Verhagen did a wonderful job showcasing the wines by pairing them with his gourmet creations.

Louie Ortega provided live music throughout the evening. He is a talented, local favorite. Louie seems to have a real knack for playing at the ideal level — nice and easy while guests were dining, and lively between courses and after dinner.

The first course was a mixed greens salad with grilled, smoked, pork belly topped with Parmesan, roasted pistachios and a creamy sweet onion vinaigrette. This course was served with the 2016 Zinfandel.

Another advantage of attending a Winemaker’s Dinner is actually getting to hear the details of the wines from the winemaker. Pear Valley’s winemaker, Jared Lee, provided information throughout the evening and entertained the guest with his witty charm.

The main course was a bourbon marinated steak tenderloin topped with a bourbon and cabernet au jus, served with rice pilaf and roasted vegetables. This paired perfectly with the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The final course of the evening was a sherry spiked creme brulee paired with the 2017 Chenin Blanc.

In addition to winemaker dinners, Pear Valley also has live music the first Friday of each month. There is no admission charge and each month the winery brings in a food truck so guest have the option of purchasing dinner as well as wine by the glass and bottle. Check out the winery’s website for details.

Lots of laughter could be heard throughout the evening.
Pear Valley’s owner, Kathleen Maas, shared the evening with club members.
A couple indulging in a fun evening at the winery.
The Hurricane Kitchen will be back September 6th!
Cheers!

Winemakers’ Cookoff 2019

The 21st Annual Paso Robles Rotary Winemakers’ Cookoff had 24 wineries and breweries (yes they let the beer guys in a few years back) competing for bragging rights of delivering the best dish off the grill.

The event is about so much more than winemakers competing for best dish. This is a fundraising event with all net proceeds going to the Harlow Ford Scholarship Foundation benefiting high-school seniors. The event has raised over $500,000 over the years, with last year’s event resulting in a $75,000 donation to the scholarship program. Gary Eberle, one of the master minds behind the event, expects this year’s event to once again raise a sizable donation.

All of the wineries, breweries and professional chefs deserve thanks for their efforts to make the event successful. In addition to pouring beverages and dishing up tasty plates for the 2,000 attendees, many also go out of their way to decorate their booth, come up with a theme and make the event memorable for attendees.

An example of this, and one of my favorite themes, was “Breakfast in Bed” by Pear Valley Vineyards. The booth was decorated with quilts, stuffed animals, pillows featuring staff photos, and the team was wearing PJs (there’s a comfy outfit for a pouring event!). Their dish was French toast casserole with a fruit topping and a side of sausage.

Judges Top Picks

I was excited to be back on the judges panel this year. Each year five professionals from the food and wine industry are selected to taste through all the dishes and determine the winners in both an amateur (no culinary professional help allowed) and a professional category. This year’s judges included Robert Whitley, Michael Cervin, Kathy Marcks Hardesty, Sara Schneider and myself (Lisa Pretty). Each judge individually assigns a score between 1 and 5 to each dish and then the scores are tallied. The dish with the highest score in each category wins. In the case of a tie (we had ties for first place in both categories this year), the judges vote to break the tie.

Amateur Winners

First place went to Vino Vargas for their “Flying Flamenco Wings with Cuchi Cuchi Sauce”. As an added touch for judging they even put each wing on fresh greens and a pretty plate. The judges don’t actually grant points for presentation; however, since I was photographing each dish I appreciated their extra effort! I also enjoyed the Tempranillo paired with the wing.

Second Place went to Earth and Fire Brewing Company for their “Caja China Pork Arepas”. Lots of flavor in this dish with the slow-roasted pork. Although I am not typically a beer drinker, I was really impressed with the beer pairing.

Third Place went to Ancient Peaks for their “Sliders”. Although they did not have the most creative description, the little slider had what I would say was the best beef at the event and the arugula was the perfect green to complement the onions and cheese.

Honorable Mention went to JUSTIN for their “Smoked Pork Shoulder Tacos”. The pickled cabbage and red onion slaw were delicious. I would also give them credit for having a taco base that held together and was lightly seared.

Professional Winners

Several wineries (and breweries) partner with a professional chef to create their dish. Since it isn’t really fair to have them competing at the same level as the amateurs, a second category was added to the competition a few year’s back.

First place in this category went to Rio Seco who partnered with Stein’s Catering to deliver “Swine ‘n Wine …Just Fine”. This little burger had slow roasted pulled pork topped with Canadian Bacon. I think the bacon is what pushed this dish to the top!

Second place (once again it required a judge’s vote to break the tie) went to Robert Hall Winery who partnered with The Patio Kitchen to deliver “Grilled Lamb Canape”. I was extremely impressed with this dish since keeping the puff pastry texture perfect and also having the marinated, grilled lamb with a lovely pink center is not an easy feat when dishing up food for a crowd of this size. The judges also were happy to not only have the wine pairing but also a refreshing Frosé! We were long over due for a nice palate cleanser. (The Frosé was their bribe for people’s choice tickets — the judges can’t be bribed, we just judge the food).

Third place went to Dead Oak Brewing Company who partnered with Colony Market and Deli to deliver “Porchetta Sliders”. This was another slow-roasted pork shoulder dish loaded with herbs. The fennel and rosemary were a really nice addition. All of the judges really appreciated that they took the time to toast the brioche bun (we had a lot of soggy buns throughout the evening).

Honorable mention went to Peachy Canyon for their “Wild Boar Carnitas”. What made this extra special is that they not only cooked the boar, they also shot it themselves. These little tacos were tasty and paired well with the winery’s zinfandel.

People’s Choice Award

The event attendees get to vote for their favorite winery or brewery for another set of awards. The competition for this coveted award is fierce. At most of the booths, a “bribe” will be offered to entice guests to part with their vote tickets. Some will offer a pour of a special wine, others will have a dessert item, a refreshing beverage, or a piece of swag.

This year’s first place went to Lusso Della Terra Cellars. Their bribe…a FREE 3-night CRUISE. That’s impressive and obviously was more than enough to convince people to hand over their vote ticket.

Other winners in the people’s choice awards include: Calcareous, Eberle and JUSTIN. Congratulations to all for making this event so fun!

Spirit Award

This year’s spirit award went to Calcareous Vineyard. Their shipwrecked, island theme was really cute.

Music

Back by popular demand: The Rockin’ B’s

The talented Julie Beaver, and her band, have played at this event for several years (as long as I can remember). The Rockin’ B’s are a crowd favorite, and the event would not be the same without them!

Glunz Family ready to serve.

It isn’t all about wine.

Wine or Frozé? Robert Hall has you covered.
Cheers from Opolo

Gary Eberle has been part of this event since day 1 — he may have even created it just so he could compete at the grill!

That concludes the 21st Winemakers’ Cookoff — see you next year.

Café Bovino

cafe sign

My first encounter with Bovino Vineyards was at a Back Roads Wineries tasting event early this year. I was intrigued with their story and enjoyed the wines I tasted, ever since I’ve been meaning to go to their tasting room to try the full line of wine. When I heard they had hired a chef and launched a tapas style menu I knew it was time for a visit.

Before jumping into the food, I took a little time to taste through the wine list. The large tasting room has huge windows that offer gorgeous views of the surrounding vineyards and country side. In addition to seating at the bar, the tasting room offers cocktail tables with seating, a little lounge area, and a large patio with table and chairs where guest can sit and enjoy the spectacular views.

The wines available for tasting changes, with a nice selection of wines under two labels. The first label is Joludi, a combination of Joe & Ludi (the owner’s parents’ nicknames). The second is gen.er.os.i.ty and a percentage of all sales from this label is donated to a charity. The selected charity changes every 6 months and is currently the Valley Children’s Hospital.

All wines are made from 100% estate-grown grapes by winemaker Steve Anglim. Forty-five acres of the eighty-five acre property is planted with seventeen different grape varietals, including Rhone, Bordeaux, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese varietals.

Chef Jeff Puckett

Chef Jeff Puckett joined the team at Bovino after meeting the winery’s owner. After chatting they felt Chef Jeff would be a great fit given his passion for developing flavors to pair with wines. His 15+ years of cooking experience, including private and corporate catering, has prepared him to develop the café’s menu and also create custom menus for events.

The café opens with the tasting room (at 11am) and closes one hour before the tasting room closes for the day. Arrangements can be made for food service after hours and private functions on the patio.

One of the items on the menu is rustic french fries with a flight of sauces. These perfectly seasoned, fried to perfection french fries are an ideal item to have while wine tasting. Guests can order a small or large plate and select up to three different dipping sauces. I went with the Tomatilo & Avocado, Chipotle Citrus Mayo and the Jalapeño Ketchup. They were all so good I couldn’t pick a favorite.

With the exception of the french fries, all items on the menu have a recommended pairing. Guest can order a sample (approximately 3 oz) of the paired wine for just $5. The menu items are designed for sharing, and each comes with an option of ordering small (perfect for one or two people) or large (portioned for up to four people).

The Smoked Country Ham, Comte Cheese and Potato Croquette was served with mustard and rosemary. Cutting into the crunchy croquette with the melted cheese and ham center, I knew this was a dish I would enjoy. The flavors were spot on and paired well with the Albariño.

New York Steak Crostini

Next up was a New York Steak Crostini. Served with roasted red pepper and Achiote puree, a little garlic and fresh herbs, this was another lovely item and the pairing of the estate Zinfandel with its smokey accent worked well.

Another winning dish was the Spanish Smoked Pork Belly served on skewers topped with tomato and basil. The star of this dish was the Romesco — I wanted to get a jar of this to go! The pork belly was cooked perfectly and once again I enjoyed the pairing, a blend of Zinfandel and Petit Sirah.

Caramelized Red Onion Jam, Bacon and Basil Bruschetta. Need I say more? These are addictive. At this point I really regretted that I was sharing the order with three other people! This is a must have item, and I enjoyed the paired 2016 Right Bank (Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend).

I typically skip dessert; however, I really wanted to get the full experience, so when others at my table ordered the Lemon Pudding Cake I was all in. My favorite part was the Grand Marnier Honeyed Berries and fresh basil on top. The Chef paired this dish with the Grenache Blanc (one of my favorites).

Overall I am so impressed with this winery that opened in May. Having a beautiful property and impressive buildings with state of the art equipment certainly helps, but I think what really makes this place special is the focus on hospitality. All of the staff clearly have a passion for what they do and a great respect for the owner. Offering guests so many choices of places to sit and relax with a wide range of food & wine options will likely make this several people’s favorite hang out place (I know I’ll be going back with friends soon).

Bovino Vineyards is located at 5685 El Pomar and is open Friday – Sunday with private tastings offered by appointment Monday-Thursday. Visit their website for more information. 

Free Live Music in Wine Country

As the weather warms up, the Paso Robles Wineries add plenty of fun events to get people out to their tasting rooms. I personally really enjoy going to a winery to sit outside surrounded by beautiful views where I can listen to live music, drink wine, and enjoy a causal lunch or dinner. Being able to experience a gorgeous sunset over the vineyards makes it extra special.

A number of my “go to” wineries offer Friday evening music series throughout the summer months. My original intention when I started working on this post was to promote those to get a few more people out. As I started doing my research to create a simple calendar, I discovered there are so many venues offering free live music, with wine and food options (typically a featured food truck) from Wednesday though Sunday. Some have a regular weekly event while others are a little more spotty. It really is a very inexpensive way to have an afternoon or evening out.

There wasn’t one place to easily find all the venues with music details. As a result, I expect my list is not complete. If you know of others I have missed shoot me an email or comment on this post.

WEDNESDAYS

Wine Down Wednesdays at Calcareous From June 5th – September 25th, join Calcareous on Wednesdays when they keep the Tasting Room doors open until 8:00 pm for Wine Down Wednesdays! Gourmet wood-fired pizza pairing menu will be available for purchase from 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm.

Clavo Cellars offers music on the back patio 5:00-7:00 each Wednesday during the summer.

Concerts in the Templeton Park June – July the concerts will be held 6:30-8:30, in August the time will change to 6:00-8:00. Food and drinks will be available for purchase from approved vendors. No dogs allowed in the park during these Wednesday evening concerts (for safety & sanitary reasons).

THURSDAYS

Summer Concerts in the Paso Robles Park J. Lohr wine, Firestone on-tap beer as well as water and soda will be available for purchase during the Thursday evening concerts. All net proceeds from beverage sales support the Paso Robles REC Foundation whose mission is to enhance parks and recreation in the city of Paso Robles. Food will be available for purchase from a different Paso Robles restaurant during each concert. No dogs allowed in the park.

FRIDAYS

Free Run Fridays at Robert Hall are offered from 5:30-730 every week (except during the mid-state fair). A food vendor will be on-site for each concert.

Tooth & Nail Winery Summer Concert Series. Head to the castle every Friday from 5:30 – 8:30 for a free concert. Their kitchen will have food for sale and of course they’ll be offering wine by the glass and bottle.

Derby Wine Estates music series offers free live music each Friday 6-9pm. Food, wine and frosé available for purchase.

Pear Valley Friday Music Nights are offered 5:30-8:00 the first Friday of each month. A food vendor is on-site for each concert. Dogs and smoking are not permitted on the property.

Penman Springs Second Fridays – the second Friday of each month Penman Springs offers live music on the patio with a featured food vendor for each concert.

SATURDAYS

Saturdays on the Deck at Eberle Winery. Each Saturday afternoon you’ll be able to enjoy live music on the deck 12-4 pm, purchase food from a featured food truck and of course sip on Eberle wine.

Vina Robles offers live music every Saturday 12-3pm

Graveyard Vineyards has Les Beck, “The Piano Man”, performing in the tasting room every Saturday afternoon from 1-4.

Riverstar Vineyards offer a free summer concert one Saturday a month 5:30-8:30pm during the summer months. Bring a lawn chair or blanket. Family and dog friendly.

SUNDAYS

Villa San-Juliette’s Summer Music Series. Enjoy live music Sunday Afternoon 1-4pm. Order wine from the winery’s kitchen.

Summer Concert Series at Four Lanterns. No reservations are necessary for the Sunday concerts from 5-8pm. Enjoy live music and purchase food from the featured vendor each week. Parking and lawn space are first come, first served. Families, dogs, and picnics are welcome. No outside alcohol or smoking on the property.

The Patio at Rava Wines + Events. Be entertained with complimentary concerts on The Patio outside of Rava’s tasting room most Sundays and some Saturday afternoons. Gourmet food trucks will be onsite for most shows, so just bring a low-back lawn chair, blanket, friends and family. All ages welcome, must be 21 or over to drink alcohol.

Halter Ranch. Every Sunday from 1-4pm Halter Ranch offers a Sunday Sesssion with live music and wood-fired pizza.

Sculpterra Winery. Each Sunday from 1-4pm you can enjoy Songwriter’s at Play with featured live music and a food truck.

Still Waters Vineyards Picture Perfect Sundays. Every second Sunday of the month from April to October, visit Still Waters for a Picture Perfect afternoon filled with live local music, delicious wines, and great food! 

WEEKENDS

Asuncion Ridge Vineyards offers complimentary live music in their downtown tasting room most weekends. Music begins at 6pm on Fridays and Saturdays with Sunday music starting at 5pm.

Be Kind and Respectful

Regardless of the venue you choose, respect the rules (check ahead if you want to bring children or dogs, don’t smoke unless it is acceptable by the owners, and clean up your own mess). Never bring wine or other alcohol to a winery venue, clearly selling wine is the reason they are open! And if a food truck or small caterer is there, keep in mind they have to crank out a lot of food orders in a short period of time, so be patient. Sit back enjoy the music and your food will be ready before too long.

Hope to see you for free live music somewhere in Paso soon!

15c – Go for the Pizza

Wine Selection

If you live in or have spent much time visiting the Paso Robles area, chances are you are familiar with 15c Wine Shop and Bar. Owner and sommelier, Ali Carscaden, first opened 15c in Templeton in 2007 and has offered a casual place to hang out and explore wine ever since.

With a nice selection of local wines (some hard to find from producers who do not have a tasting room) and a huge selection of international wines, this is my go to place when I am looking for wines for special dinners or wine tasting events with my friends. They always have a good selection of bubbles from the very inexpensive to the “out of my budget’ range. Ali, and her staff have a vast knowledge of the wines and are willing to help make the perfect selection. You’ll find wines in all forms as well as beer and cider.

Sitting at the bar and enjoying wine by the glass is a great way to try new wines and chat with other guests. While at the bar, you really should try some of the pizza and other “eats”.

Chef Nathan Clapp

The menu at 15c has always offered beautiful cheese plates, fresh salads, sandwiches and nibbles like Castelvetrano olives and nuts. It’s a great stop for lunch, an afternoon snack, or for after work appetizers and drinks.

Less than a year ago Chef Nathan Clapp join 15c and with him came some fun additions to the menu. Nathan followed his passion and attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu and then spent time in Italy immersing himself in the local food and culture. Pizza is his forte and he worked over a year and a half to perfect his dough recipe.

His menu changes with the seasons and you can typically find a couple of specials on the board. While I was there I heard guests raving about his burger (which looked awesome served with house made chips).

I’ve had Nathan’s pizza before – he was the executive Chef at Villa San Juliette Winery prior to joining 15c. I confess to skipping out of my own tasting room to head there for lunch some days. He really does make the best crust in the Central Coast.

No matter how good the rest of the menu looks, if Nathan is offering pizza, I’m all in. My go to is a Margherita — with his perfect crust as the base, the tomato, mozzarella and basil all come together into the perfect dish.

Check out their website for more information and special events (like their monthly brunch and Friday bubbles with oysters).

Curry Time

Indian Food

The options for dining out in Paso have come so far in the 18 years that I have lived here. There are, however, a few “holes” in the offerings and a big one is an Indian resturant.

With this chilly, cloudy weather I found myself craving curry-based Indian dishes. With the lack of options for dining out, it was time to start cooking.

Ingredients are Key

Having the right, high-quality ingredients is key to making any meal. While Paso lacks a good Indian restaurant, it does supply all the ingredients to make a perfect meal at home.

At this time of year, 90% of all my produce comes from my Talley Farms produce box and the Templeton Farms market (soon my own garden will be delivering a bounty of fresh items).

I love knowing that my ingredients were raised in my area by people who follow sustainable growing practices. With cauliflower, peas and cilantro in my recent produce box, I knew “ALOO GOBI” was on the menu today.

Tip: chop up the cilantro stems and saute with the onions to add additional flavor to Aloo Gobi. Add the chopped cliantro leaves just prior to serving.

Spices (and herbs) can make or break a good curry dish. We are lucky here in Paso Robles to have the Spice of Life. After rummaging through my cupboard, I found everything I needed to spice up a delicious Indian meal. The menu included Aloo Gobi, chicken curry and basmati rice. I like things on the spicy side and since I wasn’t having guests over for this meal, I cranked up the heat (I confess to breaking out in a little sweat devouring this meal).

Eat this with Ranchero Cellars Galaxie

Many people say that the best pairing with Indian food is beer. They may be right …but …well …I’m a wine girl! I hadn’t planned on making Indian food today, and I certainly didn’t think through the pairing. This was impromptu on all fronts.

I feel there are several white wines that tend to complement spicy dishes. Viognier, full-bodied white blends, Gewurztraminer, etc. are all good candidates. Sparkling wine and rosé tend to pair with most things and are a safe bet if you just don’t have a specific pairing in mind. Even a fruit forward, light-bodied red could work.

I happened to have a Ranchero Cellars Galaxie open and was sipping on a glass of that while I cooked. I decided to just stick with it for the meal and have to say it worked quite well.

The wine is 100% carignan, has a lovely combination of lush fruit in the mid-plate and balanced acidity on the finish.

Give it a try. I had the 2017 vintage on-hand; however, the 2018 will be released later this month (I’ve sampled it as well and give it a thumbs up). Amy Butler makes great wine, vintage after vintage.

Salsa time!

Mango Habanero with Tequila Salsa

Backyard Get Togethers

Spring in Paso Robles is the perfect time to have friends over for a little backyard fun. Temperatures are ideal and with all the rain this winter, the abundance of greenery and freshly bloomed plants makes being outdoors even more rewarding.

If your friends are like mine, any type of get together involves food and wine. There are so many fun appetizers, but who doesn’t love a big bowl of chips and some salsa?

One of my friends who has a real talent for making a wide range of salsas, brought a trio with him on a recent visit. His “Toasty Roasty”,
Pico de Gallo and Mango Habenero were all delicious. Our group decided the hands down winner was the Mango Habenero (the photo at the top of the post might have given that away). With a little arm twisting, I convinced him to share his recipe.

Mango Habanero with Tequila Salsa

Recipe by Steve Rodriguez

Ingredients

  • 2 ripe, firm mangoes, diced
  • 1/2 medium white onion, chopped and rinsed
  • 1 habanero pepper, seeded and chopped
  • Juice of one lime
  • 1 oz 100% agave tequila
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves
  • Optional 1/2 Roma tomato diced for color

Method:

Combine all ingredients together. If the salsa has been sitting for awhile be sure to give it a good stir prior to serving.

Salsa is great on grilled meat.

Not just for chips!

While it is delicious served with tortilla chips, this salsa is also perfect served on a wide range of meats. We tried it with grilled pork chops and grilled chicken that evening. I am also going to make this next time I grill fish.

Eat this with Rosé

There are a wide range of wines that will pair well with grilled meat topped with this salsa. I have to say it makes me think pink!

It is early in the season for me to have picked my favorite Paso rosés (I’ve only been out to sample a few); however, here are some that I have enjoyed and can recommend. I should note I haven’t had a bad one so far this year — Paso pinks seem to get better and better!

I’ll plan a few tasting trips soon so I can report back with my top
rosé picks for this year. If you have any favorites post them in the comments.

Back Roads Wineries

For the second time, in less than a week, I found myself at Rava Wines & Events. First it was for the Rhone Rangers Wine Experience. This time it was for the Back Roads Wineries of Paso Robles tasting.

I have to say I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and given that the group has fewer than 30 members, and most small wineries, I wasn’t anticipating a large crowd. I am glad I opted to attend the VIP tasting, limited to just 50 guests, since the main tasting was sold out with 400 attendees. Hats off to the organizers of this event for offering a wonderful experience to a large crowd.

Steve Cass, of CASS Wines, one of the master minds behind this very successful event.

VIP Tasting

The VIP tasting was worth the extra money to be able to have an hour to taste and talk with the winemakers/owners. There were a couple of other perks that made the VIP portion of the event special too: 1) real wine glasses and 2) each winery had a food item paired with a wine.

Some of the wineries really took the pairing seriously and went all out, while others may have forgotten they were supposed to have food and it seemed like they popped into the grocery store for cheese cubes or a deli meat platter on their way to the event. I’ll focus on the good and give the others a pass for likely being too busy to figure out the food part.

The best pairing I had of the evening was at the Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards table.They served their 2015 Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido Vineyard with a beet crisp topped with caviar creme fraiche, garnished with chive and fennel. This delightful bite, with just the right amount of salt, enhanced the wine … and this is a wine I can drink without food and be perfectly content.

Tied for second place (following my very subjective system) was Mitchella Vineyard & Winery serving a mini Beef Wellington with their Bourdeaux blend (they also poured a nice Cabernet Franc) and Chateaux Margene serving a beef empanada with their Pinot Noir (of course they were also serving their flagship Cabernet Sauvignon). Hats off to both for going the extra mile with these home-made meat pastries.

A fun (and bubbly) pairing was at the Still Waters Vineyards table. Not only was the sparkling rosé refreshing, the paired vegetarian skewers also lightened up the tasting. The skewers had cucumber, mozzarella, tomatoes, dried date and a tangy balsamic vinegar. After so many meatballs, crostinis and sausage bites, this pairing really hit the spot.

Clearly, with a pairing at each table, there were too many to list them all. I enjoyed several, including the crostini at CASS Wines, the meatballs at Pear Valley Estate Wine, the stuffed mushrooms at Rasmussen Vineyards and for a sweet ending, the chocolate wine cake at Penman Springs Vineyard.

The Main Event

As I mentioned, the size of the crowd that came out for this event was a surprise to me. I think there were a few things that made this tasting so popular.

  1. Price. So often walk around tastings come with a huge price tag. This one was extremely reasonable at just $25 per person. With approximately 25 wineries, each pouring several wines, this was a bargain.
  2. Food options. Instead of building the food cost into the event and having to set-up food stations or hire servers to walk around with passed plates, the organizers brought in no-host food trucks. BRILLIANT! Often when I go to tastings, I am there to focus on the wine, so the extra $$ in the event cost is a waste. Not to mention so many people have food preferences, making it difficult to please everyone. By having the food trucks, those who wanted food could purchase exactly what they wanted at a reasonable price. I was happy to see my favorite, local food truck, The Hurricane Kitchen there with crowd favorites like the bison blue cheese patty, sriracha chicken and other items available on top of a bed of greens, or served in a bun.
  3. Live Music. I really think live music adds to a wine tasting event. Even with the low cost of admission, the organizers brought in a very popular, local duo – Bear Market Riot.

The Wine

Clearly the main purpose of the event was to showcase the diverse wines offered from the wineries located along the back roads on the east side of Paso Robles. Given the sheer number of wines being poured, there is no way I could taste them all; however, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ones I did taste. There were some lesser grown varietals like Pear Valley’s Aglianico and Charbono, as well as a large number of Cabernet Sauvignons (hands down the most widely planted grape in Paso Robles).

I also found a few wineries that are now on my list of places I have to visit. The first is bovino vineyards offering the gen.er.os.i.ty and Joludi brands. I hadn’t heard of them prior to the tasting and the barrel sample they poured is enough to get me out to their tasting room to try the line-up.

The second is Rava Wines. Although I have now been to their event center twice, I have never made it to the tasting room. I sampled a sparkling rosé and need to get back to try the rest of their wines – several friends have recommended that I do so!

Clearly it is time for a tasting trip to Paso’s Back Road Wineries. A couple of hours at a tasting isn’t long enough to explore so many wines!

Paso Rhônes

Paso Robles Rhône varietals and blends tend to get a lot of media attention and some even refer to Paso as “California’s Rhône Zone”. I recently attended the 2019 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience and was able to taste through a large number of excellent Rhone wines. Read on to see my top picks.

The Rhone Rangers

The Rhone Rangers is America’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines. Their mission is to educate the public on Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America and to promote the production and enjoyment of these wines, with emphasis on integration into daily lives.

The Paso Robles chapter has over 50 members and each year the group hosts a wine tasting event that kicks off with a seminar and luncheon.

I din’t attend the seminar and luncheon portion of the event; however, I did manage to talk with several people who did. Overall the comments were very positive with most people indicating they have attended this event for several years and never miss the seminar. The top comment was that it is so interesting to hear the winemakers and winery owners talk in length about the wines. They really walked away feeling like they got the inside scoop.

One couple said the highlight of the seminar for them this year was learning about cinsault from Daniel Callan of Thacher Winery. They had always considered cinsualt as a blending grape and were surprised how much they enjoyed the varietal as a stand alone wine.

 I was intrigued by what I heard and made my way over to the Thacher Winery table to try the 2017 Cinsault. In case you are not familiar with the grape, cinsault is a red skinned Rhône grape that is known to be drought-resistant and is capable of tolerating extreme temperatures (sounds ideal for Paso).  It is often blended with grapes such as Grenache and Carignan to add softness and bouquet, and clearly some vitners offer it as a stand alone varietal. Although light in color, the Thacher Cinsault offered a mouthful of fruit and a delightful aroma. I would enjoy this wine with light lunch.

I decided to continue my tasting by selecting some of the lesser known varietals. My quest led me to Amy Butler, of Ranchero Cellars, to try her 2014 Carignan. Amy has been a consulting winemaker for several wineries over the years, and it was the carignan grape that made her take the move to launch her own label. This is a very intense, lush wine that lingers on the palate. One of my favorite wines of the day, it is easy to see why Amy is so drawn to this grape.

Next up was the 2014 Tannat from Seven Oxen Estate Wines. Tannat is another dark, bold varietal that is often used as a blending grape to add color and structure. I found this a very enjoyable drink and could easily see having a bottle of this with a nice steak dinner. Although it was indeed on the bold side, the silky tannins and lingering finish make this very drinkable even on its own.

I decided it was time to move on from the unusual, standalone varietals and look for some more common Rhônes like Syrah, Grenache and the ever popular GSM blends. Not surprising, Eberle Winery had a nice selection of wines. Gary Eberle was the first to plant Syrah in California and I always enjoy his, vintage after vintage. The 2014 Syrah made from Stienbeck Vineyard’s grapes is rustic and delicious – easy to see why this wine receives so many awards and high ratings.

Another favorite of mine from the tasting was kukkula wine‘s pas de deux. The blend is dominated by grenache with just the right level of syrah. This is a combination I really enjoy (those who know me well, are aware that I am always happy to skip the “M” in a GSM). This could easily become an every day drinking wine in my house.

Another producer I really enjoy is Alta Colina. If you get a chance, be sure to visit their tasting room on the west side of Paso Robles and if they are offering vineyard tours, you are in for a real treat. The Toasted Slope Syrah grows on a hillside on their property with the most gorgeous views. This is another go to wine, that I enjoy year after year.

I don’t think it is possible to talk about Rhône wines in Paso Robles without mentioning Tablas Creek Vineyard. Tablas Creek makes exclusively Rhône varietals and blends, and is responsible for bringing many of the first Rhône cuttings to the area. Their early efforts importing and working through the lengthy process of having the varietals certified and propagated is likely a large reason that Paso is gaining its reputation as “California’s Rhône Zone”. I can’t say I have ever had a Tablas Creek wine that I didn’t enjoy. My hands down top pick is their 2016 Esprit de Tablas. This wine is a blend of four estate-grown varietals, propagated from budwood cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate in Chateauneuf du Pape: mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise. I highly recommend a visit to the tasting room surrounded by the the estate vineyards — you can also learn a great deal by following the winery’s blog.

Other Events

The Paso Robles Rhone Rangers host a number of events throughout the year, including monthly varietal tastings during the warmer months. These events are a great way to do an in depth tasting of the featured grape. Check the event page for these as well as other member events.

World of Pinot Noir

If you’re a pinot noir fan, you won’t want to miss this event. Each year, pinot noir producers from around the world gather in Santa Barbara.

“The World of Pinot Noir is the ultimate event for Pinot Noir fans. The two-day line-up offers a variety of experiences including seminars, lunches, dinners and the epic grand tasting. Don’t miss the Rosé lunch on the bluff … it’s the perfect way to spend your Saturday.” – Stacie Jacob, Solterra Strategies.

This year the event is being held March 1-2 at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara. I’ve attended this event the past couple of years (it’s the one wine event that actually gets me out of Paso) and I can’t think of a better venue. The ball room provides ample space for walk around tastings, even with the 100+ wineries pouring it doesn’t feel too crowded. The VIP Lounge is a nice little place to escape and sit for a bit (there are also wine and appetizers so you can hang out here in comfort) – the VIP ticket not only provides you with access to this area but also gets you into the grand tasting ahead of the crowd.

The venue has the perfect rooms for the seminars and dinners, so you can enjoy everything the event has to offer in one gorgeous, ocean side location. Parking is easy and Uber is reasonably priced in the area.

Tip: The hotel staff driving around in the golf carts are happy to take you on a tour. My friend and I did this last year and not only learned a lot, but were also entertained with a few good stories! Nice little break from wine tasting.

Grand Tastings

Even if you don’t want to splurge and purchase a full weekend or day pass, attending the grand tasting on Friday or Saturday afternoon is a rewarding experience. The number of pinot noirs being poured is almost overwhelming. You need a plan to navigate the room and decide which wines you will actually taste.

The producers are organized by region and I found that was a great way to plan out my tasting. I’ve always been a huge fan of both Santa Rita Hills and Russian River pinots from California, so I go for those right away. The really fun thing about this event is that you are able to taste some of the best wines from not only California AVAs, but also from out of state and international regions as well. This year you will find pinots from Burgundy, Chile, Mendocino, Monterey, New Zealand, Oregon, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Sonoma, and Napa wine regions.

You will find a nice mix of wineries, from the well known to ones you have likely never heard of (I discovered several new ones last year). From large to tiny, the room will be packed with producers ready to pour you a taste of their finest pinots.

Tip: Break up your wine tasting and refresh your palate by trying some of the rosés and bubbles too, or take a break at an appetizer station.

The Food

One of the other things I have to give this event high scores for, is having a nice selection of food available (included in the ticket price) at the grand tastings. Instead of your typical spread of cubed cheese, crackers, and bread, the tastings offer gourmet, international cheeses selected specifically to pair with the wines. There are also a few food stations set-up with culinary delights prepared by the Ritz-Carlton Bacara chefs. This year they are offering items like: Gaviota Strawberry and Tomato Gazpacho, Crab Bruschetta, Thai Vegetable Spring Roll, Beef Slider, Crab Cake Slider, Gourmet Mac & Cheese, Wonton Wrapped Shrimp, and Goat Cheese Flatbread with Bacon Crumble.

There are also a number of dinners both Friday and Saturday evenings (these require a ticket in advance). I attended a Friday evening dinner last year and I have to say it was a real treat. The elegant room had all the tables set and decorated with vegetables (it was a Santa Maria Valley dinner). Each course was paired with multiple pinots and throughout the dinner the winemakers talked about their wines. An added perk was the dinner guests were all delightful and each table had some of the winemakers seated. The conversations at the table were ALMOST as good as the food and wine.

These dinners sell out every year. In fact you have already missed the opportunity for a few of these. If you are interested, check out the menus posted on-line and purchase your tickets today.

Attend this event and feel like a rock star. Details for all tastings, seminars, parties, and dinners, along with ticket purchase information can be FOUND HERE.