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.

Esprit du Vin

The Wineries of 46 East Paso Robles held the 18th Annual Esprit du Vin (the “Spirit of Wine”) January 19, 2019 at American Winery of the Year, Riboli Family of San Antonio Wineries, new event facility. This was an exciting evening of wine, cheese pairings, culinary delights and live music.

The event sold out with 350 attendees. Surprisingly, in the new event facility, that did not feel crowded. Being able to roam between the various spacious rooms, with large windows, gave the event a nice airy feel. Being able to step out onto the large patio for fresh air was an added plus.

Nineteen wineries each poured 1-2 wines, all expertly paired with gourmet cheeses. Who doesn’t love a good wine and cheese pairing? This year the cheese pairings seemed to be a step up from what I remember in the past. There were some good old standbys as well as plenty of unexpected surprises.

If I had to pick one pairing as a winner, I would pick the creamy blue paired with a Bordeaux blend named Stormwatch by San Antonio Winery (this is from their San Simeon line and is around $70/bottle). The intense flavors and tannins in the wine played with the harsh yet creamy flavor of the cheese.

I can’t say I have made it to all 18 Esprit du Vins; however, I can say I was very impressed with how much the group has improved this event since I last attended. In addition to each winery having a paired gourmet cheese, there were several other culinary offerings by local purveyors and live music in a grand room with large windows.

A local favorite trio, Burning, Bad and Cool, helped set a fun mood for the event. They managed to keep the sound level just right, and as always, had a few people dancing.

Although I love cheese, I was delighted to see a number of other culinary items added. Foss Farm offered a quail egg with a couple of different options of seasonings. Farmhouse Sweets sweetened things up with both vanilla and chocolate mini-cupcakes. The saucy Miss Oddette, served up hearty ribs (with her own, famous sauce of course) and mac & cheese.

Of all the food served, I am torn to name my top pick. I have to go with a tie between Hurricane Kitchen’s smoked elk sausage crostini (topped with a delicious mustard) by Chef Richard and an over the top yummy paella by Chef Jeffry of Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ (easy to see why he has won so many cookoffs!).

It wasn’t all about the food! With so many wines being poured, I couldn’t taste them all (well I could if I was willing to spit them all out or have a driver). I’m sure there were many wonderful wines being offered that I didn’t sample. My top picks of what I did try are:

Pear Valley Albariño

Penman Springs Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Rio Seco Cabernet Franc

I’m looking forward to the 19th Esprit du Vin in 2020 – early bird tickets are already available on-line.

Central Coast Cider Festival

RedCiderGlassAlthough Paso Robles is known for the diverse wines from over 200 wineries, there are a growing number of spirits, beer and cider producers. Clearly an area where you can “get your drink on” regardless of your beverage preference.

Last year the first Central Coast Cider Festival was held at the Atascadero Lake Pavilion and was such a success it is now an annual event. The second festival is May 13, 2017 from 5-8pm at the same venue, and tickets can be purchased on-line ($65) right up until the event. There will be some tickets available at the door for those last minute decision makers; however, advanced tickets are encouraged.

THE VENUE

BristolCiderFansThe event definitely draws a fun crowd, from the hard core cider lovers, to those looking to enjoy a lovely evening with live music, an English-style pig roast and of course cider tasting. The organizers are expecting approximately 400 people this year, a nice number for the venue which includes walk around tasting in the pavilion, lounge areas and the large outdoor deck overlooking the lake.

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THE CIDER

Last year, was my first time tasting cider, and it was an eye opener. I was only familiar with the old-style, super sweet, apple ciders and have to say that isn’t my thing. I discovered so many different styles and flavors that I can’t wait to sample and learn more about this beverage that seems to be growing in popularity. Not all of the ciders were made from apples and several had added ingredients for an interesting twist.

ciders

I see some new names on the list. This year there will be 16 Cider producers, each offering tastes of their line of ciders. While some producers like Bristols Cider and Tin City Cider have tasting rooms in the area, several of the others can be difficult to find, and do not yet have a local tasting outlet. New this year is the Cider Pop-up, allowing you to purchase ciders on-site! Sounds great to me since last year I tried a few I really liked and didn’t know where to buy. (The best place to find a good selection all year round is 15C Wine Shop and Bar in Templeton).

THE FOOD

PigInBox2The pig was so delicious last year — so glad to hear Chef Jeffery Scott will be back again this year and roasting the pigs on-site. Here is the full menu for the buffet dinner:

  • Brined & slow roasted heritage pork, apple cider bbq sauce
  • Carolina rice & smokey black eyed peas, scallion, espelette pepper
  • Low country cole slaw, vidalia onion, red & green cabbage, pickled carrots, lemon-poppy seed dressing
  • Anson mills cornbread muffins, spiced honey butter

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There will also be a variety of snacks available during the walk around tasting: Tortilla chips from Taco Works ,Bacon wrapped dates, thanks to 15c Wine Bar & Shop, fresh buttery popcorn that will be popped on site in an old fashion popcorn machine and pub mix – clearly no body will go home hungry after this event!

THE MUSIC

Live music will be provided by Erin & The Earthquakes. This funky, jazzy, bluesy band will have you on the dance floor before the end of the night.

OTHER WEEKEND ACTIVITIES

If you can’t make it to the main event on Saturday you have two other opportunities to enjoy cider this weekend:

Friday, May 12 from 6 – 9pm: Cider Tap Takeover at 15c Wine Shop & Bar in Templeton. Taste, Meet and Mingle with some of your favorite cider producers! Call (805) 434-1554 for more info.

    • Bristols Cider
    • Golden State Cider
    • Jean Marie Cidery
    • South City Cider
    • Tin City Cider

Sunday, May 14 from 11:30am – 2:30pm: Mother’s Day Brunch at Bristols Cider House, prepared by Chef Jeffery Scott. Call (805) 400-5293 for more info.  Menu:

  • Festival Style Braustwurst with a pretzel bun
  • Apple sauerkraut, spicy stone mustard
  • Bavarian potato salad

 

 

Foodmaker Dinner at McPhee’s

I was lucky enough to receive a ticket to the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau’s “Foodmaker Dinner”. The dinner was a fund raiser to help support the local agriculture businesses.

I’m a huge fan of Ian McPhee and was delighted to hear they had selected McPhee’s Grill for this dinner as part of their Foodmaker Dinner series. “Agriculture knows quality and prime steaks and seasonal menus have made McPhee’s Grill a destination of choice for more than twenty years. Owner and Chef Ian McPhee embraces the concept of fine food that people understand.” – SLO Farm Bureau.

As we arrived we were greeted with a glass of 2016 Patelin de Tablas Rosé  and given some time to mingle with the other guest. Ian had prepared some wood fired pizza as appetizers for this portion of the dinner. Who doesn’t love a refreshing rosé and pizza?

Crabcake-2

Our first course was Ian’s Jumbo Lump Crab Cake severed over sugar snap pea and fennel salad. This is my kind of crab cake! It doesn’t have all the bread crumbs and isn’t fried crispy like so many people do. This one delivers the large lumps of crab for fresh flavors. The fresh peas and fennel really complemented the crab. (I talked Ian into sharing this recipe in my next book!).

A dish as fresh as this cries for a refreshing wine. It paired perfectly with J Dusi’s Pinot Grigio – a nice white that is less than $20 a bottle. Such a wonderful start to the sit down portion of the meal.

Steak-2

I expected something from the grill and was certainly not disappointed to see the slow oak wood roasted prime strip loin as the centerpiece for the entree. Cooked to perfection, this large (and yes I did eat the whole thing) steak was so tender with a nice sear and smokey aroma. Served with salsa verde, peppers, onions, peas, and grilled scallion mashed potatoes, this was so delicious — a very upscale meat and potatoes meal. The pairing with this course was the Hearst Ranch Malbec. This is one of my favorite Malbecs from the region and I need to get back over to the coast to taste the full line-up again soon.

ChocolateCake-2I had every intention of skipping dessert. Then I saw it was June’s Famous Chocolate Decadence Cake with Caramel Lime Sauce. I am such a sucker for a flourless chocolate cake. It didn’t disappoint! I decided something that good needs to just be enjoyed and savored, so no guilt. This decadent dessert was paired with Roxo Paso Melange, a port-style dessert wine that I could easily have instead of dessert.

Be sure to visit McPhee’s Grill and try some of his seasonal dishes. Ian has been in business at 416 S Main Street in Templeton since 1994. This is a local favorite where you can always count on excellent service, a nice wine list and very satisfying, delicious meal!

 

Albariño Summit Paso Robles 2016

Yesterday I attended the first ever Albariño Summit at Brecon Estate. The event began with a short seminar and was followed by a tasting where 24 wineries from California’s Central Coast poured their Albariño. There was also live music and Spanish-themed food for attendees to enjoy.

The Seminar prior to the tasting was a fabulous idea since it provided information regarding the history, winemaking styles and varietal characteristics of Albariño.

Apparently, there is still some debate regarding the origins of the grape: some say Portuguese, some say Spanish.  We were able to taste an Albariño from the Northern Portugal where some of the best Albariño is made and also a tank sample from Southern Portugal (this would not be bottled standalone but instead would be blended with other varietals). It was interesting to taste the cooler climate versus the warmer — and of course this came in handy when tasting Paso Robles based versus coastal Albariño later in the event.

During the seminar we also tasted a Tangent Albariño and heard from their winemaker. I was surprised to hear that there is currently less than 200 acres of Albariño planted in California. Tangent Wines, located in the Edna Valley, has the most planted acres. Clearly this is a varietal they feel does really well in their vineyards.

The final taste was a Brecon Albariño from their library. It was fun to taste a wine and hear about it while sitting by the very tank in which it was made.

A Few Facts

  • Prior to 1970 Albariño was not bottled as a standalone varietal in Portugal or Spain — today it is very popular, especially in the Northern areas of both countries
  • Albariño is a vigorous vine and will grow into old age with a large trunk and plenty of vigorous shoots. The vines are sensitive to direct sunlight and heat. The vine is easily identified by its heart shaped leaves.
  • The aromatics of this wine come from the grape (versus fermentation in oak). As a result, winemakers will often leave the crushed grapes in contact with the skin for greater aromatic extraction and will typically make the wine in stainless steel. Although, as we heard from the Brecon winemaker, it is sometimes aged oak barrels (he uses neutral oak and lets the wine sit on the lees).
  • Typical aromatics include: pine needles, turpentine, rose petal, banana and peach. There is also a salty element to Albariño that makes it pair extremely well with a wide range of seafood.
  • The grape is typically picked with a high acidity and can have a slight hint of green. As the wine ages it tends to show more yellow.

The Grand Tasting at Brecon, with plenty of trees for shade, was the perfect venue for an outdoor tasting. I wish I could say I tasted all of the Albariño poured; however, with 24 wineries pouring 1-2 wines that was way more than I wanted to tackle in a single event. I will say there were a few that really stood out including: Bodegas Paso Robles, Barr Estate, Shale Oak, TangentPear Valley and Per Cazo.

This was a lovely event complete with guitar music and food paired with the wine (ceviche, empanadas and fruit). The crowd was relaxed and I was happy to run into a few friends with several from other local wineries.

I hope they do this event again next year!

Photo Gallery (click to enlarge).

Paso Albariño – New Event!

AlbarinoSummitWebOne of the things I love about Paso Robles is that you can find so many different wines that thrive in the area. Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most widely planted grape in the AVA, the red Rhônes are the most talked about, the jammy Zinfandels remind people of the early days and well somehow, the white wines don’t get much attention.

That is all about to change for Albariño. On June 13th, over 20 Central Coast wineries with gather in Paso Robles at Brecon Estate for the sole purpose of shining the light on this Spanish varietal. This is the first ever event dedicated to Albariño in the USA and will include both a seminar and a grand tasting.

The seminar is already sold out; however, if you are interested in attending the tasting you may purchase tickets on-line. The $35 ticket includes tastes of over 20 Albariño wines, live flamenco guitar and food pairings reminiscent of Northwestern Spain.

I plan on attending the seminar and tasting so will post the details after the event. I am looking forward to exploring this grape in depth and I’m especially interested to see what the sommelier has to say about food pairing.

 

Earth Day Food & Wine 2016

 

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Earth Day Food & Wine is an annual event hosted by the Vineyard Team, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization working with growers on sustainability issues. The proceeds from the event support farmers through educational scholarships and free Spanish language education for vineyard workers.

This year, the event was held at Castoro Cellars. The venue was ideal with plenty of parking, several tents, a large stage for the band and open areas to lounge with couches, tables and chairs. Under the clear blue sky, with plenty of shade from the oak trees, event attendees enjoyed vineyard views as well as an unlimited sampling of wine, beer, hard cider, spirits and gourmet delights.

This is one of my favorite Paso events. One of the main reasons is that the food and wine selection is incredible. In general, most events seem to either be focused on wine with a small selection of food (usually just cheese and bread) or a food event with a few supporting wineries pouring limited tastes of wine. Earth Day Food & Wine offers an excellent balance of food and wine in a casual environment. Live music, lounge areas, vendor sampling, beer, spirits, hard cider, education and food demos all add to the package.

See the gallery at the end of the post to get a good sense of what was offered this year. I had a few favorites that I will call out:

Castoro Cellars for the wonderful venue (and the tasty Albariño)

Chef Charlie for the wonderful service and the tasty bite loaded with spice which paired so well with Zenaida Cellars‘ white blend (also delightful).

Jeffry’s Catering for their great food & service — you can find him at Barton Family Wines (the Kitchen Window Thurs-Mon)

Hurricane Kitchen for a full menu of interesting, gourmet items — this is my new favorite food truck in paso!

Negranti’s Ice Cream Truck for offering the best sheep’s milk ice cream I have ever had (favorite treat of the day)

Niner Estate for both the wine and the food at this event

Trumpet Vine Catering for the crowd pleasing pork belly bite

The Vineyard Team for organizing such a wonderful event for a good cause — and for keeping it earth friendly.