A group of Southern California visitors at Cass Winery’s grape stomp
Photos: Mira Honeycutt

Harvest festivals in Paso Robles usually find winemakers ready to party with harvest nearly over. Not in 2019. This year’s harvest weekend festivities, kicked off the weekend of October 18-20, discovered winemakers often absent as tons of grapes were still coming in.

Yet marketing and promotion knows no season so Paso’s vineyards and wineries were buzzing with harvest activity for visitors. There was plenty of grape stomping, food trucks, tasting of barrel samples and a full-on Adelaida market at Halter Ranch Winery, where Farmstead Ed had gathered purveyors from SLO County farm trail.

Here’s a round-up of some of the activities:

Cass Winery’s Grape Stomp: Owners Steve and Alice Cass and Ted Plemmons along with their team created a terrific wine country setting, with grape-filled tubs ready for stomping set against a backdrop of vineyards. This popular harvest event draws fans from all over California. In between getting feet stained, visitors munched on pork and chicken tacos washed down with Cass white and red Rhône wines served from an alfresco bar counter. While Alice walked around offering the new Cass sparkling wine and Plemmons, magnum bottle in hand, proudly poured the 2016 Rockin’ TED, a GSM blend, Steve offered a tour of the newly opened event center and barrel room up the hill from the winery. Meanwhile, a series of industrial containers are in the midst of conversion into fashionable lodging units. A farm educational program is also in the works.

Sean Geoghegan, Pam and Ray Derby, Spencer Johnson

Derby Wine Estates’ Dinner – Owners Ray and Pam Derby hosted an intimate winemaker’s dinner highlighting their portfolio of wines from Paso’ three different regions — east, west and way-out-there-on-the-coast. This wine and food experience was paired to perfection, orchestrated by chef Spencer Johnson of Danior Catering and Derby’s newly arrived winemaker Sean Geoghegan.

The 2014 sparkling Brut Rosè of pinot noir from Derbyshire (way-out-there) was served with beet tartare and goat cheese, followed by two vintages of the Fifteen Ten White. A Rhône blend accompanying the abalone dish was served two ways — the richer, rounder 2011 stood up staunchly to the fried abalone with caviar butter while a crisp 2018 was a perfect match for the ceviche with abalone. The 2015 Graciano complimented fried calamari and papas bravas while the nuance of the delicious grilled lamb kicked up with two 2016 syrahs, showing expressions of the two vineyards — the white pepper-scented from the cooler region of Derbyshire and the riper version from Derby West. The decadent 2010 Bouche D’Or, a late harvest roussanne, added a perfect finishing touch to a pineapple upside-down cake.

Morava Folklore Ensemble at Opolo Vineyards

Opolo Vineyards – Opolo fans — and they are legions — gathered on a hilltop anchored by a huge white tent, ready to do grape stomping, folk dancing and feasting on oysters, while two large lambs and multiple chickens slowly roasted on an open pit. Honoring his heritage, owner Rick Quinn and his team laid out their annual Serbian-themed celebration complete with the folk music of KGB band and colorful dances performed by the Morava Folklore Ensemble. The feast for the two-day festivity that drew a collective crowd of over 1200 was prepared by the Quinn family and friends who labored for one week to create the traditional dishes including the delicious apple strudel. There was an impressive lineup of liberally-poured Opolo wines from viognier, albariño, chardonnay and Rosé to bold Bordeaux blends, tempranillo, sangiovese and zinfandel.

Marc Goldberg

Windward Vineyard Library Tasting – Owner/wine-shepherd Marc Goldberg is so passionate about pinot noir that his winery is exclusively dedicated to this varietal. Goldberg set up a formal tasting of five Monopole vintages, dating back to 1998, in the barrel room for a group of 25 people. At age 17, Goldberg fell in love with pinot noir when he tasted a Pommard from Burgundy. “That blew me away,” he told the attendees. Ever since his first vintage in 1993, Goldberg has maintained a consistent profile of pinots that are textured, layered and expressive of the Templeton Gap’s sweet spot for pinot.

The tasting commenced with the 1998 vintage, evocative of Old World wines and expressive with intense truffle aromas on the nose, moving on to the elegant 2000 strawberry-scented and layered with complexity. Both the 2002 and 2005 showed bright cherry fruits balanced by earthy forest floor notes while the 2008 Gold Barrel Select, of which a mere 200 cases were produced, was layered with mushroomy notes and a lush mouthfeel ringing with cherries on the palate.

The art of cheese board assembly at Brecon Estate
Photo: Natalie Goldstein

Brecon Estate – Build your cheeseboard and take it home. That was the activity as a group off cheese-lovers signed up to learn the art of assembling cheese and charcuterie from Maliysa Lou, owner of Loulou Cheese Girl. A cheeseboard needs an array of textures and colors along with proper acids, sweetness and savory flavors, advised Lou. Assembly should include hard and soft, goat and stinky Gorgonzolas. Also throw in pickled items, jams and honeycomb, and an assortment of salamis and chorizos. All this was paired with Brecon wines ranging from albariño and viognier to zinfandel and petite sarah.

Winemaker Rob Henson and tasting room manager Cynthia Bowser at Peachy Canyon Winery

Peachy Canyon zinfandel barrel tasting – The weekend featured Mark Adams band and Ruddell’s Taco truck plus the special 2018 zinfandel barrel tasting. Winemaker Rob Henson, who tends to craft elegant and restrained style of zinfandel, poured three barrel samples of the 2018 vintages. From Nancy’s Vineyard, the zinfandel showed riper notes. The Cottage was expressive with spice and white pepper and the D-Block zinfandel produced from one acre of an older heritage vineyard was well structured. Henson lined up two more wines from the D-Block, the intensely aromatic 2017 and the 2019. “This is to show you where it all started,” said Henson of the current vintage starting its own zinfandel journey.

While some wines are in the barrels, overall harvest has been delayed this year due to cooler weather. Things are so pushed back that Eberle Winery canceled its annual Halloween haunted cave tours at the end of October because those caves are still jammed with fermenting grape juice.

Earlier this month I met with a few winemakers and asked their comments on this year’s harvest. Due to much cooler weather, Bob Tillman, owner/winemaker of Alta Colina Vineyards, was only 75 percent done in early October. “We are three weeks behind and I think it will reflect in wine quality because we have a little bit longer hang time for phenolics to develop and get some subtle flavors and aromas,” Tillman noted.

Daniel Daou, co-proprietor and winemaker of Daou Vineyards & Winery, also saw this as a blessing. “If we have another two to three weeks of weather like this,” he insisted, “we’ll have beautiful wines: physiological ripeness will be fantastic.”

Winemaker Damian Grindley also seemed to be pleased with this vintage. “I’m surprised how nice things are coming along, it’s looking great and could be a signature year for early varieties,” commented the co-owner of Brecon Estate.