A mecca for foodies and wine aficionados, the annual Winemakers’ Cookoff will celebrate its 21st year this month, staged by the Paso Robles Rotary Club at the sprawling Paso Robles Event Center on August 10, from 6 to 9 p.m.
The Winemakers’ Cookoff is a runaway success and proves that the community is hungry not only for great food and wine but also to help local high school graduates with college or vocational training scholarships.
A brainchild of Paso pioneer Gary Eberle, the food and wine event that will draw an attendance of some 1,500 people this year started with humble beginnings in 1999.
I met Eberle seated at his usual spot — the front terrace of his eponymous winery, glass of cabernet sauvignon in hand and wife Marcy by his side practicing her guitar.
“How did it all begin?” I ask.
A Rotarian since 1973, Eberle was at a conference in Southern California when he was inducted as president in 1999. The Rotary Club at the time was raising no more than $4,000 annually for scholarships given to high school graduates in Paso.
“Find a way do something different,” Eberle said, recalling how his fellow board members urged him to come up with a fundraising plan. “This was embarrassing that we were raising just $4,000. Rotarians are movers and shakers.”
The vintner recalled his own student days: “I wouldn’t have gone to college if I didn’t get scholarships.” So Eberle decided to tap Paso’s wine industry. “We could increase the prestige of Rotary and get the winemakers behind it.”
The local wine industry, Eberle noted, has consistently shown its generosity over the years.
“I guarantee in any given year Paso Robles wine industry is donating collectively well over a million dollars a year,” he said. “We [Eberle Winery] give $100,000 a year in California.”
Back in the day Eberle enjoyed summer grilling with his fellow vintner Tobin James and suggested the idea of a winemakers’ cook-off as a fundraising event.
“We can raise money and it will go into the foundation earmarked for Paso Robles High School graduates for scholarships,” he said.
The idea was hatched with the help of Rotary volunteers along with board members Vicki Silva and Sally Davis (the two continue to assist with the event). The team was off and running. The 1999 Cookoff featured more than a dozen wineries and took place at the old Martin & Weyrich amphitheater with an attendance of 1,500. It raised around $7,000.
“We started off with two rules,” Eberle said. “The chef had to be owner or winemaker and the food had to be cooked on the grill.”
The rules have now been relaxed as wineries bring in professional and amateur chefs who pair their dishes with local wines.
The Winemakers’ Cookoff, growing exponentially in attendance and participants, eventually moved to the larger Paso Robles Event Center. The initial goal was to raise $50,000 but the event has long surpassed that.
“This year there’s no doubt we’ll be able to raise and give $75,000 in scholarships,” Eberle said. “Now our goals is $100,000 and we are maybe two years away from raising that.”
Indeed, in 2018, Paso Robles Rotary donated $75,000 to 19 high school grads who were selected from 100 applicants.
Eberle emphasized that 100 percent of the money raised at the Winemakers’ Cookoff goes toward the scholarship fund.
“It’s all volunteer work,” he said. “There are no administrative costs.”
Wineries and chefs donate food and wine and a number of sponsors underwrite all expenses involved with production and staging of the cookoff.
The cookoff that began with just the People’s Choice award has over time evolved to include judges’ awards for professional and amateur chefs.
Eberle, however, continues to do his own cookoff, grilling assisted by his staff and Marcy, who also handles the event’s overall marketing
Over the years, Eberle’s grilling technique has brought him four judges’ awards but he is embarrassed to accept the revolving trophy.
“I don’t want to win,” he urged. “I want the high school students and Rotary to win.”
Looking ahead, Eberle commented: “We want to get to the point that if the cookoff dies, the foundation can spin off $100,000 a year in interest and investments.” But he quickly added, “I can’t imagine this event stopping in my lifetime.”
For the vintner, the cookoff is a win-win event.
“It benefits Paso industry and the students,” Eberle said. “Of all the things I’ve done, I’m the proudest of this.”
For ticket information, visit winemakerscookoff.com