In contrast to last year’s heat wave sun-baker, cool unruly winds whistled through the shady oaks at Templeton Community Park. However, this failed to dampen the enthusiasm of die-hards attending the 16th annual Pinot & Paella Festival.
Along with a sell-out crowd of 550 payees, chefs, winemakers and volunteers pushed attendance to some 700 people. Blankets and chairs were spread in the park redolent with saffron and spice while Casey Biggs and his Wine Man Band entertained with oldies from across the decades.
What started off as a grass roots effort 16 years ago, the Paso Pinot & Paella Festival has in its lifetime donated a cool $500,000 to Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation (PRYAF). This year the festival raised $35,000.
Event founders and owners of Windward Vineyard (an exclusively pinot noir winery), Marc Goldberg and Maggie D’Ambrosia, launched the very first festival in 2004 at their intimate winery with 125 attendees.
Needless to say, the festival has gathered momentum with fans booking tickets a year in advance. Along with the food and wine, attendees get to act as judges with each voting for his or her favorite paella in the People’s Choice Award.
Marc and Maggie have long championed Paso’s pinot. They spearheaded the Paso Pinot Producers, a small group of about two dozen winemakers who have jumped on the pinot bandwagon, producing this varietal in addition to other wines.
This year the festival was an embarrassment of riches with knockout pinots and outstanding paellas. Presented by the Paso Pinot Producers, the afternoon featured 23 Paso wineries and 13 local chefs, each adding his/her spin on paellas ranging from duck and chorizo to assorted seafood cradling the Spanish Bomba rice.
Soon to open his restaurant Les Petits Canailles on Spring Street, chef Julien Asseo (formerly the executive chef at Caesers Palace’s Guy Savoy restaurant in Las Vegas) gave his paella a French spin with duck, morels and asparagus, the assembly finished with garlic and saffron cream. Nearby another Frenchman, PasoTerra chef Andre Averseng assisted by his wife Cristina, prepared his traditional version loaded with assorted seafood.
Chef Johnny Jantz and his partner Shaana Rehman, owners of Boccabella Farms, swirled a generous drizzle of their estate olive oil over a symphony of seafood including Prince Edward Island mussels, Manila clams, Palacios chorizo cooked with San Marzano tomatoes, sweet peppers and a splash of pinot noir Rosé.
Charles Paladin Wayne of Catering by Chef Charlie once again brought boxes of Franzia wine. “Why waste good wine,’ he said as he doused his seafood, duck and chorizo paella with the inexpensive boxed wine.
Kurt Metzger of Thomas Hill Organics presented an untraditional version of his famous 14-hour slow cooked braised short ribs assembled with asparagus, prosciutto and butternut squash. Piazza Del Panne Italian Cafe served a sumptuous one topped with jumbo blue lump crab, lobster, prawns and duck confit.
It was a tough call savoring some 13 dishes, but fans voted for their favorite. The winner was a smoky Allegretto Puttanesca paella with peppers, chicken, shrimp and olives crafted by Cello Ristorante’s chef Justin Picard and sous chef Ben Lugo. The Picholine and Castelvetrano olives were harvested from Allegretto Vineyard Resort’s olive groves.
Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ’s paella of smoked chicken, linguiça, chorizo and shrimp topped with arugula pesto was voted first runner-up, Paso Catering came in second and PasoTerra third. Winners were rewarded with certificates and wine.
The paella flavors were further heightened with sips of silky, seductive pinot noirs crafted by Paso producers, wines that showed a range of flavor profiles representing the Central Coast.
When the festival was launched, the criterion was that winery participants use only local Paso fruit in their pinot wines. But rules have relaxed over the years since Paso is not a region known for pinot noir and many local winemakers use fruit from cooler regions in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties.
To that extent, Adam Lazarre’s pinots labeled Central Coast are a testament to noteworthy pinot noir growing in the region. “We keep our options open every year and get the best fruit for our small lots,” he said pouring his Lazarre Wines’ 2014 raspberry-laced pinot.
Goldberg is quick to point that pinot has been growing in Paso since the 1960s when pioneer vintner Dr. Stanley Hoffman planted this variety at his Hoffman Mountain Ranch in the cool Adelaida Hills district. “We hope that eventually we see more pinot from Paso,” said Goldberg carrying the region’s pinot flag. “It’s rapidly growing.”
Roger Nicols of RN Estate, who has consistently been making outstanding pinots from Santa Barbara County fruit, has now added Paso appellation to his portfolio, sourcing fruit from the west side Kruse Vineyards.
Sculpterra on the other hand produces distinctive pinots from its vineyards located on Paso’s warmer east side. “The valley creates a micro climate, even though it’s on the east side,” commented Faith Frankel on the site of her family’s vineyard. She offered an impressive line up of pinots from 2012 to 2017 vintages. And as a bonus she offered the 2008 vintage “for the discerning taster.”
Ray Derby, owner of his eponymous winery, also indulged attendees with a couple of older vintages, the 2014 current release and a 2010 vintage. “We want people to see what happens when you lay it down for four years,” he said of his elegant pinots produced from the family’s wind-blown, hillside vineyards in San Simeon.
I was surprised to see Steffanie Anglim, whose Anglim winery is known for its Rhône style, now getting in the pinot game. She poured the 2017 floral Rosé that was aged in oak for 12 months. I discovered a couple of other delightful pinot Rosés — Last Light winery’s 2018 sourced from Jesperson Ranch in Edna Valley and Decroux’s 2018 Rosé produced from Santa Rita Hills fruit.
It’s always a special treat to savor the Full Circle pinot from Tablas Creek Vineyard, a winery also better known for Rhône-style wines. The pinot from the Templeton Gap District is made from Haas Vineyard, a small patch that was planted by the late Robert Haas in front of his house in Templeton.
Calcareous Vineyard’s 2017 pinot layered with cherry notes from York Mountain’s Carver Vineyards was yet another great find. Other participating wineries included Hoyt, Cayucos, Carmody McKnight Estate, J. Lohr, Dunning, Opolo and Jack Creek.
As in previous years, chefs and winemakers donated their recipes and services. This year a couple of food sponsors donated their products. Vanilla Saffron Imports offered saffron kits and Olea Farms presented olive oil bottles to the winners and generously offered oil for cooking the day of the festival.
As the festival came to a close, Biggs complimented Marc and Maggie for their vision. “They’ve been a shining light and inspiration to all of us,” he noted.
Goldberg, however, shied away from taking the credit for the popular festival. “It’s not about us, but about you all attending this event,” he told the crowd after winners were announced. “And it’s about the children, who are incredible.”
Mindy Dierks, executive director of the 19-year-old PRYAF organization, concurred: “Thanks to events like this we are able to provide arts education to 400 children.”