There were multiple celebrations in progress at the Wine Industry Awards on July 20 at the California Mid-State Fair’s Mission Square.
First off the Central Coast Wine Competition (CCWC) anointed Cass Vineyards & Winery as 2018 Winery of the Year. Then there was the San Luis Obispo County’s 2018 industry leaders awards naming Paso veteran John Munch as Winemaker of the Year and Randy Heinzen as Winegrape Grower of the Year. The late Archie McLaren, founder of the Central Coast Wine Classic, was honored posthumously as Industry Person of the Year. Honorees were nominated by their peers in the industry.
But before there were speeches and handing of awards by local politicos including Paso Mayor Steve Martin and US Congressman Salud Carbajal, there was a walk-around tasting of CCWC’s gold medal winning wines offered with great pride by their winemakers.
Steve Cass, the soft-spoken vintner, was deeply touched and humbled when I asked what this award meant the second time around (Cass was honored with Winery of the Year award in 2015).
“Every winery in Paso makes very good wines, so winning this award is super special,” said Cass, whose wines also nabbed Best Overall in Red, three Best in Class, a Double Gold and six Gold Medals.
Winning such awards raises visibility of Paso wine region, Cass reflected. “It gives reasons for people to visit us and helps to grow business for us and Paso.”
A throwback to the 1960s Berkeley hippie days, Munch is regarded as an icon of icons by his colleagues. Outfitted in his trademark Panama hat, he greeted the rousing ovation as he came on stage to receive his award plaque and belt buckle with the wisecrack: ”Great to see the shiny faces of all you winos.”
But on a pensive note, the vintner was touched by the honor and somewhat embarrassed. “So many people are doing important things that make sense,” he commented, clearly underplaying his accomplishments in Paso’s wine industry.
Befitting Munch’s irreverent persona, he was introduced in a friendly “roast style” by fellow winemaker Bill Scheffer. “He’s known as founder/winemaker of many failed wineries,” he said of Munch’s career that spans winemaking at such legendary wineries as Estrella and Adelaida. In 1999, Munch went on to establish his Le Cuvier winery with partner Mary Fox.
The maverick winemaker notorious for his non-interventionist style including native yeast fermentation and barrel-aging for several years (an uncommon practice in Paso region) had a simple explanation: “I did some of the whacko things because I’m lazy — I don’t like bottling so I age wine.”
Lined up from A to Z, Alara to Zotovich wines, the tasting tent was buzzing with many Paso pioneers and veteran winemakers pouring their Gold Medal wines. I was delighted and impressed by a couple of newcomers celebrating their first wins: Janu Goelz’s 2017 Alara grenache blanc, a deliciously crisp and refreshing wine that won Best in Show. The Gilroy-based former NBC weather reporter, who learnt the trade from her winemaker-husband, is off to promising start.
“This is our first wine competition,” she noted.”It’s an unexpected honor.”
The 1200-annual case production of Alara includes other wines such as pinot noir, sangiovese and grenache, available through the tasting room in Gilroy.
Another newbie was Lasorda Family Wines, founded by Tommy Lasorda, the Hall-of-Fame former manager of Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. The 900 annual-case production is crafted in Paso with local fruit by winemaker Terry Culton. Pouring the deep rich 2106 cabernet sauvignon (with a touch of petit verdot and merlot), David Lasorda, the winery’s general manager and Tommy’s nephew, said: “We can’t keep up with the orders. The Dodgers are one of our biggest accounts in Southern California.”
Crafted from fruit along the coastal vineyards in Avila Beach, Kelsey See Canyon winery offered some refreshing white wines — The Kiss, a sparkling chardonnay and other blends such as Consonance, a chardonnay/viognier blend; and Spontaneous Groove, a white Rhône blend. (The Rhône style grapes are sourced from Paso).
Pamela and Greg Martin, owners of 7Angels (soon to open a tasting room in Templeton), poured a sensuous 2015 pinot noir made from Edna Valley fruit; at Brecon Estates’ table I savored their signature steely albariño also crafted from Edna Valley grapes.
Bob Dunning offered a spice-laced 2015 Reserve zinfandel and a fragrant viognier that won a Double Gold. Peter Cron, winemaker at Filipponi Ranch, served his 2015 cabernet sauvignon ringing with caramel notes from grapes sourced from San Miguel’s Cross Creek vineyard.
Villa San Juliette offered Double Gold winners, the well-structured 2015 grenache and 2014 cabernet sauvignon. I also enjoyed the 2014 alicante bouschet (a grape native to France’s Languedoc region), a wine that showed a spirited acidity which makes it food friendly.
Gary and Marcy Eberle shared their four winners — 2017 vintages of viognier, Côtes-Du-Rôbles-Blanc and muscat canelli along with the 2015 Vineyard Selection cabernet sauvignon.
As the tasting and awards came to an end, the merriment continued in Mission Square. Not one for accolades, Munch left the hoopla of the fair as the crowd carried on with the celebration. With his team, Munch slipped out and headed for his favorite watering hole, the Pine Street saloon for a shot of Jamieson.