Harvest Wine Weekend: Vino crew hits the road in search of crush festivities

As you may or may not know, the editorial staff of the Paso Robles Press & Atascadero News also produces Vino Magazine, the premier wine magazine of Paso Robles wine country. This past weekend as Harvest Wine Weekend brought countless events, parties, fun activities, culinary treats and more to wineries and tasting rooms across the North County, the Vino Magazine crew hit the road in search of the quintessential Harvest Festival experience. 
We decided that SummerWood Winery would be our first stop after hearing about the tasting room’s huge window overlooking the production facility and the harvest time activites that take place there. From there we visited nearby Castoro Cellars for another tasting before moving on to Opolo Vineyards for a quick bite and a peek at their giant harvest fest party. 
We hit the road in the early afternoon. There was a hint of an autumn chill in the air. We passed more than one local pumpkin patch, all buzzing with activity and as we reached the first vineyards of Templeton and Paso wine country, we were treated to beautiful views of endless rolling hills, covered in vines beginning to change all sorts of warm, rusty colors. That’s where reporter Beth Giuffre picks up the story:
Why is it I always want to move into the tasting rooms around here? They are ridiculously picturesque. Shouldn’t I be calling this place home, with miles of grassy lawn that overlooks an estate Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard having an afternoon glass of champagne in the gazebo? As soon as our news crew arrived at my imaginary new home, down the road from that white-washed wooden sign that points you in 12 or so different prospective wine adventure-based directions, to next to the beautiful, peaceful SummerWood Inn, Stan and I decided we would be the first to taste SummerWood’s wines, and we knew this place takes good care of you, so we stepped up to the plate. SummerWood’s tasting room is an L-shaped marble-topped bar in a vast room with a fabulous boutique collection of gifts and local specialty foods. 
An entire wall of SummerWood is a window, and as we stood and tasted, we witnessed a winery worker up on a ladder, reaching into one of the big steel vats, stirring the grapes. They had harvested all their grapes and had nine tons of fruit to process. The young man, who was doing “punch downs” looked like he was getting a serious workout, and among the rows and rows of gigantuan steel tanks, in the super-clean and impressive high ceiling room, I felt kind of like we found the golden ticket to the chocolate factory. 
We were a day early for the Caramel Apple Bar for Harvest Wine Weekend, but we didn’t miss the pet costume contest. Stan loves the reds, and I love the whites, and the little dog dressed as a hot dog, loved gazing at my leg. I just like being in a place where families and pet companions can hang out too, and the vibe is casual and unpretentious. The room was packed with tasters. A whole family. A couple of senior ladies who walked over from the Inn. Some lovey-dovey couples doing the wine-country thing. SummerWood had three tasting room employees pouring at the bar. They were very personable and knowledgable and constantly moving – arranging cheese plates and placing fresh glasses, pouring the line, from the 2016 Picpoul Blanc to the 2012 “Sentio,” the Central Coast Wine Competitions’ gold winning Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc and Syrah blend. 
The darkest I go these days is Grenache, so it was no big surprise that my wine of choice from more than ten of the wines we tried was Chilean winemaker Mauricio Marchant’s 2014 Grenache blend: the GSM. My taste buds enjoyed the violet undertones and earthy mushroom notes, sweet oak and rhubarb on the palate, with the Syrah adding structure, and Mourvèdre adding the spice. I like a lingering finish on my reds, and this one took my personal prize, with the soft tannins relaxing and stretching out the medium-bodied wine. 
I took a bottle of the 2014 Vin Blanc home with me. I found it to be the most aromatic of the whites, as I was very pleased with the orange and peach in the nose. The mouth-feel opens into creaminess, with that little touch of oak and a rounded and delightful finish. I also loved the Gold Medal winning 2014 Viognier, also creamy and full of ripe peaches and citrus, beginning with a honeysuckle aroma and ending in a long finish.
Stan and I were having a lovely chat with Lindsey Cash, the Tasting Room and Wine Club Manager, a smart, young bundle of knowledge from Massachusetts who comes from a wine-making family and knows quite a bit about the history and feel of SummerWood. She helped with the 2015 crush. 
“I loved it,” she said, and said they don’t do the the ‘I love Lucy’ kind of barefoot grape stomp, but she’s been out there with some rubber boots crushing the grapes. Harvest is such a busy time for the wine industry. One of the tasting room staffers said she knows this time of year the winemaker and his helpers will be in the cellar until three in the morning some nights. The tasting room is usually a bustling place, especially on Fridays, and Cash said often times SummerWood is a first stop on the wine tasting tours, since it opens up at 10 a.m. 
I could have gone on and tasted more, but it was time for Castoro Cellars, so I passed my ruby-stained baton off to Stan Angel:
Make no mistake, we live in a special place at a special time. The Central Coast is fast becoming one of the finest winemaking regions in the world and we’re here to see and enjoy it.  No better way to enjoy it than during Harvest Festival when all our local wineries put out their very best products for us to sample. 
I was fortunate enough to sample some very fine wines with my colleagues at two of our prestigious wineries. It was great to have us all sample the wine and share opinions on what we liked or disliked about each vintage. 
First stop was SummerWood Winery and I started with a white blend called Vin Blanc, a 2014 vintage which blends 53 percent Roussanne and 47 percent Viognier. A lovely bouquet of citrus and a fruit forward taste of pear and citrus with just a hint of toasted oak. Next we tasted their 2014 Viognier, which was a Gold Medal winner this year at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A well-deserved award. Light flavors of peach with a hint of citrus and a long smooth finish. We then moved to SummerWood’s red wines. Each one exhibited the big bold flavors coupled with light tannins we have come to expect from many of our local winemakers. The most memorable red wine though was the 2012 Sentio — a lovely blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. This was a Gold Medal and Best of Class in the 2016 Central Coast Wine Competition. This wine exemplified the very best of this winery’s red wines, bringing together the richness of plum flavors with a coffee finish and the fragrance of blackberry and vanilla. 
Our next stop was Castoro Cellars. We parked our vehicles and made our way up a walkway covered with a trellis supporting grape vines with bright yellow leaves and big clusters of purple grapes hanging down everywhere. We sampled the fruit, plucking a couple of grapes from the vines as we made our way up to the tasting room. 
While I found many of the wines we sampled from the tasting list to be excellent, there were a few standouts. The first is a refreshing white blend called Tango, a 2016 vintage — a lovely blend of Viognier, Chardonnay and Albarino. A perfect wine chilled on a warm summer night, there was a wonderful fragrance of pear and jasmine with a light spicy taste over the fruit. I found my colleagues all agreed on the superior 2015 Grenache and the award winning 2014 Zinfusion as well. 
These two wineries were the perfect example of the way to best sample and enjoy our local wines. I truly valued the input my friends shared with me. 
After our visit to Castoro, we left for Opolo Vineyards, handing the story off to Luke Phillips:
After tastings at Summerwood Winery and Castoro Cellars, the gang broke away from the 46 West wine trail and headed out Vineyard Drive to one of the most popular Paso hot spots, Opolo Vineyards. 
We’d seen the vines surrounding the Highway 46 wineries turning autumn shades of red, orange and brown, but the hillsides once again gave way to bright green as we entered the cooler areas of the Adelaida district.
Arriving at the Opolo tasting room can be a magical experience. Turning off of Vineyard Drive, a small dirt road takes you about a quarter mile through the vineyards to a fork in the road. One fork takes you to Opolo’s main event area and the other to the tasting room. During Harvest Fest weekend, a gigantic white tent sat atop a hill in the event area, but I was meeting the others at the tasting room, so I took the fork leading to the left. I parked my Jeep out back and made my way around the tasting room to the front patio. This is where the magic comes in.  
Like most things at Opolo, the patio is huge, flanked on one side by the tasting room and on the other by a vine-covered hillside, backlit by the late afternoon sun. Sinatra played over the patio speakers and the intoxicating smell of meat cooking drifted through the air.
We were in search of our Harvest Fest meal, and although we hadn’t purchased tickets for the $115 dinner being served up on the hill, I was aware of the tasty fare that Opolo often has available at the tasting room, so that’s where we headed with our fingers crossed and we weren’t disappointed. 
There weren’t many options on the menu due to the festivities happening elsewhere in Opololand, but we did get our choice between a Cevapi sausage platter for $19 or a Cevapi sausage wrap for $17. So Cevapi it was. 
I’d never heard of Cevapi, but later research revealed it to be a skinless sausage made from lamb, veal, pork and beef, a very popular dish across southeastern Europe. Opolo served the sausages Greek style with pita bread, chopped tomato, chopped onion, lettuce and Kajmak, yet another food with which I was not familiar. Turns out, it’s a dairy product similar to clotted cream made from the milk of a water buffalo. You learn something new every day. 
The food hit the spot. The lightness of the other ingredients balanced the strong flavor of the meat. The flavor of grilled meat also paired fantastically with my included glass of Opolo’s Mountain Zin, a smooth and light selection. 
After our meal and an hour or so of lounging on the shaded patio we loaded into a trailer pulled by a tractor that took us up the hill to get a first-hand look one of the biggest harvest parties in Paso Robles. That’s where Madeline Vail picks up the story:
As Luke polished off his sausage wrap, a shuttle reminiscent of an old gypsy wagon rolled into view. I hopped on along with several other hungry and excited harvest revellers. As our full wagon was pulled by a single tractor through the vineyard, higher and higher toward the oversized, white tent perched magnificently on the top of the hill, I was enraptured by the sheer beauty and almost completely forgot what I was there for in the first place — grape stomping. 
Besides my initial exposure to grape stomping via Lucille Ball’s 1956 episode, “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” or the viral Youtube video of the unfortunately, clumsy local TV reporter that fell hard during her own grape stomping demonstration, I had never experienced this myself or even saw it done live. Even as the day of the event approached I could still hear that poor reporter’s deep, guttural groans of pain from the video that my children would gleefully hit replay over and over again as they wiped tears of laughter from their eyes. 
My prayer for the week was as follows, “Please God, let the grape tub be huge, not too high above ground, and most importantly please don’t let me fall.”
As we disembarked, we were greeted by a live acoustic trio, several young ladies and men donning the native holiday costumes representing some of the Opolo family’s Serbian roots,  and three, very large, wide, shallow tubs packed with clusters of dark, purple grapes just inches off the ground. If I fell, at least it wouldn’t be far. 
“We started this with just a small group of friends and family but then 10 years ago my parents decided to make it a party for their club members and the public,” said daughter and namesake of one of the owners, Ricki Quinn. “Every year it just gets bigger and bigger, it’s really been amazing. My niece Kennedy has been doing it since she was two.” 
Just then, I turned to Kennedy, age 7, for some history and some sage advice.  
Me: So what’s your first memory Kennedy?
Kennedy: Falling down. It was disgusting.
Me: So do you have any advice for me?
Kennedy: Don’t fall down.
Note taken. After a couple of raw oysters bathed in “hogwash” and a full glass of the 2014 Chardonnay down the hatch I decided it was time. I kicked off my cowboy boots, removed my socks and I’m sure committed a major ‘faux pas’ by not washing my feet first. My stomach lunged a little at the thought but then practicality kicked in and reminded me that there was absolutely no way this juice being stomped on tonight by hundreds of virgin grapestompers and gleefully inebriated revellers was ever going to see the inside of a barrel much less touch the rim of someone’s glass. 
I proceeded to roll up my jeans, hand my glass over to my husband and to my own surprise, delicately set my right foot upon a single, plump cluster of grapes. They were so cold, so innocent, I actually felt bad stepping down onto them. Then the next foot. I was all in. Up to my shins in full cluster, cabernet grapes and it was unlike anything I had ever felt or even expected. 
“Well, that’s that,” I said to myself just as my husband’s voice broke through my apparent mild case of catatonia saying, “Stomp on them! You’ll never make any juice just standing there, the whole point is to squish them.” 
But I didn’t want to squish them. I was good. I felt enough to get the idea but of course you can’t go to a grape stomping without actually “stomping” so “a’stomping” I went. 
Apparently the stomping action reminded others that this was the whole point of the party —  besides enjoying four rounds of passed hors d’oeuvres, free flowing wine and bubbles before the magnificent family style buffet including whole spit roasted lamb and dozens of whole barbecued chickens — because I was suddenly surrounded by fellow stompers laughing, some even using me for balance as they tottered around, and most impressively maintaining their composure while posing for their “once in a lifetime” photo ops. 
When I say once in a lifetime, it’s not a cliche. As I was hosing off my feet in the hospitably provided barrels on the side of the mountain, I heard not just one but several people say, “Well, I can write that one off my bucket list!” Indeed. 
I will absolutely return next year to enjoy the frivolity of the Serbian boys and girls dressed in their colorful native costume as the sun sets over the horizon, my endless glass of fine wine, look forward to my sumptuous dinner, and watch all the newbies cringe and groan as they persistently try to rinse the sticky juice and those stubborn, residual grape skins lingering between their toes.  
If someone asks me to join, my response will be, “No thank you. I’m good. I’m very, very good,” as I grab yet another oyster from a passing tray.
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