“We were using the S-word before it was cool,” said Kris O’Connor, executive director of the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT; vineyardteam.org), as she led a gaggle of press into the Earth Day Food & Wine Festival, held on April 17 in Santa Margarita. For this was an oenophile and foodie’s green wet dream, a world where farmers, food purveyors, chefs, winemakers all seem to strive to out-sustainable each other, making now-hip terms like local, organic, and biodynamic seem commonplace. While the event, with the accurate and enticing tagline, “Eating and drinking our way to a cleaner planet,” lasted only a Saturday afternoon, O’Connor and her team have been dedicated to sustainable winegrowing since 1994, and the event was merely the lynchpin of a weekend of glorious greeniness.
While some wine and food fests dial it in, this one aims to “showcase the role of sustainable farming in a healthy environment.” Part of that is pairing producers with restaurants, stressing the connection from farm to fork. “In some cases, the restaurants regularly work with local growers (for example, Artisan and Windrose Farm), so they manage the pairings themselves,” explained O’Connor. “In other cases, we play culinary matchmaker. We, for example, know that Xxxx farms will have XXX pounds of golden beets that week, so we let Chef Xxx know, and he/she creates a dish from that. It is a bit tricky, because of the seasonal/weather-dependent nature of food & produce—sometimes farmers really don’t know what they’ll have available until that week. Sigh…”
Still, in that sigh is a whole realm of creative culinary possibility. Tom Fundaro, the brilliant chef from Villa Creek (1144 Pine St., Paso Robles, 238-3000, villacreek.com), created a chile verde for the ages, redolent of a richness of peppers so fulfilling it almost didn’t matter the pork was so succulent. And then there’s what the regular “teams” manage to do, for some of the best food at the fest was at Artisan’s (1401 Park St., Paso Robles, 237-8084, artisanpasorobles.com) booth. There was a delicious pork stew, rich in beans and depth of flavor, and Barbara’s (as in Barbara Spencer from Windrose Farm) green garlic soup, a vivid taste of spring in each spoonful.
The fresh-from-the-farm theme popped up the evening before at a special dinner in the Ancient Peaks Winery tasting room (22720 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita, 365-7045, ancientpeaks.com). Chef Jeff Jackson of Santa Margarita’s acclaimed The Range (22317 G St., Santa Margarita, 438-4500, no Web site, no credit cards!) prepped a simple, simply pleasing farmers’ market-fueled three-course meal starring a chicken breast stuffed with Paso almonds, roasted eggplant, and Happy Acres feta cheese. While the Ancient Peaks wines were delicious, especially the magical meritage Oyster Ridge that comes from soils rich in oyster fossils, there’s a secret around the corner from the tasting room that’s perhaps more wonderful. Dunbar Brewing fits maybe 20 people if they all stand tall and don’t mind being friendly, features its own fine beers, and even has culty taps like Dogfish Head Aprihop and Sierra Nevada’s 30th Anniversary Ale. Better yet, you’ll leave feeling like you know everyone in this delightful chummy town—this isn’t just about local eating or imbibing, it’s about becoming a local yourself.
Just ask Dick Niner, owner of Niner Wine Estates (2400 Hwy. 46 W., Paso Robles, 239-2233, ninerwine.com), who’s overjoyed he had the chance to buy the legendary property Heart Hill, where they are just putting on the finishing touches on a fabulous new facility. “We weren’t focused on LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design], but focused on the electricity bill. But our builder said, ‘You’re going in this direction, you might as well get LEED certified,’” explained Niner winemaker Amanda Cramer. “We’re hoping for a silver, but we’ll definitely get the basic.” That environment-friendly design, from the massive soil nail wall that shields/insulates the winery to the extensive use of skylights, carries through to extensive ergonomic care for the workers and designs made for ease of cleaning for a better wine, too. It’s little wonder Cramer shows off the facility like she’s in a dream world.
Another dream world can be found at Halter Ranch (8910 Adelaida Rd., Paso Robles, 226-9455, halterranch.com), 960 acres split into 42 blocks, 8 grown biodynamically, all overseen by the watchful eye of Mitch Wyss, whose farming philosophy can be summed up in his phrase, “Today is a photograph of a hundred-year movie picture.” To tend his land as sustainably as possible, he points out things like his mobile chicken coop, from which his “SWAT team of 26 chickens” emerge, thanks to a solar-powered and activated door, to clean out all the pests in any area of grapevines. “What’s my worst fear?” he rhetorically asked. “It isn’t getting fired. It’s that people think that wine is like Coca-Cola and made in some factory or laboratory. Wine is made in the vineyard.”
Sometimes in S.L.O. County, you can sleep in the vineyard, too, or at least next to it. Such is the case at Rock Basin Vineyards (4670 and 4680 Las Pilitas Rd., Santa Margarita, 438-3590, rockbasinvineyards.com), off a vista-rich country road along which you can buy fresh eggs. A delightful retreat, you get an entire house to yourself, but you can wander and visit the horses, ewes, and ranch dog Bo, or just sit by the pond and watch the meadow grass ripple in the wind. Ranch owner Berenice “B” Parsons’s vines are young, but tended by rising-star winemaker Justin Kahler (JK Wine Co., Michaud Vineyard), whose grandmother lives down the road a bit. So there’ll be care, lots of it, and local is the keyword.