There was much excitement at the inaugural Derby Day Wine Fest staged at Windfall Farms in the mare and foaling barn on May 7. The afternoon turned out to be special including the fact that 80-1 longshot Rich Strike, a three-year-old colt and most definite underdog, pulled away in the stretch to finish first.
A live stream of this history-making race at the 148th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs was seen on a large screen television by the enthusiastic crowd while sipping some of Paso’s impressive wines including Saxum and an equine-themed cocktail named Horse’s Neck.
The sponsoring Rotary Sunrise suggested a Kentucky Derby-style dress code so, yes, women turned out in dazzling threads while, this being Paso, a good number of men’s cowboy hats were spotted in the crowd.
Outdoor and indoor rotunda horse paddocks served as tasting cabins with one winery per paddock. Food trucks offered delicious fare. A silent auction table was lined with local wines and lifestyle packages while the central grassy area turned festive with blankets and lawn chairs. Proceeds from the auction and ticket sales were over $20,000, reported at the time of this deadline.
The Derby Day Wine Fest was created to replace the Annual Crab Feed which would have marked its 21st year. And there’s a good reason for the change “due to the crab cost almost tripling,” Steve Baker, founder and winemaker of Circle B Vineyards & Cellars, told me.
The event’s normal budget used to be $5,000 to 6,000, but because of the crustaceans’ recent price increase, the cost would have skyrocketed to $15,000. “We didn’t think an increase in price from $75 per ticket to $125-plus would be doable.”
From the looks of it, the Derby theme was a success with a crowd of some 200 people and is poised to be the annual fundraiser for the Rotary Club of Paso Robles Sunrise. “From the feedback we got, it surprised us,” said Baker. “Everything came off without a hitch.” Indeed, Baker said that next year’s date has been secured for March 6, 2023.
There was an eclectic range of winery participants from the cult label Saxum to Jade Moon, a small production wine available only at the Odyssey restaurant.
Saxum, a rare sight at local wine fests, was the first to sign up for this event, Baker remarked. “Heather and Justin [Smith, owners of Saxum] stepped right up without hesitation.”
While Justin Smith was absent from the event (attending his daughter’s college graduation), Saxum’s Victor Lopez and Kacee Fox offered two vintages of Broken Stones — the 2010 rich and juicy blend of sirah and mourvèdre from James Berry and Booker vineyards and the 2012 deep-hued concentrated blend of syrah, mourvèdre, greanche and petit verdot sourced from Booker vineyard.
Carl Bowker, founder-winemaker of Caliza, was pouring both Caliza and a new label he calls End of the Day, an everyday affordable wine. “You can enjoy it at the end of the day,” Bowker explained. “These are primary grapes we don’t do at Caliza,” he said of the wines produced from sourced fruit. The lineup ranged from the 2021 albariño to the 2020 Cuvee of zinfandel, mourvèdre and syrah. Part of the proceeds from his sales benefit local ag-related charities.
Huw and Dale Morris’ Jade Moon is as local as it gets. The small 300-case production is sourced from Paso fruit and produced at Sculpterra currently through December 2023. The wine is sold exclusively at Paso’s Odyssey restaurant.
Dale, assisted by her daughter Siân, poured 2016 vintages of a velvety cabernet sauvignon and Odyssey, an unusual blend of primitivo, cabinet franc and syrah lush with plum flavors on the palate and soft tannins.
For Tommy Booth, a Jeopardy fan, it was ironic to be pouring at this horse farm that once belonged to Alex Trebek. Booth not only makes his own wine under the Wine Boss label but crafts private label wines for a list of clients, among them actor/comedian Kevin Hart. The Hart Family Vineyard in Calabasas is planted to cabernet and zinfandel. “He bought the vineyard that was owned by my dad,” said Booth.
Booth’s production is small, around 50 cases of wine for each of his 12 clients, mostly rock stars. “It’s quality over quantity, and I try to make unique Rhône and Bordeaux blends.”
There was a good selection of vibrant whites, among them minerally albariños at Absolution Cellars and Diablo Paso; refreshing pinot gris at Derby Wine Estates; and a 2021 sauvignon blanc at Tooth and Nail.
At Seven Angels Cellars, owners Greg and Pamela Martin offered some delightful reds: a 2019 cherry-laced pinot noir; a dark 2017 petite sirah and the 2017 Kindred, a rich chocolaty blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and merlot.
Deno Wine’s owner/winemaker Dennis Sharpe is dedicated to his small annual production of some 400 cases mostly produced from his Alto Pomar vineyard in Templeton. Sharpe offered two versions of grenache and mourvèdre blends, the textural 2018 and the riper 2019. “This one needs aging,” he remarked of the latter.
At Absolution Cellars, Tania Coulombe represented owner/winemaker Dirk Neumann who was busy pouring wines at his Morro Bay tasting room. Neumann seeks out fruit from prized Central Coast vineyards for his 1000-case annual production with a portfolio of 15 different wines, some bottling as little as 25-50 cases. Coulombe offered a line up of a watermelon-fragrant 2021 Rosé of sangiovese, the 2020 cherry -laced grenache, and a 2019 tempranilllo rocking with plum notes.
Other participating wineries included Lone Madrone, Tackitt Family Wines, Ranchita Canyon Vineyard, Hearst Ranch, Graveyard, AllBaer, Bodega de Edgar, Locatelli, Zanoli, Caelesta and a selection of spirits at Distillers of SLO County.
With such a dazzling array of hats, it was natural to have a competition with the prize going to Wendy Shannon. “I made it last night and it took me two-and-a-half hours,” she told me of the wine-themed hat complete with mini bottles, a horse, a wine bucket and grapes.
The Rotary Sunrise got its name from their member meetings held in the mornings, explained Baker, the group’s past president. The group supports local charities like ECHO and Loaves and Fishes as well as international programs.
“We have adopted the town of Ile in Mozambique,” Baker said of the group’s current program. “At the start of Covid, we raised money for them for hand-washing stations, masks and informational posters.” The Sunrise group is also working with that government to start a local Rotary chapter. “We go beyond Paso,” said Baker.