The 2024 Paso Wine Fest was smokin’ hot!  

Tyler Florence
Photos: Mira Honeycutt

As a kick-off to the 41st Paso Wine Fest, celebrity chef Tyler Florence turned up the heat and brought his live-fire cookout challenge for five Paso chefs selected by his team in collaboration with Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (PRWCA).

Swirls of smoke filled the grounds as Paso chefs went rib-to-rib vying for the local title of Masters of Fire event at the Paso Robles Event center on Friday the night before the wine festival’s Grand Tasting on May 18. 

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“I think I’m having the barbecue dream of my life,” said author, chef and restaurateur Florence on stage, greeting a crowd of some 350 foodies. The Friday cookout which was a rollout for his Masters of Fire Experience was filmed by a Food Network crew as a pilot for the potential Master of Fire TV Series. 

“We’re super excited for the wine fest,” exclaimed Joel Peterson, executive director of PRWCA. Florence and his team approached PRWCA just a few months before the fest on their collaboration, said Peterson.

“We’ve been working with them (PRWCA) for four months and they’ve been great,” said Florence before announcing Paso’s Master of Fire. While all five dishes were impressive ranging from beef and pork to salmon and rabbit, it was Spencer Johnson’s St. Louis-style pork rib that received the maximum votes from the crowd. The executive chef at Daou Vineyards walked away with the title of Paso Robles Master of Fire and a $5,000 prize. He will go on to compete in the national challenge in Dallas. 

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Spencer Johnson, executive chef at Daou Vineyards

Spencer’s pork rib which spent four hours on oak and almond wood was served atop caviar ranch dressing alongside Mighty Cap mushrooms; this dish also won the chefs’ votes from competing colleagues. Jeffry Wiesinger, of Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ, won the judges’ prize. 

Other chefs included Justin Hall of The Hatch Rotisserie and Bar; Justin Munson, executive chef of Oak & Vine; and  Saree Musick, pastry chef at The Restaurant at JUSTIN.

While the five local creations were outstanding, it was Florence who delivered the “wow” factor for his slow-cooked Angus beef short rib (an oxymoron for this dinosaur size-rib) alongside black truffle potato salad and green peppercorn salsa verde.

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At Live Fire, five dishes by Paso chefs and the large Angus beef short rib by Tyler Florence

Tyler handed out the dramatic plates to a long line of eager diners as his grilling team got busy slicing and plating. I learned that one thousand pounds of beef was harvested from 33 grass-fed cows; the meat smoked for nine hours and rested in a warm-over for eight.

 The Masters of Fire Experience tour is a partnership between Florence and Williams Sonoma to support Florence’s new book American Grill which was released during the fest weekend. Florence was on hand for book signings on Friday and Saturday events.

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Jenny and Joe Barton (right) with team Barton

The four-day celebration from May 16-19 began with winemaker dinners around town and ended with open-house events at various wineries.

But it’s the Saturday Grand Tasting, the marquee event, that draws a large number of visitors and locals. This year the event drew over 2,700 attendees (including vendors, winemakers and volunteers). An astonishing number of 100-plus wineries were joined by a handful of distillery and craft beer producers.

The festival is a cornucopia of Paso’s range of wines, especially Paso’s signature bold red blends and scintillating white blends. With 60 different grape varieties grown here, the blending possibilities are endless.

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Andy Owen welcomes visitors at Daou Secret Garden

Call it “Paso-bilitythe availability of fruit and creativity of local winemakers who have access to this spice box of varieties. So you have a no-holds-barred blends that go beyond the marriage of Rhónes and Bordeaux, welcoming the addition of unusual varieties to the mix. 

Take Hubba Wines’ Rosé crafted from Valdiguié, Syrah, Zinfandel and Grenache crafted by winemaker Riley Hubbard. Then there’s Nancy Ulloa of her eponymous label who blends Pinot Blanc and Grenache Blanc with Verdejo. 

Nancy Ulloa, Ulloa Cellars and Andrew Tucker, Turtle Rock Vineyards

New to Paso downtown Tank Garage Winery produces predominantly blends. Manager Rustle Bedwell offered Lay Low in Paso a deep-hued blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Negrette and Sangiovese.

Riding on the Paso blending wave, The Blending Lab Winery is just that. Visitors in its downtown lounge can get a tutorial on the art of blending taking home their personal bottling. It almost seems a rarity to find a 100% varietal wine in the Paso area. Yet there were a few among the lineup of super Paso blends offered in the five large tents.

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Austin Hope Wines’ elevated experience

The festival’s wine and food experience began in the VIP lounge, an added attraction this year for early admittance ticket holders who were welcomed with a portfolio of wines from the CAB Collective and Rhône Rangers and cocktails from the Paso Robles Distillery Trail organization. 

An elaborate grazing table offered assorted charcuterie courtesy of Alba Provisions + Fruit and freshly shucked oysters provided by Paso Wine Merchant and Grassy Bay Oyster Co.

In addition to the majority of wineries set up in the five large tents, the activation lounge scene was in full swing with over 20 wineries that offered over-the-top signature experiences.

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Rachel Haggstrom, executive chef at The Restaurant at JUSTIN

Each year, wineries up the ante in creativity, and this year Daou’s Secret Garden was exceptional. Visitors lined up to enter the enchanting maze that offered a different wine at each turn ending up with the flagship Soul of a Lion Bordeaux blend. 

At the Frontier enclave, a taste of Austin Hope’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon came by way of a mysterious hand that slid out from a grassy wall upon ringing the attached bell. Others in this picnic-themed area included wines from Eberle, CASS, Calcareous, Chronic Cellars, My Favorite Neighbor and bold reds from McPrice Myers and Hard Working Wines.

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Shelby Martin and Steven Harmour at Sextant

Barton Family Wine Estate and Grain + Vine space was as usual party central: Jenny Barton passed around her signature Jello shots, a DJ rocked the scene and the Happy Drinker mobile bar furnished cocktails. Marking its 50th anniversary, J. Lohr’s wines were offered with Picanha, strips of sirloin caps fresh off the grill.

Other food bites were delivered by In Bloom owner Chris Haisma and his culinary team handing out assorted skewers of strawberries and oyster mushrooms.

Hannah Tobin and Riley Roddick, Hubba Wines

Over at JUSTIN, Michelin-starred chef Rachel Haggstrom served gazpacho flecked with Cabernet Franc vinegar and Paris Valley Road gave a Gallic spin with pot-au-chocolate. Its sister winery, Sextant, was anchored by a nautical couple who offered their Rosé funneled from an ice block. 

The five expansive tents held a large number of winery participants. There were dozens of Paso veteran wineries such as Dubost, Law Estate, Castoro, Ecluse, Brecon, Halter Ranch, Le Cuvier, Hearst Ranch, Bella Luna, Still Waters, Adelaida, Alta Colina, Ambyth, Tablas Creek, Thacher, Four Lanterns and more. 

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Rustle Bedwell and Bertus van Zyl, Tank Garage Winery

Among the newcomers were Vinyl Vineyards, Cairjn, CRUSH, High Camp, Rockbound Cellars, Ruby, Frisby Cellars and La Perdignus.

As is always the case, there was way too much wine and too little time. Winding up at JUSTIN’s lounge, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Phoenix. It was their second visit to the festival. Once again, they were taken by the sheer number of wineries this year and admitted to visiting about a dozen wine tables. Paso’s diversity and generosity were much too overwhelming.