A sudden burst of wind followed by a downpour of rain failed to dampen the spirits of attendees. Instead, they kicked up their boots to Mother Corn Shuckers band and savored fried chicken dinner and a variety of wines from some 20 participating wineries.

Steve Cass, Chip Cass and chef “Charlie” Charles Paladin Wayne
Photo: Mira Honeycutt

The event was Taste of the Back Roads which brought together over 200 oenophiles at Cass Winery’s Barrel Room. While shining a spotlight on the Back Roads Wineries group, the event was a fundraiser for Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation (PRYAF) and raised over $11,000 from live and silent auction lots that ranged from library wines to lifestyle packages.  

The Back Roads Wineries of Paso Robles is a collective of 30 boutique wineries tucked along the winding country roads south of Hwy 46 East and east of Hwy 101. This includes a group of wineries lined along the Union Road wine trail and the Creston corridor. 

Getting through this together, Paso Robles

Wineries from this enclave of Paso are a good representation of the region’s diversity as they cover four Paso sub-appellations — Geneseo, El Pomar, Creston and Templeton districts.  

And it’s this mélange that guests savored at the grand tasting, a spectrum of flavors ranging from Italian and Spanish style wines to Bordeaux and Rhône blends. 

People holding the Reserve VIP pre-tasting tickets got a head start with an early entry to Cass’s terrace lined with tasting tables before the weather caused everyone to swiftly drag the tables under the sheltering roof. Despite the misty haze, the terrace offered a sweeping view of vineyards and the newly constructed eight-unit luxury bed and breakfast Geneseo Inn repurposed from shipping containers.  

Henry and Victoria Eshelman, Sonia Farnsworth and Erick Allen

The pre-dinner reception offered gourmet small bites prepared by each winery’s chef/owner and paired with their Reserve wines. Some offered barrel samples. 

There was the 2014 Library Select Soul Shaker from Ascension Cellars — the deep-hued cabernet sauvignon/syrah blend supported by merlot and petit verdot. 

I discovered that Erick Allen, co-founder of Ascension Cellars, was not only a star winemaker but an accomplished chef as was evident from his baked spanakopita, a delicious Greek specialty. The rich buttery/cheesy mouthfeel of the appetizer was a good match with the lush and flamboyant Soul Shaker. 

Cass Winery’s 2018 Rockin’ TED was a power-packed blend of cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre and petit verdot, a good match with chef “Charlie” Charles Paladin Wayne’s grilled lamb bites. 

Nathaly Blais

Over at Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery, winemaker Bryan Widstrand proudly announced: “This venison is from our property.” He suggested the venison sausage with the ripe and luscious 2016 cabernet sauvignon and the grilled shrimp with the 2018 viognier. 

Widstrand also had a surprise offering, a non-vintage sparkling wine produced in the Méthode Champenoise style. “We produced only 100 cases of it,” he said of the new addition to the Steinbeck portfolio.

More bubbly was found at Rava Wines, known for its distinctive sparkling wines also produced in the Méthode Champenoise style. Nathaly Blais offered Rava’s signature non-vintage Brut, a 100% chardonnay that soars with the first sip showing bright acidity and ends with a toasty finish. 

In addition to sparkling wines, Rava Wines produces stellar still wines, two of which were featured at this tasting: a full-bodied 2017 Estate cabernet sauvignon and the supple and silky 2016 Brophy Clark pinot noir. 

Niles and Wendy Rasmussen

At the Rasmussen Wine table, Niles and Wendy Rasmussen served the 2021 viognier with basil-wrapped goat cheese and the 2018 barrel sample of cabernet sauvignon, with an assemblage of smoked gouda atop olive oil-soaked bread squares.

There were stuffed mushrooms to go with Demeter Family’s 2018 barrel sample of sangiovese and Bella Luna’s 2018 nebbiolo paired with sweet Tuscan truffles.

Then at Barr Estate’s table, mini wraps of prosciutto and provolone held forth with wines ranging from albariño, malbec and tannat to the deep-hued ‘6950,’ a late harvest petite sirah. What does your appetizer pair with, I asked? “It goes with everything,” answered Greg Barr.

Britta Ray

Caelesta Vineyard & Truffière (truffle producing farm) is a new entry to Paso serving their wines in the contemporary style tasting room in downtown. The winery was represented by general manager Britta Ray who offered a trio of delicious wines crafted by winemaker Brian Farrell, Jr., produced from his family’s Templeton Gap vineyards. 

The 2020 White, an aromatic blend of chardonnay and viognier was bursting with melon notes. The well knit, velvety 2018 GSM rocked with pomegranate and spice and the 2018 cabernet sauvignon/ petite sirah blend expressive of cardamom and ripe cherries.

To pair with the wines, Caelesta’s black truffles were featured on Etto trombe pasta in cream sauce, whipped up by budding chef Ray. Caelesta‘s ten-acre truffle farm is planted with 2,200 oak trees that were inoculated with spores of Tuber melanosporum, known as the Perigord black truffle. The Farrell family organizes seasonal truffle hunt adventures led by Lolo the truffle dog and his guide. Caelesta is the only truffière in Paso and second in California harvesting truffles from its ranch.

Lolo the truffle dog and his guide Alana McGee at Caelesta Truffière in Templeton

On this chilly evening, Bovino Vineyards’ corn chowder was a welcome sight, paired with the barrel sample of 2020 GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvedre) from its Joludi portfolio of wines. 

At Defiance Vineyard table, I savored a bold and sassy 2017 petite sirah. “We are grape growers but started making wine during Covid,” stated Erin Faulkner, estate’s vineyard manager. The Faulkner family planted 50 acres of vineyards in 2013 along the Creston Valley hillside, with the sole purpose of selling grapes to local winemakers.     

The lockdown, however, provided an impetus to go into producing their own wine Defiance and hired Adam Lazarre as winemaker for their small 800 annual-case production.

It’s small producers like Defiance and other family-owned wineries that make up the Back Roads group, a brainchild of Steve Cass, founder of Cass Vineyard

“We started 15 years ago when there were about 12 tasting rooms, half of which have subsequently closed,” said Cass. “Since we are all small production, with small marketing budgets, we thought it a good idea to combine efforts.”

So, events such as the Taste of the Back Roads give these small producers a presence to showcase their handcrafted artisan wines.

Savor the above and hundreds of other local wines at the four-day Paso Wine Fest celebration May 19-22 at the Paso Robles Event Center.