There was much to celebrate for team Lusso Della Terra Cellars, first time entrant at the Winemakers’ Cookoff, as they picked up the People’s Choice award trophy. The winery’s owner Edward Cholakian teamed up with chefs Marlynna and Adam Farelas of Cali Grill and whipped up a Texas beef, bacon and cheddar burger tucked in a brioche bun and served with waffle fries.

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Calcareous Vineyard and chef Jason Joyce came in second with Eberle Winery’s traditional Rockin’ Ribs taking third place. Firestone Walker Brewery was tapped as the best brewery.  

Marching into its 21st year, the Paso Robles Rotary Winemakers’ Cookoff staged at the Paso Robles Event Center on August 10 brought together over one thousand foodies ready to savor their favorite BBQ dishes paired with local wines.

As the grills fired up and aromatic smoke filled up the event center, needless to say there was plenty of pig, from wild boar to whole hog dished out in every form: there was belly and loin, ribs and pulled shoulder cradled in slider buns or tucked in tacos and dressed with exotic sauces.   

Nineteen wineries and three breweries teamed up with professional and amateur chefs in the Cookoff, with several contenders walking away with multiple awards. The Calcareous team nabbed first prize in the Spirit award and second in the People’s Choice, offering bites of Captain’s Piggy Paradiso — a pureed plantain cake topped with pulled pork dressed with tropical salsa.

In the Spirit Award category, the second prize went to Cali Paso’s Caliburger created by chef Christopher Krotke while third prize was picked up by Cass Winery’s Mini Bini, chefs Mike and Cheryl’s creation of Cass Estate beef slider topped with smoked bacon and blue cheese. In addition to the selection of their wines, the Cass team also served delicious sangria made from Limoncello and blackberry liqueur.

Since the wineries team up with both professional and amateur chefs, the five-member judging panel has a challenging task to come up with three winners in each of these two categories. In the professional chef category, the Judges Award’s first prize went to Rio Seco Vineyard & Winery and Stein’s Catering for chef Ben Stein’s grilled garlic double proper crostini cradling the love-rubbed slow roasted pulled pork with “Pig Candy” (Canadian Bacon). This tempting dish was served with a selection of Rio Seco’s wines including a Rosé, petite sirah and cabernet franc.

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The Brady Bunch – winemaker Don Brady and his associates

The second prize was picked up by Robert Hall and chef Nick Holguin of The Patio Kitchen for his grilled lamb canapé. Robert Hall’s merlot and syrah wines paired with the lamb. Especially popular was the icy Frosé, a welcome thirst quencher on this balmy evening. The third prize went to Atascadero’s Dead Oak Brewing Company and Colony Market Deli for its porchetta sliders. Honorable mention went to Peachy Canyon Winery’s wild boar carnitas.

In the Judges’ Award’s amateur chef category Vino Vargas Winery nabbed first prize teaming up with chef Bing Seid’s Flamenco wings with cuchi-cuchi sauce. The spicy dish went down well with Vino Vargas tempranillo. Earth & Fire Brewing Company and chef Michael Cordsen picked up the second prize for its Caja China pork arepos and third prize was given to Ancient Peaks Winery’s co-owner and gill-master Karl Wittstrom’s creation of  beef cooked over Santa Margarita Ranch oakwood and served as sliders. A nod of honorable mention was given to Justin Vineyards & Winery for its smoked pork belly tacos.  

Recreating the theme of Gilligan’s Island at Calcareous Vineyard’s booth

The themes were as creative as the dishes. Cass was riding on the Game of Thrones vibe, Vino Vargas Winery’s Pedro and Vicky took on an Andalusian theme complete with colorful sombreros and Calcareous team went retro dressed as the cast of “Gilligan’s Island,” the popular ‘60s TV Show.   

I noticed a handful of chefs who steered clear of the popular pork dishes. Chef Curt Dubost whipped up a wood-wood-fired pizza. There was Chicago style Italian beef from Glunz Family Winery, smoked brisket from Tooth & Nail Winery, Paella alla Putanesca from Allegretto Vineyard Resort and Pear Valley got creative with its Breakfast in Bed offering of French toast casserole topped with homemade sausage and served with a “wake up juice” concoction of albariño mixed with juice and berries.

And, yes, there was plenty of “no rules, no holds barred” bribing going on to get the coveted People’s Choice award. Winery participants offered a range of temptations to get those ballots from the attendees who were given six tickets each to vote for their favorite chef. Lusso Della Terra Cellars’ touted a three-night cruise to Baja, Calcareous enticed with an elevated hilltop experience, plus there were numerous lunches, cheese pairings and generous pours of Reserve and Library wines from winery participants.

There were a few stand alone winery participants without chef partners, among them Hope family Wines, Opolo Vineyards, Wild Horse, Ecluse, Still Water Vineyards and Seven Angels Cellars.  “This is our first Cookoff,” said Greg Martin, co-owner/winemaker of Seven Angles. “Next year we’ll amp ourselves.”   

The awards, a combination of magnum bottles of wine and trophies, were given out by Nicolette Harley-Barth, current president of Paso Robles Rotary and board members Vicki Silva and Sharon Ross.

A “must attend” event for foodies, the Cookoff was launched by Gary Eberle as a Rotary Club event to raise funds for scholarships offered to high school graduates in Paso.

Eberle emphasized that one hundred percent of money raised goes toward the scholarship fund. “It’s all volunteer work. There are no administrative costs.” Wineries and chefs donate food and wine and a number of sponsors underwrite all expenses involved with production and staging of the Cookoff.

At the time of this writing, the exact figure on funds generated was not available, but both Gary and Marcy Eberle projected approximately $75,000 from this year’s Cookoff.