Heady aromas of saffron and spice mixed with smoky meats wafted through the tree-shaded Templeton Community Park as pinot-philes and paella fans gathered together at the 15th Annual Pinot and Paella Festival.

Top prize winning chef Jeffry Wiesinger (center) flanked by fellow runner up winners, Neeta Mittal, Andre Averseng and Elaine Rivera Glenn
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

Presented by the Paso Pinot Producers, the popular event showcased 20 local pinot producers offering their artisanal pinot noirs paired with paella cooked up by 15 local chefs. Each culinary expert added his/her spin on this one-pan Spanish dish, with one ingredient common being the use of Spanish Bomba rice.

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The park offered a picnic ambiance as attendees spread out blankets and chairs, enjoying the upbeat music of the Paso Wine Man Band led by singer Casey Biggs who also served as the festival’s emcee.

While there were several chefs who served the traditional seafood style including chef Andre Averseng of Paso Terra restaurant (last year’s winner), there were others who opted to do the paella sans seafood (perhaps being mindful of people’s allergies). Chef Dallas Holt added a tropical theme with coconut and pineapple to his pork and chicken paella. Gabriel Diaz of Sabor de Gabriel’s chicken version was dressed with vegetables; sous chef Benjamin Luge at Cello Ristorante & Bar at Allegretto Vineyard Resort added chorizo to his chicken paella.

Boccabella Farms’ chef Johnny Jantz whipped up a visual feast with shiny mussels resting on the paella pan that cradled slow-roasted pork shoulder cooked in Lazarre pinot noir. A whole pig was sacrificed for Chef Charles Palladin-Wayne and his rice generously hydrated with boxed Franzia white wine dispensed from a spout.

Marc Goldberg, Maggie D’Ambrosia, Philip Krumal and Bob Dunning

Trumpet Vine Catering’s chef Elaine Rivera Glenn layered her paella with a medley of seafood including Spanish octopus, chicken and chorizo garnished with shisito peppers. Neeta Mittal (owner of LXV Wine) did a non-traditional vegan take with vegetables, cranberries and pomegranates. She also offered a shot of mango sorbet as a palate cleanser that was most refreshing in between morsels of pork, chorizo and assorted seafood.

It was chef Jeffry Wiesinger’s wine country paella “made with love” and Portuguese sausage that nabbed the top People’s Choice award though.

His secret?

“Home-made stock and sauces extracted from shrimp shells and chicken bones,” he revealed. This is the fourth win for the chef and his wife Kathleen who will soon open their eatery, Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ, in downtown Paso.

The runner-up kudos in the People Choice Awards went to Mittal, Averseng and Rivera Glenn.

The paella flavors were further heightened when paired with silky, seductive pinot noirs crafted by Paso producers, some using local fruit while others sourced from cooler regions such as Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties.

Angie and Adam Lazarre

The festival was started in 2004 by Marc Goldberg and Maggie D’Ambrosia (owners of Windward Vineyard) as a community grass roots gathering by pinot-fanatics. The criteria at the time was that winery participants use only local Paso fruit in their pinot noir wines. “We have just allowed pinot producers who use fruit from other areas,” Goldberg commented on the recent changes.

Indeed, rules have relaxed over the years since Paso is not a region known for pinot noir and many local winemakers use fruit from other Central Coast regions.

However, Goldberg is quick to point out that pinot has been growing in Paso since the 1960s when pioneer vintner Dr. Stanley Hoffman planted this variety at his Hoffman Mountain Ranch in the cool Adelaida Hills district.

“We hope that eventually we see more pinot from Paso,” said Goldberg carrying the region’s pinot flag. “It’s rapidly growing,” he affirmed.

Among the wineries offering pinots crafted from local Paso fruit were Windward, Jack Creek Cellars, Carmody McKnight, Asuncion Ridge and Sculpterra. Then there was the special 2016 Full Circle pinot noir from Tablas Creek Vineyard, a winery known for its Rhône style wines. The pinot from the Templeton Gap District is made from Haas Vineyard, a small patch that was planted by the late Robert Haas in front of his house in Templeton.

Stewart McLennan, Michelle Brice Kraker, Shaana Rahman and Johnny Jantz of Boccabella Farms

RN Estate poured a spice-scented pinot from Santa Maria Valley and another from Santa Rita Hills laced with red cherry flavors. TH Estates offered elegant pinots under the Decroux label also crafted from prestigious
Santa Barbara County vineyards.

Derby Estate’s pinots and sparkling wines from the wind-swept vineyards in San Simeon showed cool climate freshness. Bodega de Edgar’s 2016 Steiner Creek pinot noir was another from breezy Cambria region. Both these areas do not have their appellation designate yet so they come under San Luis Obispo County AVA.

There were several refreshing pinot noir rosès: Hoyt Family Vineyards’ from the Willow Creek district and Lazarre Wines Vin Gris made in a lighter Provençal style were welcome sips on a warm afternoon.

Tablas Creek Full Circle pinot noir

Calcareous Vineyard, Castoro Cellars, Dunning Vineyards, Opolo, Pomar Junction, Rocky Creek Cellars and Sculpterra rounded up other wineries pouring exceptional pinots. An elaborate cheese display was laid out by cheese artist Maliysa Lou representing 15 Degrees C Wine Bar.

The festival has become so popular that fans book their tickets a year in advance. In fact, Marc Goldberg informed me that as soon as this year’s festival is over, the 2019 ticket sales will go online within one month. However, D’Ambrosia added, ”We limit it to 500 — only for pinot connoisseurs.”

Funds raised from the event benefit Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation (PRYAF) and other local charities. Each year around $40,000 is donated to PRYAF, Goldberg noted.

Over the 14 years, Goldberg assessed that the event has raised over $425,000. “We hope to hit half a million in the next couple of years,” he said with confidence.