Vintages

Local wineries pop the cork on new ventures

It’s not just tasting rooms and scenic views; many local wineries are adding music, ziplining and even cruises to Mexico

ppemberton@thetribunenews.com, slinn@thetribunenews.comSeptember 16, 2013 

In the old days, if you wanted to see ZZ Top in Paso Robles, you had to hope they’d get booked at the California Mid-State Fair. But in July, fans watched Billy Gibbons crunch out guitar solos at Vina Robles Winery & Vineyards in Paso Robles.

The 3,300-seat Vina Robles Amphitheatre represents the boldest move by a local winery to offer more than wine. But in a competitive environment, most wineries are branching out by offering everything from dinner cruises and stargazing to bike tours and ziplining.

“Anything you can do to differentiate yourself kind of helps,” said Bryan Cass, tasting room manager at Cass Winery in Paso Robles. “If you don’t do that stuff, your odds of sinking (as opposed to) swimming are a lot higher.”

Get moving

While Vina Robles Ampitheatre will bring a slate of big-name performers to wine country, Castoro Cellars in Templeton has featured live music for three decades. In fact, the winery has added a two-day music festival this Labor Day weekend in honor of its 30th anniversary: Beaverstock, featuring headliners Dave Mason and Tower of Power.

“We’re one of the first to get into the live music,” events coordinator Rhiannon Carroll said.

According to Carroll, Castoro Cellars owners Niels and Bimmer Udsen feature concerts at their winery in partnership with the San Luis Obispo Folk Music Society, or SLO Folks, because they are big music fans. Since they began their concert series, other wineries have followed suit, offering more steady work for local musicians.

While the Udsens’ love of music inspired a concert series at Castoro Cellars, Tolosa Winery winemaker Larry Brooks’ passion for cycling inspired the San Luis Obispo vintner to launch Cote de Tolosa, a 50- to 60-mile bike ride designed for competitive bicyclists.

The race, which began in 2010, features a different course each May and concludes with wine and lunch at the San Luis Obispo winery, said Holly Brim, who handles hospitality for Tolosa Winery.

“This past year, we had about 80 participants,” she said.

Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita also offers an athletic extra for its patrons. Across the street from the winery is Margarita Adventures, launched a year and a half ago by Ancient Peaks owners Doug Filipponi, Rob Rossi and Karl Wittstrom. It offers ziplining amid the vineyards.

Before Margarita Adventures was created, the nearest ziplining option was Catalina Island in Southern California, hospitality manager Nancy Bernard said. Now ziplining has taken off in Santa Margarita, as well.

Cheese to please

Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles, meanwhile, has discovered a more delicious way to lure crowds: cheese.

Established in 1995, Le Vigne offers tasting-room cheese pairings and stocks more than 100 different gourmet cheeses from France, Italy, Ireland and elsewhere in its deli case. Wine club members who sign up for the “Il Formaggio” option receive bottles of red wine plus half-pound wedges of cheese.

The emphasis on cheese isn’t surprising considering that Le Vigne owners Walter and Sylvia Filippini also own Peacock Cheese, a Vernon-based importer of fine foodstuffs.

Every June, the winery celebrates the arrival of Graskaas, a rich, creamy cheese produced at the start of the spring grazing season by Dutch cheesemaker Beemster.

“Every year, we get this special gouda and then it’s gone almost immediately,” said Zina Miakinkova-Engel, whose official title at the winery is “Cheese Lady.” She has been organizing the event since 2008.

In August, the winery turns its focus to mozzarella with tastings and cheese-making classes taught by Mimmo Bruno of Di Stefano Cheese in Pomona.

Also in August is the Paso Macaroni & Cheese Festival, co-sponsored by American General Media, which features more than 20 chefs offering their interpretations of the comfort food.

According to Miakinkova-Engel, Le Vigne’s emphasis on cheese has “definitely” helped boost profits by attracting fromage fanciers who might not have discovered the winery otherwise.

“Our greatest seller is word of mouth,” she said. “If we can get people in the door, they generally come back.”

To faraway places

Stargazers are the target crowd for Astronomy Night at Claiborne & Churchill Winery in San Luis Obispo. The Oct. 19 event features food, wine and an educational presentation by John Keller, an assistant professor in Cal Poly’s physics department, followed by views of the night sky via telescope.

“Customers seem to love it,” said Angela Gloeckler, sales and marketing manager at the 30-year-old winery.

In addition to blending seminars, dinners and the popular Sips & Songs concert series, Claiborne & Churchill is looking to launch a trivia night aimed at younger wine aficionados.

“We want to offer (events) we can get everybody out for, not just the $150 six-course winemaker dinners,” explained Gloeckler, who envisions trivia night as a twice-monthly summertime activity featuring appetizers and wine. “This will be a big hit with the millennial generation.”

More expensive options are also available in the county.

While Tolosa and a handful of local wineries offer three-hour dinner cruises in Morro Bay, Cass Winery is teaming up with local travel agent Kim Pedersen this fall to offer a Mexican cruise. The Holland America excursion, which lasts Nov. 9 through 16, will depart from San Diego and feature stops in Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to form some good personal connections with our wine club members,” Cass said, although the cruise, which will feature Cass wine pairings with every dinner and special wine-themed events, is open to non-members, as well.

Cass said the idea has proven so popular that he plans to use the winery’s next cruise as a selling point for wine club memberships.

As wineries seek additional draws, wine lovers can expect even more creative ideas in the future.

“We do have to keep thinking of new and original things,” Gloeckler said. “We do have to keep things fresh.”

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