Cass Winery is well regarded for its estate wines, but over the last several years it’s also steadily become known for its gourmet farm-to-table fare.
“When we first started, we were doing about six lunches,” joked Executive Chef Jacob Lovejoy, who has been with the winery’s café and catering business since February 2008. “Now there are some days when we serve more than 200.”
That said, this isn’t a place to grab a quick bite during your lunch hour. The winery is located about eight-and-a-half meandering miles from Paso Robles on Linne Road, so it’s a place to linger on a relaxing afternoon, tuck into one of the eight-or-so entrées and sip some award-winning wine. (Food is only available with the purchase of a wine tasting flight, which during a recent visit was a lineup of nine wines: three white Rhônes, a rosé, two red Rhônes, Cabernet Sauvignon, and two dessert wines.)
Lovejoy didn’t always have his sights on a career in the kitchen. After originally earning a psychology degree from Fresno State University, he decided to enroll in culinary school and ultimately found his career passion in cooking.
His first job after culinary school was in Cal Poly’s catering division, where he became fast friends with a co-worker who was originally tapped for the top Cass job and brought Lovejoy along. When that chef left the area in early 2009, Lovejoy eagerly stepped up to the executive chef position, which he calls “the best chef job in the county.”
“The owners — Steve Cass and Ted Plemons — are just so supportive of our creativity and ideas,” said Lovejoy. “I happened to mention to Steve that it would be cool to have a garden here, and the next day he started building our raised beds.”
The bountiful garden is located just outside the tasting room and offers a serene view if you choose to sit out on the patio for your meal. (Seating is also available inside.) Among the crops currently coming out of the garden are cucumbers, squash, carrots, radishes, shallots, onions and about 15 different varieties of tomatoes.
“Obviously we want to incorporate as much from our own garden as possible,” said Lovejoy. As a result, that produce finds its way into the Chef’s Garden Veggie Sandwich topped with goat cheese and housemade garlic aioli, a salad of organic baby lettuces topped with locally grown nuts and housemade vinaigrette, and the daily from-scratch soups available on winter menus.
One thing seemed to lead to another, and the garden — planted in 2010
— was only the first step. In 2011, a chicken coop was built so the kitchen could have fresh eggs, followed by the establishment of an estate beef program in 2012, and then the dedication to making house-smoked and -cured meats in 2013.
As a result, other favorites on the Cass menu include the Chicken Salad Sandwich made with Mary’s house-smoked, free-range chicken, the Bennie’s Burger (developed by sous chef Ben Derringer) made with estate-raised beef and topped with house-cured bacon, and the very popular Cass Crab Cakes (with a definite emphasis on crab, not filler) served with housemade remoulade.
For Lovejoy, this type of cuisine has really brought him full circle.
“In discovering who I was going to be as a chef, I guess I went back to what I knew,” he said. “Now, I know how to do it all so much better, but this is all stuff I did as a kid growing up in Clovis. We had a garden, cows and chickens; we cured and smoked our own meats. Back then, it wasn’t called farm-to-table — we were just a family that had to eat.”
CASS WINERY TASTING ROOM
7350 Linne Road, Paso Robles 239-1730 http://www.casswines.com (tasting room info and menu listed under “Visit Us”)
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-5p.m.
The scene: Enjoy Cass wines while sitting out on the covered patio overlooking the garden or inside the tasting room; reservations required for parties of six or more.
The cuisine: Garden-fresh cuisine and from-scratch accompaniments are showcased in several entrées that pair nicely with Cass wines; locally made Leo Leo Gelato available for dessert. Expect to spend: $18-22 for entrée and wine flight (flight required for food purchase; $10 wine flight only, complimentary for wine club members).
Jacob Lovejoy is one of the chefs competing Thursday in the fourth annual Top Chef Competition, a fundraiser for the Wellness Kitchen & Resource Center in Templeton. The WKRC provides healing foods, education and resources for those in the community wishing to regain or sustain health through nutrition. For more information, go to http://www.thewkrc.org.