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Savor the Central Coast reveals an abundance of delights in California’s creative wine country

Sunset Food Editor Elaine Johnson demonstrated three ways to use fresh figs: in a salad, an appetizer, and a dessert.

Photography by Michael Kleinschmidt

Vignier, verdelho, sauvignon blanc, and verminto complement one another. Goat cheese can be made without adding culture. Pinot noir will grow in blow sand. And abalone does not taste like chicken.

Those are just a few of the takeaway messages from Sunset magazine’s second annual Savor the Central Coast wine and food festival in Santa Margarita, Calif., held Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2011.

Vina Robles, a Paso Robles winery pouring its White4 (as well as other wines) proved the beauty of a “crazy blend” (one of the seminar topics). “Paso Robles is leading the charge not just with traditional blending,” said Sara Schneider, Sunset’s wine editor, “but also going crazy with cross-traditions, breaking the rules. They’re doing it very smartly, with the craft in mind.”

With Paso Robles’ 180 wineries growing some 40 grape varietals, it’s little wonder there’s a lot of experimenting and perfecting going on. But as Vina Robles’ winemaker Nick de Luca pointed out when talking about White4, “What you think will be frivolous turns out to be serious.”

Clayhouse winemaker Blake Kuhn showcased his eight-grape Adobe Red (zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, tempranillo, and merlot), joking that another seminar participant “had seven grapes, and we weren’t having any of that.” He was referring to Le Vigne Winery’s blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite sirah, zinfandel, syrah, pinot noir, and sangiovese.

A pinot noir “shootout” seminar proved that single-varietal wines — even from the same AVA — also offer a wide range of profiles. Three wineries (Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Kynsi Winery, and Estancia) each brought two pinot noirs from their repertoire. The range showcased how soils, microclimates, elevations, clones — as well as winemakers’ techniques and planting/harvesting decisions — lend distinct characteristics to a grape that stands on its own.

Outside the seminar tents, wineries poured bottles of every stripe. Chefs and food purveyors offered gourmet bites; olive and walnut oil tastings; and snacks such as almonds, chocolate, and cookies. A port-and-cheese-pairing tent drew an appreciative crowd, as did cooking demonstrations. Boutique breweries filled wine glasses in the garden where bands played between pizza-making demonstrations.

Three other spots on the Santa Margarita Ranch grounds took a “down-to-earth” approach. In the Backyard Farm, guests could milk goats and learn about cheese making or beekeeping. In the Kitchen Garden, those with space-challenged abodes could study examples of vertical planting or catch a talk on growing crops in pots.

A Disneyland steam-engine train took passengers on a loop around the festival tents and to test-drive an Infiniti (or, particularly for those experiencing the effects of wine, ride in one).

Events beyond Santa Margarita Ranch included a kickoff reception at Hearst Castle, wine awards party on the Pismo Beach Pier, wine and food tastings under the stars in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, and a variety of tours.

“We were looking for a place that was still ‘becoming’ — that we could bring people to make some real discoveries beyond food and wine,” Schneider says. “We get people out into the area instead of just holding an event in one spot.” Tours ran the gamut from kayaking or paddleboarding to hiking and touring a lighthouse, Hearst Castle, or a goat farm to soaring over vineyards in a hot-air balloon.

The first tour to sell out (with a waiting list of 100) was the one to The Abalone Farm in Cayucos, the largest abalone farm in the country, producing 1 million abalone (100 tons at $5 an ounce) a year. Brad Buckley led guests through the farming process, from the “nursery” where the babies are just specks to “baskets” where they live from 10 months up to 2 years to “grow out.” Buckley explained that it takes four to six years for abalone to reach market size (3 1/2 to 5 inches). Then he explained the gastropods’ sex life, with a stop in the spawning shed. Abalone can change sex as needed and spawn the most on a full-moon cycle, he said.

Once educated, guests were treated to a four-course abalone lunch created by Chef Pandee Pearson of Gardens of Avila Restaurant at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. A grilled abalone and farro-quinoa salad included heirloom tomatoes, shaved baby carrots and cauliflower, corn, roasted onions, flax seed, and preserved Meyer lemon vinaigrette. A second dish featured abalone with Asian cucumber, sprouts, micro greens, radish and enoki mushroom slaw, sesame seaweed wakame, and tobiko.

Those who were unable to join the abalone tour farm were still able to sample this seafood delicacy at the grand tasting festival (offered in dishes by The Abalone Farm and Lido Restaurant of Shell Beach).

Savor the Central Coast could well become a wine and food festival to rival the well-established ones in Aspen, Colo.; South Beach, Fla.; and California’s Sonoma and Napa valleys to the north. Certainly those who enjoy exploring the wonderful world of taste buds can find true happiness on the Central Coast.

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