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Renaissance on California's Central Coast

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By Athena Lucero

Last September my husband, Louie, and I fell head over heels with one of California's most exciting regions for lovers of nature, wine, food and adventure. Rolling vineyards, oak chaparral and the romantic Pacific Coast set the stage for "Sunset Savor the Central Coast," an annual celebration of the fruits of the vine, the earth and the sea.

Over the long weekend we got a taste, in every sense, of the wonderfully diverse offerings on this coastal stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

We had also heard the buzz. Is the wine country of Paso Robles (Spanish for "pass of the oaks") really the next Napa Valley?

Savor, as I had heard regulars call the event (now in its fifth year), was born from the collective brainstorm of winemakers, farmers, fishermen and food artisans, along with wine, food and gardening editors at Sunset magazine, where locals and visitors together revel in the region's bounty — award-winning wines, locally grown and crafted foods, and day excursions — in a pastoral setting with rustic vestiges of an earlier California.

On a Thursday morning we stuffed our Golden Retriever, Lola, into the Mini Cooper (the Central Coast is pet-friendly country) and left Los Angeles for a glorious three-hour road trip up the coast on U.S. Route 101, California's oldest and longest highway.

A lone patina-green Mission Bell hanging over the roadway reminded me that the route follows part of historic El Camino Real, "the royal road" in Spanish, once the dirt trail that connected California's 21 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra between 1769 and 1833. Back then 400 bells served as guideposts marking a day's journey by horse between the missions, pueblos and presidios.

California viticulture was born when Father Serra planted the first vineyard with grapes brought from Spain. Called the Mission Grape, it was harvested for sacramental wines.

It is very fitting that Savor's main event is held at Santa Margarita Ranch, which was built in 1787 as the support outpost — Asistencia — for Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and a stopover for travelers where many a grand fiesta was held. Today the 13,900-acre ranch thrives with 975 acres of vineyards and a cattle-grazing program. And the legacy continues.

Adventurous food and wine aficionados arrived at the ranch to partake in a festive fusion of wine-tasting, harvest festival, county fair and learning vacation.

Like kids in a candy store, we booth-hopped among the outdoor pop-up shops and tasting rooms of "The Marketplace," sampling exciting wines produced in the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, home to over 200 wineries and where 23 varietals are grown. Local restaurant chefs served savory samples of their delicious fare while locally made artisanal products — olive oils, nuts and delicious confections to name a few — teased my taste buds and my pocketbook.

Some guests have become regular visitors to Savor.

"We attended last year and couldn't wait to come again!" chimed the spokeswoman for a group of girlfriends from Los Angeles.

Inside the giant white tent of the Central Coast Pavilion we took a virtual road trip along the "highway" of stalls and got the traveler's scoop on Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Monterey counties. From the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach to milking goats in Templeton to family-friendly wineries, we learned to expect the unexpected.

Under the "Farm to Table" tent haystacks provided seating while chefs and cookbook author Brigit Binns held cooking sessions using farm-fresh ingredients. Displays of local bounty caught my eye, especially the Finger Limes from Shanley Farms of Morro Bay. Originally from Australia, the fruit's citrus pearls squeeze out like sparkling caviar.

The big barn where missionaries once conducted church services for the Chumash Indians became Chef Central, where teachings of the culinary kind took place. Sunday's seminar with the very personable and acclaimed Chef Michael Voltaggio (it was his birthday!), owner and chef at ink.

and ink.sack restaurants in Los Angeles, highlighted brilliant ways to prepare everyday foods.

"Some of the most unique ingredients come from this area," said Voltaggio, who loves using finger limes. And who knew that dried capers could be a salt substitute or that deep-fried cauliflower could look like exotic coral?

Special events took Savor guests "off-campus" — such as Thursday night's opening movable feast and wine-tasting soiree at historic Hearst Castle, the hilltop mansion near San Simeon built in 1919 by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Saturday night's concert under the stars with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat performing at the new Vina Robles Amphitheater in Paso Robles.

But before the concert Louie and I, thirsty for more, took our seats at "Journey Through the Paso Robles Terroir," a seminar led by Sara Schneider, Sunset's wine editor. We swirled and sipped impressive viognier, rose and other Rhone- and Bordeaux-style varietals from Barton Family Wines, Cass Winery, Halter Ranch, Midnight Cellars, Rotta Winery and Robert Hall. Meanwhile a panel of new-generation vintners shared winemaking techniques inspired by the region's ocean-cooled climate, soils rich from ancient sea beds and volcanic, shale and granite layers that forge an exciting natural environment that stirs the winemaker's imagination to — as Schneider put it — "break the (winemaking) rules."

Adventure Tours offered interactive experiences off the beaten path — planting grapevines in Cambria, visiting an abalone farm on the cliffs of Cayucos, frolicking with flamingos in Atascadero and more.

I signed up for "Winemaking in Paso Robles on the Wild Side" held at Ancient Peaks Winery's estate Margarita Vineyard. Louie and Lola opted to explore the streets of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo (sorry, no pets or children at Savor).

Margarita Vineyard's peaceful landscape set the mood for an intimate afternoon with Sommelier and Wine Educator Christopher Sawyer leading a panel of winemakers from Ancient Peaks, Clavo, Cypher and J. Lohr. After an educational session tasting syrah, zinfadel, cabernet sauvignon and malbec we "students" tried our hands and taste buds at the complex art of blending wines. Like a chemist, I poured and mixed again and again to create my perfect blend, all the more deepening my appreciation for the passion that drives these winemakers to defy traditional methods to craft remarkable cuvees.

The fruit of my labor was lovingly bottled, wax-dipped, and personally labeled and signed — a fine souvenir.

The vibe around the Central Coast is casual yet sophisticated, laid-back yet invigorating. And the pioneering spirit here just doesn't stop. Last November Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded Paso Robles Wine Country 2013 Wine Region of the Year, edging out France, Italy and Napa Valley.

"It's not easy for a wine region to reinvent itself," said the magazine, "...but Paso is doing it with flair."

WHEN YOU GO

This year's Savor the Central Coast program will be held Sept. 25-28. For more information about the schedule, ticket prices, lodging and wheelchair accessibility, visit www.savorcentralcoast.com, www.facebook.com/SavorCC and www.twitter.com/SavorCC. Also see Visit San Luis Obispo County: www.visitsanluisobispocounty.com or call 805-541-8000.

We stayed at pet-friendly Seacrest Oceanfront Hotel, 2241 Price St., Pismo Beach, CA 93449, which is situated on a bluff with spectacular views of the sea. Lola had her own grass lawn outside (and a supply of poop bags), and soft waves lulled the three of us to sleep each night: 800-782-8400 or www.seacrestpismo.com.

At the Cracked Crab near our hotel (751 Price St., Pismo Beach, CA 93449) our server emptied a bucket overflowing with our choice of steamed shellfish (crab, mussels and shrimp), potatoes and corn "cobettes" onto our paper tablecloth, then equipped us with bibs and cracking tools to go at it — divine finger-licking fun: 805-773-2722 or www.crackedcrab.com

Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM




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