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Do you yearn to be a winemaker?

Experts provide hands-on instruction from the vineyard through bottling.

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GOOD TO GO :  First Crush apprentice winemaker Chris Kuntz of Manteca empties fruit into a half-ton bin. - PHOTO COURTESY FIRST CRUSH
  • PHOTO COURTESY FIRST CRUSH
  • GOOD TO GO : First Crush apprentice winemaker Chris Kuntz of Manteca empties fruit into a half-ton bin.

If you’ve ever dreamed of making wine, or just helping out at your favorite winery harvesting and crushing grapes in fall, First Crush Winemaking in Paso Robles can make that dream a reality. A new custom winemaking service in Paso Robles, First Crush provides a weekend winemaking experience that just might make you quit your day job to become a full-time vintner. Of course, even if you start making wine professionally, plan  to stay otherwise employed. Many successful Central Coast winemakers started out that way, including: Ariki “Rick” Hill of Labyrinth in Santa Maria, and chef Frank Ostini and Grey Hartley of Hitching Post in Buellton.
 
First Crush provides an unforgettable experience for consumers who simply want to learn more about turning grapes into wine. This two-day event offers hands-on training that most wine connoisseurs would love to attend, even if they don’t want to participate on the “working” side of it. That said, I’ve attended many classes for novices and for the media and never met a person of any age who didn’t want to participate fully. People have fun picking grapes and stomping them barefooted, which you’ll get to do with First Crush. But here you’ll experience professional winemaking at each level, from the vineyard and barrel aging to the finished bottle of wine. 
 

- BERRY TO BOTTLE WINE TOUR :  Saturday, July 18, Paso Robles - In preparation for their first public harvest experience, First Crush is offering an inaugural tour of Paso Robles wine country that will be particularly helpful for the uninitiated. The Berry to Bottle Wine Tour by First Crush, a day of tastings, tours, and educational seminars, includes: wine tasting, learning to pair wines with cheeses, lunch, winemaking lessons, plus tours of vineyards and wineries. “The first class will help people learn basics and enhance their knowledge,” Becky Zelinski explained. “As part of the continuing education we’ll have quarterly events so everyone can come back to taste their wine in barrel and evaluate it. They’ll learn the winemaker’s thoughts about the process and getting ready for harvest.” - The wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms scheduled that day include: Robert Hall Winery, Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery, Vinoteca Wine Bar, and Westside Ranch Vineyard. You’ll also meet the First Crush winemaker Dan Kleck and viticulturist Dr. Lowell Zelinski. Early registrants get a discounted price at $125.00 per person. After July 10 the price to register is $140.00 per person. Register online at firstcrushwinemaking.com, or by calling 805-434-2772. -
  • BERRY TO BOTTLE WINE TOUR : Saturday, July 18, Paso Robles

    In preparation for their first public harvest experience, First Crush is offering an inaugural tour of Paso Robles wine country that will be particularly helpful for the uninitiated. The Berry to Bottle Wine Tour by First Crush, a day of tastings, tours, and educational seminars, includes: wine tasting, learning to pair wines with cheeses, lunch, winemaking lessons, plus tours of vineyards and wineries. “The first class will help people learn basics and enhance their knowledge,” Becky Zelinski explained. “As part of the continuing education we’ll have quarterly events so everyone can come back to taste their wine in barrel and evaluate it. They’ll learn the winemaker’s thoughts about the process and getting ready for harvest.”

    The wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms scheduled that day include: Robert Hall Winery, Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery, Vinoteca Wine Bar, and Westside Ranch Vineyard. You’ll also meet the First Crush winemaker Dan Kleck and viticulturist Dr. Lowell Zelinski. Early registrants get a discounted price at $125.00 per person. After July 10 the price to register is $140.00 per person. Register online at firstcrushwinemaking.com, or by calling 805-434-2772.

“People get the bug after attending classes like this, and you’ll get to know whether you like getting your hands dirty,” said First Crush winemaker Dan Kleck, whose owns Silverstone. He’s also a popular winemaking consultant for Paso wineries, including Orchid Hill and Donati Family. “People will find out whether or not they have a flare for it.” The Central Coast has many custom crush facilities, but they can only accommodate professional winemakers with an established brand. First Crush is the first in Paso Robles that caters to consumers who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to enter the working area of a winery.
 
First Crush was created by Becky and Lowell J. Zelinski, Ph.D., owners and operators of Precision Ag Inc., a state-of the art vineyard and agricultural service that specializes in irrigation, soils, fertility, and mapping service. They began planning this new business a few years ago, after making their first wine. Becky, a professional photographer, event planner, and former journalist, said she photographed the entire process and she shared it with friends and family:
 
“Everyone who saw it, even people who own small vineyards, wanted to experience the joy of making wine, too. We put a test pilot together last year with friends and strangers to see if we could bring them together and if they would all get along.” The good times are obvious in her slideshow of the pilot winemaking class, which you can view on firstcrushwinemaking.com. Go there for full details about registering for the winemaking weekends, prices range from $1,150.00 to $1,700.00.
 
First Crush takes place over three weekends, called “clusters,” scheduled accordingly with the time that variety is ready for harvest. Each weekend features one of Paso Roble’s big reds: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. When you sign up you choose the date or variety you prefer, as long as space is available. Classes are limited to 40 persons. “We work with vineyards small enough to accommodate the class when it’s scheduled.  They can handle our group coming in even if they’re harvesting grapes at the same time,” Lowell explained. “All of us approach it, no matter what our level of experience, as fun to learn, from start to finish.”
 
What makes this winemaking opportunity unique is the social aspect, and accommodations are included when you register. It includes meals prepared by excellent Paso Roble’s chefs, transportation throughout the two-day event, two great hotels to choose from, and the opportunity to taste wine and dine with Paso Robles wine-country stars. When it’s all over you’ll walk away with two cases of custom-made, privately-labeled wines to take home, membership in Silverstone Wine Club with the first shipment gratis, all included in the price when you register. Not bad.
 
Locals don’t have to buy accommodation packages; “the Drifter” package includes everything except lodging, but you’re responsible for arriving at the pick-up location. Still, it’s only slightly more expensive to take the lodging package and enjoy chauffeured transportation throughout the winemaking experience. First Crush starts with a Friday night reception by Paso Robles Inn chef Kelly Wangard. You’ll meet your fellow cellar rats (the derisive but humorous term for worker bees who help the winemaker get his or her job done), and Paso Robles winemakers, viticulturists, and other wine industry specialists. Besides your work in the vineyards and wineries you’ll also enjoy Champagne brunch, lunch and dinner in spectacular vineyard locations. It’s the ultimate taste of the winemaker’s lifestyle, and that includes the joy of showing off the wine you made to your envious friends. “We’re giving consumers the insider’s access to the wine industry in Paso Robles,” Dan noted, “and people really appreciate being part of the process.”

You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com

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