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Enjoying the fruits of their labor

An annual harvest celebration calls attention to wine workers



During the busy harvest season, I spent a day with Tolosa's two winemakers, Larry Brooks and Nathan Carlson. While these men have vastly different experiences, not only do they work well together, they respect each other's talents. Brooks, now in his 30th harvest, started out at Acacia in Carneros/Napa Valley in 1979. He earned the respect of his peers and wine lovers worldwide, yet this self-effacing veteran avoids the spotlight. He started his consulting business in 1999 and began working with wineries that make their wines at Courtside Cellars, the home of Tolosa. Naturally, Tolosa's owners soon hired him as their advisor.

BUSY, BUSY, BUSY :  Taste the end result of the efforts of Tolosa winemaker Nathan Carlson (left), cellar tech Matt Gaudinier (middle), and winemaker Larry Brooks (right) at this year's Harvest Celebration. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BUSY, BUSY, BUSY : Taste the end result of the efforts of Tolosa winemaker Nathan Carlson (left), cellar tech Matt Gaudinier (middle), and winemaker Larry Brooks (right) at this year's Harvest Celebration.

# Brooks noted that Tolosa has 800 acres of vineyards, but only 10 percent of the harvested grapes (from the best blocks) are used to make Tolosa's wines. The remainder is sold to other wineries. While sampling grapes still ripening on the vine, he explained: "It can be nerve-wracking at harvest. You've got to figure out the recipe for that year. It's like a professional dancer doing the tango, but each new vintage is like starting with a brand new partner."

Although he's been working with these vineyards for several years, he admits he's still learning.

"Working with Nathan, I realized my knowledge of the Central Coast is really shallow," Brooks said. "Over the last couple of years, I've learned a lot about the vineyards."

The duo began working on a Pinot Noir block that was doing poorly, about which Brooks enthused: "We moved it up in quality. It's extremely gratifying. We're working at defining the best blocks in the vineyards."

Carlson, who worked at Claiborne & Churchill for seven years, worked a harvest at Lange in Oregon before he joined Brooks at Tolosa.

"After making wine for 10 years, I anticipate learning something new every harvest," Carlson explained. "I studied marine science and Larry studied botany--he really understands what plants do."

Fans can meet these winemakers and taste their flagship Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs during the harvest celebration weekend. Check out their website,, for their event dates and times. Their passion for the craft is something you'll always spot in artisanal winemakers, whether they've been doing it for one decade or three. It's the mark of a brand you can count on for quality in good vintages and problematic ones. As for this year's long, cool harvest, Brooks said: "The wines are beefier this year--the darkest I've seen, with the color and fruit intensity very high."

Party time

The SLO Vintners Association Harvest Celebration runs Friday through Sunday, Nov. 2 through 4.

This annual event offers an outstanding opportunity to explore the great wines and foods produced in SLO County. It's also an excellent place to start if you're a wine novice who wants to better understand wines in a laid-back atmosphere. But wine connoisseurs love it, too, because they can taste the latest wines from all their favorite producers in one beautiful and convenient location beside the Pacific. With all of that, combined with great food, an auction that's affordable for everyone, and rousing entertainment--well, let's just say you'll spend more on a nice dinner out without all these frills.

Pinot Noir lovers will find an array of styles to taste from excellent winemakers who consider this noble variety their flagship wine. The same can be said of the Chardonnays and Zinfandels, made by equally passionate vintners. You'll taste white wines sure to convert the mulish types who claim they only like red, be it Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, or Riesling. Since great wines are made to complement great food, the wise vintners invited the county's most popular chefs to prepare delectable eats for pairing.

The SLO Vintners Association promotes the fine wine regions south of Cuesta Grade--namely Arroyo Grande, Avila, and Edna valleys. This year, they've dedicated the harvest festival to the hard working people behind the wines.

However, it's not the winemakers--the rock stars of the agrarian world--that this event highlights. Instead, it's the worker bees of the winery, who are kiddingly called "cellar rats." In celebration of the fruit of their labor, they created a special blend reverently dubbed Cellar Rat Red. Made by Baileyana's highly regarded winemaker, Christian Roguenant, an etched and hand-painted 5-liter bottle of Cellar Rat Red will be sold in the live auction during the Grand Tasting on Saturday.

Friday, Nov. 2

The winemakers' dinners take place Friday evening, but only a few still have seats available, so call today.

Ancient Peaks with chef Wendy Wickstrom at Marre's in the Avila Golf Resort features a Mediterranean dinner, $75 per person all inclusive, call Marre's at 595-4001. Edna Valley Vineyard at the winery with chef Charlie Paladin Wayne offers a "Royal Dinner," $80 per person, call Edna Valley Vineyard at 544-5855. Ortman Family Vineyard at Novo restaurant in SLO features modern international cuisine, $85 per person all inclusive, call Ortman at 473-9463. Per Bacco and Piedra Creek meet at Cafe Roma for an Italian feast, $85 per person, call Perbacco at 787-0485. Tolosa Winery at the Mission de Tolosa in SLO offers Chef Matthews of Paso Robles' harvest-inspired meal, call Tolosa at 783-0500, Ext. 12.

Saturday, The Grand Tasting at Avila Beach Golf Resort

During the grand tasting, SLO Vintners Association members will be pouring samples of their popular wines. But this special event also features wineries based in Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Cruz Mountains who make wines from grapes grown in SLO County, including Ancient Peaks, Ken Volk, Kinton, Martin & Weyrich, McKeon-Phillips, and Tantara. Don't miss out on the exciting silent and live auctions, the latter featuring 30 lots with treats like Cellar Rat Red private picnics in winery vineyards rare, collectible wines and a vacation in Paris. Many great local restaurant chefs and caterers will serve scrumptious foods: Affair L'Amour, Apple Farm, Cracked Crab, Lido, Marisol, Steamers of Pismo, and others.

Sunday, Winery Open House Events

Among the treats: Salisbury Vineyards is repeating its popular "Hair of the Dawg Breakfast" with a French twist. Chef Ralph Fabula will be preparing fresh crepes from 9:30 a.m. to noon, followed by cooking demonstrations throughout the afternoon on preparing appetizers to pair with Salisbury's varietals. Bon Terre will perform on the patio where guests can dance. There's no fee for grand tasting attendees who show their bracelet, and they receive discounts on wine purchases (admission is $10 per person without the bracelet). Saucelito Canyon invites guests to the heart of Zinfandel country for its estate Zins and Bordeaux varieties with barbecued sausage by Ray Cattaneo. The Pat Cormick Group will perform throughout the afternoon. Don't bypass a tour of their historic vineyard. Cost is $5 per person for event bracelet holders and wine club members, $10 for the general public.

INFOBOX: Celebrate good wines

For detailed information about the SLO Vintners Association Harvest Celebration, visit

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