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Learn winemaking in Edna Valley

Local winemakers will lead guests through a day in the life

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One of the beauties of wine appreciation is that it makes you curious about what it takes to turn luscious-looking clusters of dark purple grapes into a fine Pinot Noir or Syrah. Most winemakers truly enjoy showing you how it’s done; that’s why the finest wine festivals always provide educational experiences. During the upcoming SLO Wine Country Rockin’ Wine Harvest Weekend in Avila Beach, Nov. 2 through 4, not only will you learn more about your favorite red and white wines, you’ll have the opportunity to get down and dirty, literally, in the vineyard.

WALKING ON WINE :  Fin du Fresne, winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards, showed off his ability to walk on a Pinot Noir cap in his winemaking facility. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • WALKING ON WINE : Fin du Fresne, winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards, showed off his ability to walk on a Pinot Noir cap in his winemaking facility.

Become a SLO wine groupie on Friday, Nov. 2, and you’ll get to hang out with some very cool Edna Valley winemakers for the day during the inaugural Rockin’ Road Trip. Your designated driver will take you to three wineries—Chamisal, Edna Valley, and Tolosa, not necessarily in that order—where each winemaker will lead you through the vineyard and wine cellar. Together you’ll sip wines, enjoy lunch from Porter’s Food Truck, and walk away with a commemorative wineglass to preserve those wonderful memories. And I can say from experience, it’s sure to be an unforgettable tour.

You may just get a chance to pick some grapes, and you’ll definitely learn something you didn’t know about that fine Chardonnay or Viognier you’re sipping. Admittedly, with the Indian summer almost over, there may be very few grape clusters still hanging on the vines as the warm weather put this year’s harvest on fast forward. But I’ve talked to two of the participating winemakers, and they’re going to make sure everyone on the road trip has a good time.

I’ve been on many tours and interviews with the talented Tolosa winemaker, Larry Brooks, who’s now in his 34th harvest (some years he worked double harvests while consulting in the southern hemisphere). This passionate winemaker has always impressed me with his laid-back but insightful commentary. You can expect nothing less during this tour.

“We’ll walk them all through the [winemaking] process, and point out aspects of our operation that are unique, especially our commitment to fully ‘green’ winegrowing and processing,” Brooks said.

With him, you’ll taste newly pressed wines, fermenting wines, and other wines that are exciting to him on tour day. He added that if he has fruit on the vines, probably Syrah or Grenache, you’ll taste the grapes off the vine. I’ll never forget the first time I ever tasted ripe Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa Valley, and I was amazed by the complex flavors. “This is no Thompson seedless,” I laughed out loud.

I asked Brooks what makes the winemaking process so interesting to wine aficionados, which seems unique to the alcohol industry: “Most people are fascinated by the fresh fruit and trying to imagine it becoming wine. I think it’s fun to taste brand new wine, then unreleased finished wine, and then something with bottle age on it. I think people in general like to see stuff getting made, and not just wine. I’ve always liked open kitchens in restaurants for that very reason.”

Another winery tour will be led by an equally passionate winemaker, Fintan du Fresne of Chamisal Vineyards. He doubted he’d have grapes for picking, but admitted there’s always something to learn in the vineyard.

“I hope there are some grapes left to pick, but it’s not likely,” he said. “But we’ll taste wines that are just fermented, some from barrels, and bottled wines.”

He plans to let some of the braver groupies try punching down the cap. That’s the layer of skins that float over the freshly made wine that can be two-feet thick in large fermenters. Let me tell you from experience: It’s no simple feat to break through the cap, and I couldn’t do it on my first attempt. Interestingly, du Fresne told me he can walk across the cap without falling through into the wine (imagine an ice-capped pond).

“People always find it fascinating watching me walk across the cap; they’re waiting for me to fall in,” he laughed. “You have to struggle to break the cap and punch it down.”

That’s why a grown man can walk across it. This vintage, du Fresne has made his first Viognier, and he promises that if it tastes as good as it does now, you’ll get to taste it.

I always look forward to Saturday when the grand tasting and the wine and lifestyle auction take place during the Rockin’ Harvest celebration. The Crush Tones will entertain again, but this year they have a new performer: the executive director of SLO Wine Country, Heather Muran (who really sings for a professional band), will be joining winemakers Jean-Pierre Wolff, Clint Grubb, Jim Love, Jeff Fink, and Steve Autry. They promise great music and dancing to work off the wine, and the auction provides such unique lots as Here We Go Patriots and Pour Some Chardonnay on It, 25 cases’ worth of Chardonnay, plus many other cool lots. And what is a wine tasting without fabulous foods? This harvest celebration includes more than 60 wineries and restaurants providing excellent wine and food. You’ll get it all here in one beautiful location in Avila Beach.

Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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