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August 14, 2008

Rotary Winemakers’ Cookoff draws a large crowd
Posted: Monday, Aug 11th, 2008



River Oaks Hot Springs’ tranquil grounds came alive with music, wine and gourmet food on Saturday evening as the Paso Robles Rotarians hosted the 10th edition of their famed Winemakers’ Invitational Cookoff event.

The cookoff featured 31 local wineries in the Paso Robles appellation, each rising to the friendly challenge of putting their very best in food and wine on the table to impress both a panel of renowned industry judges and the event’s attendees.

Rotary’s Winemaker Cookoff acts as the service organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year and Saturday night marked the culmination of months of hard work and countless man-hours spent ensuring that the event captures the spirit of Paso Robles’ burgeoning wine industry.

“There are just so many people who have just put hours and hours and hours of their time into this thing,” said event founder Gary Eberle, a 35-year member of the Paso Robles Rotary Club and owner Eberle Winery. “I am stunned.”

All proceeds from the event were earmarked for the Harlow Ford Scholarship Fund to benefit graduating Paso Robles High School students. The goal, according to organizers, is to build the fund to the point where all deserving students can be helped to achieve their educational goals.

The continued success of the friendly competition seems to indicate that the Paso Robles Rotarians are well on their way to accomplishing that goal. In the previous nine years, the Winemakers’ Cookoff has raised more than $200,000. In June of 2008, 16 PRHS students were on the receiving end of somewhere in the vicinity of $30,000 in scholarship money. With the unparalleled success of Saturday night’s 10th annual cookoff, organizers are poised to make an even greater financial contribution to next year’s graduating class.

Up from an average of around 850 attendees in previous years, Rotarians celebrated their largest attendance ever on Saturday night by a huge margin. Tickets were oversold at the start of the event and as the sun set over the proceedings, organizer Sally Davis reported that the 1,200 wine glasses ordered in anticipation of the crowds were almost completely gone.

Eberle partly attributed the tremendous growth of the event to the ever-increasing notoriety of the region’s wine and cuisine scene.

“Certainly, you can’t discount the fact that the world has discovered what a spectacular wine region [Paso Robles is],” he said. “People want to come up and there are a lot of local people here, too.”

Still, Eberle pointed to the efforts of organizers and fellow Rotary members, especially Davis, as a primary impetus behind the cookoff’s tremendous recent growth. With that growth comes the possibility that the cookoff could attain a goal that Rotarians have been hoping for since the event’s inception 10 years ago — an unprecedented $50,000 in scholarship money for a single graduating class.

“I don’t think that anyone in Rotary is going to be happy until we are giving out $50,000 a year, and I think there is a possibility there it could be this year,” Eberle said. “If it grows like this, certainly by next year.”

While the focus of the event was squarely on fundraising for the Rotarians, the 31 wineries participating in the Cookoff had their sights set on the bragging rights that come with being named winners of the Judges’ and the People’s Choice Awards. Those wine-friendly food creations, many crafted by noted local chefs and served alongside the wineries’ best vintages, were the focal point of the competition.

Richard and Aurora Gumerman, owners of Twilight Cellars, focused on long held secret family recipes to impress the cadre of judges and the many attendees. Cuban-born Aurora and husband Richard centered their fare on a Caribbean theme and served up juicy and tender Cuban-style pork roast with a wine reduction, mojo and Cuban Flauta bread made from Aurora’s own family recipe. The dish was topped off with grilled, rum-tipsy pineapples and mangoes.

The Caribbean experience was finished off with rum cake — another of Aurora’s secret family recipes — and drizzled with a rum reduction. The Thunderbolt Winery team, which included John and Gigi Neisses, were careful to keep the Twilight wines that they poured in mind when crafting their menu.

“We always do food and wine pairings,” Aurora said. “We specialize in international themes. Every month we have a different theme that we express in the tasting room.”

Like many wineries showcasing their food and wine talent on Saturday, the Gumermans added a little extra incentive for the crowd to vote their way, which included the promise of a chilled wine Mojito dessert — yet another secret family recipe. Still, as Twilight Cellars was marking its first appearance in the wine and food cook off, Aurora noted that, for them, the event was a learning experience and an opportunity to open the winery up to a larger audience.

“We wanted to introduce people to Twilight Cellars,” she said. “We are very multi-faceted and multi-ethnic and we wanted to appeal to people’s taste. This is all about food and wine celebration and it is actually something that we are doing to help other kids that come along to become wonderful chefs and sommeliers and winemakers. Winning is secondary; it is getting there that counts.”

Like the Gumerman family, attendees Marla Reynolds of Venice Beach and Trudi Burchieri or Marina Del Rey were also discovering the event for the first time. Up from the Los Angeles-area for a weekend of wine tasting, they made an impromptu stop at the cookoff for a concentrated dose of what the wine region has to offer. The pair couldn’t pick out a single high point of the proceedings, but instead noted that the entire event was a success.

“We have just been having fun,” Burchieri said. “It is just a great place to come and just relax and de-stress.”

“I love the music, the wine, the food, the people — everything,” Reynolds said. “The atmosphere is just beautiful. And it is a charity event, so it is just win-win.”

The evening of sumptuous food and award-winning wines was topped off with Madonna Inn’s famous fare of mouth-watering desserts and ended with the much-anticipated announcements of the winners. The panel of renowned wine and food judges — Kathy Marcks Hardesty, Larry Shupnick, Mike Stepanovich, Janis Switzer and Robert Whitley — split the laurels for honorable mention between Stacked Stone Cellars, Sylvester Vineyards & Winery and Eberle Winery. Third place in the Judges’ category went to Calcareous, followed by Midnight Cellars in the second position. Mitchella Vineyard and Winery’s “Shamelessly Soused Shrimp Tacos,” created by the team of chef Angela Mitchell and sous chefs Darren Mitchell and Jerry Wilkinson, garnered a first place nod from the judges. This the second time in as many years that Mitchella has taken the top prize.

The People’s Choice Award, which featured a hefty ration of humorous bribing and cajoling on the part of the wineries to garner more votes, ultimately crowned Midnight Cellars as top competitor, with Tobin James taking second, Cass Winery grabbing third and Eberle Winery rounding out the field with another honorable mention.

For more information on the Winemakers’ Invitational Cookoff, visit its Web site,

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