Our first full day in Paso Robles was educational, fun, and darn hot.

We had breakfast at Steinbeck Vineyards which has 500 acres of vines providing fruit to some of the area’s best known producers.

Cindy Steinbeck Newkirk was our host – and no, apparently no relation to John of the same last surname from the Monterey area. The family has been farming the property since the late 1800s or six generations. Today they are one of the area’s biggest vineyards. They have just recently started making their own label wine. With only 1,000 cases last year, they have started modestly.

The group of wine journalists and bloggers I’m part of on this trip sampled their beautifully balanced Viognier and their blend – The Crash. In 1956 a B-26 military plane crashed on what is now a large vineyard in front of the modest tasting room. The family has embraced its history on the property and named its signature wine in honor of the military crash. Cindy told us her parents, who both still work in the business, recently got two of the surving four members of the plane’s crew together.

The wine is a rich blend with a really nice acidity and smoothness. You won’t find the Steinbeck label outside of California, but they provide grapes to some of the area’s biggest producers who’s wines are found across the country.

The big highlight was all of us jumping into the back of an old 1950s jeep and rumbling across the huge vineyard. Cindy would stop and start as we saw acres and acres of grapes.

It’s not a bad Wednesday when you can start off by tasting Cabernet grapes in a vineyard. Oh, we tasted some Zinfandel grapes too. Both were really rich tasting fruit.

Next we were off to a visit at Stillwater Vineyards where we experienced the vineyard to glass process with First Crush. Stillwater owner Paul Hoover was an amiable host who walked us through the process with great humor.

Becky Zeilinski, First Crush owner, lead the group through a discussion of the Paso Robles AVA and soil types and then it was into the vineyard. We cut Cabernet and then Merlot grapes from the vines before heading into the winery for more from Paul. First Crush welcomes tourists to have the full grape to glass experience and make two cases of your wine home with you.

Hoover led the group through an exercise of blending a Cabernet and then a Cabernet blend. He divided us up into groups and we had a little competition. A blind tasting after lunch determined another group the winner. But my group did get second place. We blended 06 and 07 Cabernet from three different vineyards for our Cab then added 20 percent Merlot and 5 percent Malbec for our blend. It really gives the average consumer a great insight into how wines are made.

Hoover’s Stillwater wines don’t go far beyond his tasting room because he can sell them all there. He ages his wines a little longer than many of the producers and spent a great deal of time talking about how small things really make a difference in the winemaking process.

Lunch was served outside the tasting room by Thomas Hill Organics. The nearby organic farm owners have a great story about moving up from L.A. to start the life-long dream of Joe Thomas. The lunch was fabulous with all fresh ingredients. The highlight for most of us was a rabbit and salad combination with a Hazelnut Vinaigrette.

What do you drink with rabbit salad? Well a nice Pinot Grigio or Viognier, of course!

We wrapped up our afternoon going to Thomas Hill. We walked the gardens with Joe and listened to the great love he has for the land and growing produce. He gave each of us a bag to pick anything we wanted. The writers found apples, pear, pomegranates, figs, walnuts, peppers and tomatoes in plentiful supply.

It was a long day only because of the weather. Paso Robles is such a great wine region because it’s blessed with hot days and cool nights. Today’s high reached 98 degrees. A group of wine folk were cooked just like an over-heated bottle by the end of the afternoon.

Tonight we’re off to another local restaurant, Italian fare, with four more winemakers.

It’s tough work, even in the heat, but someone has to do it.

In Photos: At top, a look across the rolling hills at the expansive Steinbeck Vineyards. Top right, with Steinbeck-Newkird at far right, this is the group of writers, bloggers, wine folk being hosted by the Paso Robles Wine Alliance. Next photo is a large bin of Cabernet grapes. Then, Paul Hoover of Stillwater talking about all the work by hand that goes into his wines. On the left, some old guy cutting Cabernet. Finally, Joe Thomas talking about Bosc pears on his organic farm.
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