Monday, September 28, 2009

Diary of a Paso Robles Cellar Rat: Part I?

At what point does an obsession with wine take you to the next level? When you would rather work 13+ hours helping a small family winery crush approximately 7,000 pounds of Syrah and Grenache grapes instead of wine tasting. And who would allow this wannabe cellar rat and amateur wine blogger to jump right into the action without reservation? Victor Abascal, proprietor/winemaker of Vines on the Marycrest. And you know, its helps to work in a winery that produces wine you absolutely love - handcrafted Rhône blends from California's Central Coast. It was only a couple months ago that I was first introduced to Vines on the Marycrest by Twitter friends in LA. Now, I am helping Victor Abascal crush the 2009 vintage and earning my stripes. If you want to learn how hard, but gratifying this business is, you have to get your hands (and clothes) dirty, endure long hours and make quick thinking decisions when critical equipment fail you in the middle of crush. I am far from completing my informal degree in winemaking, but this one weekend was the most fulfilling and enlightening experience ever.

During my last visit to Paso Robles, Victor Abascal tipped me to an opportunity a couple weeks out to help him with harvest work in the winery. As the days went by, I waited in anticipation for the call, email or tweet from Victor inviting me to Paso Robles for the type of work I have been pimping myself out for these past few months. Once the semi-cryptic tweet streamed into my account, I cleared my work and personal schedule for the weekend, got a good night's rest, and was on the road north for the three hour drive at 5:30 a.m. After a brief stop in Los Olivos to visit Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines, I arrived at the winery on the westside of Paso Robles ready for any work Victor was willing to throw at me. So how many of us were ready to crush grapes that morning? Just me and Victor. Fortunately, we had a lot of help from Victor's friend and a neighbor who helped bring in the bins of freshly harvested Syrah and Grenache grapes earlier in the morning. When you are not used to this type of work, you slow down by the 9th hour, but I didn't let the pain of lifting thousands of pounds of grapes prevent me from completing the job. In the end, there was no task too small or too large for me to handle, whether it was sweeping the floors, washing bins, or crushing grapes. Then again, I don't think anyone wants me to operate a forklift anytime soon. For everything else, bring it on!

When I set out to write this post, I thought about describing all of the manual labor we endured from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (on Saturday alone; Sunday is for another post), but it occurred to me that this experience was more than a weekend gig in a winery; it was about building friendships and helping people succeed at doing what they love most and keeping all of us hydrated. Of course the three things that kept me alive that weekend were wine, quick meals (thank you Nick and Connie) and an aerobed. It hurt at 7:00 am on Sunday morning, but it was well worth the pain.

I am always amused by some folks who think this is an easy and glamorous business. It sure as hell isn't. For a small winery, the work is hard (and manual), the hours are long and the payoff is marginal. But it's gratifying to know there are many people who support small wineries like Vines on the Marycrest, and more importantly, enjoy their wines and share their love for these wines and California's Central Coast with family, friends and colleagues. California's Central Coast produces memorable and enjoyable wines worthy of accolades and 90+ point scores. In the end, I am humbled when a nice couple enters Victor's winery, compliments his wines, joins the wine club and/or purchases a few bottles to enjoy. Vines on the Marycrest, like many other wineries I have come to know and befriend this summer, are emblematic of what is great about this industry and in particular, the Central Coast. I highly recommend everyone - amateur or connoisseur - take an extended trip to Paso Robles, visit one of these family-run wineries, like Vines on the Marycrest, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. In this world of economic uncertainty and constant stress, you'll find the experience to be a welcome escape from the triviality of everyday life. I know this will be the beginning of many cellar rat experiences in the Central Coast.

Cheers to Victor and Jennifer Abascal (and Nick and Connie Valdez) for the most memorable experience! Your patience, generosity and support are humbling and inspiring. May your wines flow freely through our glasses, and I hope to add my labor to your cause (and many others) in the weeks, months and years to come. (That's Victor below pouring Grenache into the fermentation bin after crush, followed by a beautiful photo of the Remo Belli Vineyard where Victor and I joined neighbors Nick and Connie for an early breakfast on the patio overlooking the vineyard and Paso Robles)


Vines on the Marycrest
5050 Mustard Creek Road, Paso Robles
(805) 237-0378
Tasting Room Hours: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm, Friday-Sunday
Twitter: @Vines_Marycrest
Facebook: Vines on the Marycrest
Wines: Rhône blends with a dash of Bordeaux (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah)

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