By Hayley Thomas
For those seeking their next big bite out of life, the pastoral drive from downtown Paso Robles to Halter Ranch Winery provided ample time to work up a roaring appetite. About 800 foodies made the mouth-watering trek for the first-ever Fork & Corks Festival presented by American General Media last Saturday, July 6.
The event promised a variation from the typical food and wine fare. Guests tasted a range of corked spirits, including champagne, port, beer, wine, gin and whiskey alongside a bounty of pitted fruits and veggies, including peaches, avocados, cherries and olives. About 20 San Luis Obispo County restaurants showcased their best grub, from juicy pit-roasted pig to tart berry pie.
Fork & Corks Festival Event coordinator Jessica Beattie said feedback has been glowing.
"I spoke to a lot of sponsors and vendors, and they said it was a very cool event because people were asking questions about the products; and attendees were there to learn," Beattie said.
Thanks to Paso Robles artist's nonprofit Studios on the Park, that education didn't stop at the plate or the pallet.
Halter Ranch's rustic barn provided a unique backdrop for the collective's colorful swath of artists. Attendees perused local paintings, scarves, furniture and more.
"Events like the Fork & Corks Festival provide art awareness for the area," said Studios on the Park resident artist Carol Ball. "I think that's very important. We need more culture in our community and at our events."
Over a Barrel co-owner Mark Gabler also showcased his wares. Throughout the day, tasters entered the barn and relaxed on Gabler's furniture, repurposed from old wine barrels.
Although Gabler said he spent plenty of time standing in the popular pie line, he was also able to make new connections with potential buyers.
"With furniture like this, people want to see it and touch it before they are ready to buy," he said. "Having a big group come through at an event like this, we are able to meet some first-time customers."
However, artists and business owners weren't the only ones benefitting from the visibility.
Tickets to the festival, which cost $60 to $70 per person, raised the funds for Must! Charities, a nonprofit founded by local wine industry leaders to support area causes. Fundraising for the charity was successful, but total numbers raised will not be made public, according to Beattie.
The Forks & Corks Festival serves as Beattie's second culinary event with radio broadcast group American General Media. Last summer, the event coordinator organized the first-ever Macaroni & Cheese Festival.
"We learned a lot from the 2012 Mac & Cheese festival and everyone was a team player here at Fork & Corks," she said. " The weather couldn't have been better. It was 113 degrees the week before the event, and if it hadn't cooled down, we would have been dying on the vine."
A cool breeze kept tasters refreshed as they sampled the bevy of beverages. Although most products showcased at the event were local, many booths represented larger brands.
Idaho-based American Harvest Organic Spirit displayed a row of elegant vodka bottles that glinted in the summer sun.
Pourer Jerry Chirpich said that the bottles are pretty enough to display at an upscale bar, but the true beauty is in the production.
"Our vodka is made from wheat and completely organic, as the water comes from very deep wells without any minerals in it," said Chirpich. "As a result, it features a unique taste. It's a totally different vodka that tastes quite smooth without a mixer."
Avion Tequila was also available throughout the day. Representatives passed out glossy booklets featuring lush, Mexican agave fields of its origin.
"Tequila pairs well with this event and with a sophisticated food and wine crowd," said Avion California area representative Molly Murphy. "Most people don't realize that tequila is similar to wine in the sense that you can taste the variations and it even has great legs. We're really opening up peoples' senses."
"Opening up the senses" could have been the event's unofficial motto. A combination of music, food, spirits and art kept lively conversations rolling into the temperate Paso Robles twilight.
Beattie said although you take a risk when you introduce new culinary elements to the public- and especially hard alcohol- the overall vibe was relaxed and informational.
"A lot of vendors were saying it was the first time it felt like people knew what they were drinking," said Beattie. "Whether it was the amount of food we provided or the venue or the combination of food and beverage producers, everyone was there to learn and it was an educational event."