Normally when you walk into a wine tasting room, you don’t expect to see a 6-foot-long, 100-plus pound alligator perched motionless on a stand, his gaze steely-eyed and his teeth protruding from closed jaws that form what looks like a faint smile.
This was no normal day.
Spike the alligator, under the watchful care of handler Scott Ellis, was one of 18 animal ambassadors on view during the annual Wild About Wine Stroll organized by the Paso Robles Downtown Wineries on April 28. The event raised funds for the Conservation Ambassadors Zoo to You, a Paso Robles-based nonprofit that for nearly 30 years has been a home for all kinds of displaced or injured wild and exotic animals.
Spike was docile as patrons at the tasting room shared by Sea Shell and Indigne wineries petted him on the back and along his sides. Ellis, a member of the zoo’s staff, explained that alligators are very tame and non-aggressive when they are well fed and given no reasons to fear and act out defensively.
During the afternoon wine stroll, Zoo to You brought an animal ambassador with a handler to each downtown tasting room, drawing crowds to sample selected wines and see the critters up close. The handlers, all employees and volunteers from the nonprofit, told stories about where the animals live in the wild and how they were displaced. Adults and children delighted in interacting with the animals and posing for photos. Patrons paid $30 for a pass to visit up to 18 downtown tasting rooms occupied by 20 vintners, meet an animal at each one and taste a selected wine.
At Pianetta Winery’s venue on 13th Street, a playful little Brazilian armadillo named Roswell captivated visitors by stalking after a tennis ball that was rolled slowly in his enclosure. He pounced on it and curled into a ball himself as he rolled end over end with the ball encased by his body. Roswell was adopted by the zoo after being seized as an illegal import.
At Derby Wine Estates, adults and children met an 18-month-old camel named Tulie that was presented by handler Anne Woods outside Derby’s landmark pink building that once was an almond processing center.
At a tasting room on 13th Street shared by Diablo Paso Wines and Domaine Degher, a black and white lemur was not shy about climbing onto the shoulders of visitors. Among other animal ambassadors were a black throated monitor lizard, a gray fox, a North American porcupine sporting hundreds of thousands of tiny quills, a saker falcon that was nearly blind from cataracts and a white cockatoo named Peaches that perched on the shoulder of handler Lynette Wilson.
Conservation Ambassadors Zoo to You cares for nearly 200 rescued animals at its facility and visits hundreds of schools each year to educate children about wildlife and conservation. It welcomes visitors to its zoo by appointment for private tours, special events and summer camp for kids. Conservation Ambassadors partners with the wine industry for fundraisers hosted by the Paso Robles Downtown Wineries, the Wineries of 46 East and the Paso Robles 46 West Wineries.
“Our entire goal is to get people to fall in love with the animals, because if you don’t know about it you’re not going to love it, and if you don’t love it you’re not going to do anything to save it,” said Samantha Jackson, the zoo’s community outreach director and daughter of its founder and CEO, David Jackson.
The zoo is a permanent home for animals that have become unwanted, displaced and non-releasable to the wild. One of the more common scenarios is taking over care from people that acquired a wild animal and soon found they were in over their heads. Some of the inhabitants were seized by customs authorities as illegal imports. Others were injured and can no longer survive in the wild.
Spike the alligator’s story is one of the most dramatic. Jackson said in a phone interview before the wine stroll that a Los Angeles police SWAT team found Spike guarding drugs, money and guns at a crack house.
The Paso Robles Downtown Wineries donated the wines for tasting and most of the $30 event fee went to support the Conservation Ambassadors Zoo to You. For the wineries, it was a chance to draw a lot of people to the downtown wine experience.
“The objective of our marketing message this year is primarily trying to convey to people who are going to be visiting the area that not all wine tasting needs to be out on the wine trails,” said Xochitl Maiman, whose firm handles marketing for the downtown wineries. The more than 20 tasting rooms offer varietals literally from A to Z, albarino to zinfandel, she said.
For some vintners, locating downtown was an obvious choice. “It was an easy decision for me because I live in a regular house without a vineyard on it,” said Ron Nodder, owner and winemaker at Chateau Lettau on 13th Street. “I’m just a regular guy that doesn’t have millions of dollars for a big estate.”
Nodder started making wine as a hobby in 2001. He produced enough to start selling wine wholesale, and he opened in downtown Paso in 2005. He estimated that half of the downtown winemakers are like him in what he calls the urban business model.
Other producers have vineyards but prefer the exposure to walk-in tasting room traffic downtown. Derby Wine Estates has vineyards in three Paso Robles sub-appellations. Lisa Ortman, marketing and hospitality manager at Asuncion Ridge Vineyard, said their vineyard in the Santa Lucia Mountains is too remote for a tasting room. Denis Degher, owner and winemaker at Domaine Degher, said he offered tasting at his estate vineyard northwest of Paso Robles, but moved to downtown for more walk-in traffic.
Jackson said the fundraising tally for the downtown wine stroll was not available yet, but the event has raised $3,000 to $5,000 in past years. The Paso Robles 46 West wineries raised the most ever this spring, $12,000, and the 46 East event typically tallies around $8,000, Jackson said.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]