San Luis Obispo County is my favorite place

San Luis Obispo County is my favorite place and I don’t have to go far to experience it– it’s in my backyard. It’s exactly why I decided to move here 15 years ago. Of course, the best things about the area are the rural feel, proximity to the coast and the warm weather. Although I don’t want people flocking to the area and spoiling the best of what there is here, I can’t stop sharing how wonderful San Luis Obispo County is.

Photo of 2 plam trees on a cliff in Pismo Beach, California

My top 5 favorite things to do in San Luis Obispo County

  1. Wine tasting at Pianetta Winery in downtown Paso Robles
    Wine tasting at Pianetta Winery in downtown Paso Robles.

    Wine tasting. There are hundreds upon hundreds (that’s not an exaggeration—check out PasoWine.com and SLOWine.com to see what I mean—do note that listings on both of these are dependent on being members, so not all the wineries in the area are listed). Wine tasting in SLO County is less expensive than other more well-known wine regions. The unofficial stance of the local wine country is that wine tasting is for everyone and the best wine is the wine you like. Wine comes with corks, screw tops and in boxes—what matters is not what it comes in but the quality of the wine that goes in.

    Pismo Beach on a Sunday in April
    Pismo Beach on a Sunday in April
  2. Beach day. I love making a day (or at least an afternoon) of visiting the beach, whether it’s by myself, with friends or with my daughter. My favorite beach (shhh…don’t tell anyone) is Cayucos State Beach.  The children like to spend as much time on the playground on the south side of the peir as they do in the water. If I don’t go to Cayucos, Avila Beach is number 2. Although there are many other fabulous beaches.

    A sampling of beers at Dead Oak Brewery in Atascadero
    A sampling of beers at Dead Oak Brewery in Atascadero.
  3. Sampling of sour beers at Libertine in downtown San Luis Obispo
    Sampling of sour beers at Libertine in downtown San Luis Obispo.

    Craft beer tasting. Since becoming gluten-free, I drink more wine than beer, but my dad and brother in particular LOVE beer. My dad’s goal is to visit all the craft breweries in SLO County. There aren’t as many breweries as there are wineries—nowhere close—but it’s still proving to be difficult as there are always more craft breweries popping up. One of my favorites is Libertine Brewing in SLO because of the sour beers. If you haven’t had a sour before, I recommend going to Libertine and trying one—or four by getting a flight.

    On the way to the top of Stadium Park in Atascadero
    On the way to the top of Stadium Park in Atascadero.
  4. Top of Stadium Park in Atascadero early in the morning
    Top of Stadium Park in Atascadero early in the morning.

    Hiking. One thing those of us living in SLO County often take advantage of — besides living so close to the ocean — is the many hiking trails. There are short hikes that don’t have much elevation change and there are more than a few hiking trails that go up a mountain. There’s one I see every time I head north on the 101 just as the ocean is about to disappear from view at Shell Beach (Shell Beach Bluffs Trail). The ones I hike most often are in Atascadero: Stadium Park and Jim Green, as well as trails at Montana de Oro.

    Short rib tacos from Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles
    Short rib tacos from Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles.
  5. Flourlesss chocolate cake from Bistro Laurante in downtown Paso Robles Robles with a birthday candle on it
    Flourlesss chocolate cake from Bistro Laurante in downtown Paso Robles Robles for my birthday.

    Gourmet food. With the multiple wine, craft beer and spirits offerings, it’s no surprise that talented chefs have been drawn to the area. Not only can get get a fantastic meal in any of the cities/towns in the county, but you can also venture out into the country and find a delicious meal at one of many wineries. One of my favorites  that I love to hit up for Happy Hour is Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles. In downtown San Luis Obispo, my newest obsession is the Vegetable Butcher. Don’t let the name mislead you into thinking that it’s a vegetarian or vegan, restaurant. While it can make most dishes vegetarian or vegan and most are already gluten-free, there is an assortment of offerings for all tastes.

This is only a sampling of what SLO County has to offer, but part of why I make my home here, not to mention the mild weather year-round.

Discovering Old Edna Townsite

Old Edna Townsite is a small quiet town—though it’s a bit of stretch to call the cluster of buildings housing a gourmet deli, winery and vacation rentals and event venue a town. Not far from the bustling Highway 101, Old Edna Townsite often gets passed over, most people don’t even know it exists. The historic community is nestled in Edna Valley Wine Country, halfway between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach.

I myself have driven by this community more times than I can count when I decided to take the scenic route out of San Luis Obispo, heading south. I finally stopped when I set out to write about our great county.

So that day, enjoying the beautiful day and gorgeous landscape, the first thing I saw when I got to Old Edna Townsite was a sign announcing  “Deli and wine tasting.”  I was hungry and intrigued. 

The historic building houses The Gourmet Deli and Sextant Wines.  Behind that building are two-acres of bed & breakfast, intimate gathering space, chickens and so much more. The Old Edna Townsite had been abandoned for more than 20 years when new life was breathed into it in 1998. 

The deli’s menu has been paired specifically with Sextant’s wines. In addition to having the option to order a range of gourmet items, tasters can order a variety of cheeses chosen to pair with the wine tasting menu. 

Surrounded by antiques and gifts that look old, I felt relaxed—how I want to feel when I’m out wine tasting or enjoying what the area has to offer—and at home. Guests can either eat at the bar while tasting wines or take food—and wine, of course—out on the deck. After my visit inside, I wandered around the property and was struck by the calm and rustic atmosphere. The larger guest house has a small stage in the yard for entertaining. Old Edna is on the top of my list for an intimate event or gathering, or even a night away as there is a small guest house on the property. Between the two guesthouses are the chickens’ home, adding to the rural feeling. 

If you’re driving by or even just looking for something to do near San Luis Obispo stop by this historic place and have lunch and some wine. You won’t be sorry you did. 

Mexico, oh how I love thee

Center of Mexico City–the only part of the city where I felt uncomfortable, even in the middle of the day.

Though I live in California, only six hours north of the Mexico-U.S. border, I’ve never been to Mexico. Until recently. I always wanted to go, however, at the same time, it wasn’t at the top of my list–so many other places to go… What I didn’t take into consideration was that because it’s so close, it’s cheaper to travel to and that everything costs so much less in Mexico.

Two carnitas tacos I got from a vendor at a fiesta near my Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta. I paid less than a $1 for both.

As I went to Mexico for a conference, the majority of my airfare was paid for. Therefore, my expenses were fairly low as compared to other places. Compared to where I live in California, I found everything exceptionally cheap.

My Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta.
Churos for 10 pesos (50 cents!!!)

Costs:

  • Airfare from San Luis Obispo Airport (a small county airport) to Puerto Vallarta and from Mexico City to San Luis Obispo Airport $644
  • Airfare from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City $52
  • Four nights in an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta (Fiesta Americana) FREE
  • Three nights in an Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta $66
  • Five nights in an Airbnb in Mexico City $86
  • I got these at a family restaurant inside a mall in Mexico City. I paid less than $5 for the whole meal and I got a drink and chips with my enchiladas.

    Taxi from resort to downtown Puerto Vallarta 65-70 pesos/$3.25-3.50

  • Taxi from Airbnb to airport in Puerto Vallarta 120 pesos/ $6
  • One-way bus in Puerto Vallarta 7.50 pesos/40 cents
  • One-way subway in Mexico City 5 pesos/25 cents
  • One-way bus in Mexico City 4 pesos/20 cents
  • Glass of wine at pizza restaurant 50 pesos/$2.50
  • Glass of wine at fancy restaurant 85-144 pesos/$4.25-7.25
  • Meal at a family restaurant 80 pesos/$4
  • Meal at fancy, trendy restaurant (included mocojete with mixed meats, two glasses of wine, dessert and coffee) 600 pesos/$30
  • One-way taxi from Airbnb to airport 200 pesos/$10 (I was overcharged for sure, but didn’t argue since I wanted to spend the last of my pesos anyway)
The WHOLE plate of bone marrow and tortillas was $4! This, plus queso and 3 glasses of wine in a wine/cheese bar was $16.

Something I’ve learned over the years of traveling is that it is cheaper to get local currency from the ATM or to pay with a credit card. I only used my debit card to get money out of the ATM (I was charged to use the ATM and a foreign transaction fee). The rest of the time I used my credit card, which did not charge me any transaction fees.

I consoled myself for not getting into Frido Kahlo’s house by stopping by a local pizza restaurant and got this pizza and two glasses of wine for $12 including tip. It was a hip place I would have frequented if I lived there.

I loved Mexico for its rich history and culture, especially Mexico City, but also the great exchange rates and how cheap everything was. Every time someone would tell me the cost of something and I’d repeat it incredulously, the person would either lower the price or ask me if it was expensive. It became a challenge of mine to see how fancy of a place and how much I could order. My most expensive meal was $30 including tax and tip for an appetizer, entree, 2 glasses of wine, dessert and a cup of coffee. At home, I once ordered off the starter menu and got one glass of wine for $30 not including tip at a comparable restaurant.

Part of my most expensive meal in Mexico City.

Cynthia Glenn spent most of her life in Grover Beach

Mr. Glenn’s House of Ladies Clothing was started by Cynthia Glenn 48 years ago. Glenn, who has owned a number of businesses in Grover Beach over the years, purchased the corner lot on Grand Avenue by Fifth Street. The house her clothing business occupies now was Glenn’s best friend’s home.

“I opened it on July 15, 1968,” Glenn said.

Glenn has lived in Grover Beach for 65 years, moving from Avila Beach with her late husband, Corman. She said they had been renting an apartment in a house, but felt the $25 a month rent was too high, so went to Grover Beach to buy a home.

“We came looking for a house; we bought a lot,” Glenn said. “I drew the plans for the home. Of course, we ran out of money. [My husband] asked, ‘What will we do?’ I said, ‘Build a garage.’’

So that is what they did. They lived in the garage until they could build the house.

“The happiest day of my life was when we bought shiny green linoleum,” Glenn said, adding that the garage wasn’t finished, her cupboard was an orange crate.

Glenn was one of seven children — five girls and two boys — growing up in Indiana and Oklahoma during the Great Depression. She said they didn’t have much money, so she knew how to live on little, and how to work for what she wanted.

The couple met after Glenn moved to Avila Beach, where one of her sisters lived. Another sister was a teacher in Southern California. Glenn met Corman, who served in the Navy during World War II, in her sister’s restaurant in Avila Beach.

“We married after two months,” Glenn said. “We were married for 51 and a half years.”

The two were just barely 20, Glenn said. They finished their first house — which had three bedrooms — when they were 23.

Glenn came to California from Oklahoma — she attended Central Teachers College in Edna, Okla., for one year — when she was 18. She got a job as a nanny through Hancock College. She was a nanny for one family until she married Corman. Later she got her teaching certificate from a school in San Francisco, though she did not have a Bachelors degree, yet.

Her brother, an architect, drew plans “for the most beautiful house in Grover Beach,” Glenn said, which they then built.

“We only lived in it for three years,” Glenn said. “I told my husband I was going to sell it and go back to college.”
She said he told her to stop making rash decisions. “I said, ‘No, I think about them a long time, then make fast decisions.”

The next day, she said, she sold the home and went back to school at Cal Poly when she was 35 years old, and mother to three boys, Michael, David and Tom. She graduated from Cal Poly with her Bachelor of Education in 1963. She then taught all ages up to seventh grade in Nipomo for 18 years.

It was while she was still teaching that she bought the house her business currently occupies and started the clothing store.

“I had designed [and sewed] clothing since I was 9,” she said, adding that that was when she made her first coat.

It was a natural progression for her to open her own clothing business, which led to her designing and making her own lingerie, called Cynthia of California, in the building next door to Mr. Glenn’s for 18 years.

“I shipped lingerie all over the U.S. and to one store in England,” Glenn said. “I made beautiful lingerie. It was fun. I still have six commercial machines and hundreds of gowns ready to be made.”

Over the years, she has also had a music business with her son, Tom, called The Red Piano on Sixth Street.

“I just wanted a music store and my son, the youngest, was a musician,” Glenn said. “We sold beautiful guitars.”

The store closed when her son moved to Florida to pursue music more actively.

Glenn has some words of wisdom for making life great: Don’t look back.
“My memories make me strong,” Glenn said. “I look at the beautiful times we had. That’s when you look back. … It makes me get up [every day].”

She said that is why she continues to work even as she’s nearly 91 years of age.

“People need to keep moving,” Glenn said.

Glenn is a woman of many talents: she also writes poetry, which is paired with art by her sister, Jo Tarabula, and her brother, Thomas Lungford. Cards with the artwork and poetry, along with larger paintings by Tarabula and Lungford are for sale inside Mr. Glenn’s.

Glenn’s love of poetry started young, reading her own father’s poetry. Even at 90 she could recite from memory a poem he wrote and she recited in seventh grade.

One of the many things Glenn said she’d like to do “before the Lord takes her” is to compile a collection of poems written by her, her father, son, brother and sister.

This story was originally published in Journal Plus in October 2016.

Frank Gandolfo went from the mafia to nuclear physics

Frank Gandolfo of Arroyo Grande is 96, a 1920s baby, and has had a long and colorful life. Although he left his home of New York City at the age of 16 after working for New York Mafia leader Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

“At 96, I can tell the stories now,” Gandolfo said. “They’re all dead, so no one can kill me. … I know things about Lucky Luciano that no one knows; he was like a second dad to me.”

Gandolfo, whose dad was Greek and his mother Sicilian, had been Luciano’s personal errand boy, but when Luciano got a tip that he was going to be arrested, he called Gandolfo and told him to leave.

“He called me and tells me ‘you’ve got to leave. Run. Run and hide,” Gandolfo said. “If he didn’t protect me, I’d be dead. So I put $5 in each shoe and took off.”

He headed south from the only home he’d ever known and worked as a bellboy and other odd jobs through the south. He said he was arrested multiple times for vagrant behavior.

“If you didn’t have money you went to jail,” Gandolfo said about the Depression Area and his multiple arrests.

In 1938, he ended up in Great Falls, Mont., and was sleeping in his car when he said police officers started beating him while he slept. He ended up in jail, and only got out of the jail sentence because of a large fire that needed bodies to fight it. After fighting the fire, he spent a year working in a Montana oil field until war broke out. He then joined the Army and went off to World War II, where four of his five brothers – John, Joseph, Dominick and Salvatore — also served, though none were in the same place.

“My brothers were all scattered around the world, they couldn’t keep [us] in the same place,” he said.

When he got back from the war he married Peg, an orphan from Michigan. Though he had been reunited with his family in New York, he chose to move to Michigan where his wife was from. ‘

“I hated New York,” Gandolfo said.

They lived there until her doctor suggested a warmer climate would be more beneficial for Peg, who was suffering from health issues.

So after burying their infant son, Gandolfo hitch-hiked in his Army uniform to Arizona where he got a job working for the railroad, working with men of varying nationalities loading and unloading the rail cars. Because he was saving money to bring Peg to Arizona, six of his coworkers put him up for two weeks apiece at no cost to him. He stayed with their families and ate their food.

After Peg arrived in Arizona, Gandolfo got a job with the Navy and started going to school at night.

“I flunked in high school,” he said.

He eventually got a college degree by going to school at night, while he worked during the day to support his family. During this time, he second son was born. Gandolfo said his son now lives in Sedona, Ariz., and has been very successful in life.

Gandolfo was then able to get a job with Rockwell International in the chemistry group.

“I became the custodian of all the nuclear fuel of all Rockwell International,” he said.

He worked his way up, starting in 1997 as a lab technician in the pyro chemical unit for North American Aviation, which was part of Rockwell International, ending his career as an industrial engineer. He retired when his health deteriorated from working with nuclear chemicals. He transferred to the nuclear physics grouping 1963, retiring from the field in 1984.

Though he’s had a sorted history and met so many important and famous people in his long life, he said he’s most proud of the people the he’s saved. One was a woman who was being mugged in the Arroyo Grande Village when 80-year-old Gandolfo walked by.

“I was 80 years old and I had just lost my wife,” Gandolfo said. “I fought off the mugger and he took off.”

That was December 2000.

“Walking by the card store in A.G. Village, I heard screaming and I see a tall blond man beating a very small woman … I rush to her aid, mugger runs off and foolishly I chase him,” Gandolfo said. “I return to find her in a heap. She is cut, bruised and bleeding, hugs me and doesn’t want me to go. She said he stole her wallet with money to go to the Philippines to visit.”

Earlier that year, in February 2000, he was waiting for the southbound 7 a.m. train in Grover Beach when he saw a white pickup drive up and ended up stranded with her back tire over the platform, right in the train’s path. Imagining the incoming train hitting that tire, spinning it skyward and taking out all the people in the vicinity.

“As calm as I could, I talked [the] woman to start [her] car and steer to the right,” Gandolfo said.  “A little girl helped me do this, but I never knew her name. … I told her to watch the wheel. Finally, she told me “OK, it’s clear.” Two minutes later the lights came on.”

He has been recognized the past two Fourth of July celebrations in Arroyo Grande on the bandstand for being one of five brothers in War World II at the same time. Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian has also recognized him for his heroism.

Gandolfo met his wife, Liisa, who was born and raised in Finland, on the Amtrak train in 2002. She got on the southbound train in San Luis Obispo and Gandolfo in Grover Beach.

“He got on the train and my heart just stopped,” Liisa said. “It was love at first sight.”

This was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Journal Plus.

Audrey Johns publishes first book: Lose Weight by Eating

Audrey Johns’ first cookbook, “Lose Weight by Eating,” was released in mid-April and is already into its second print run after selling out with numerous retailers both online and in-store.

Her cookbook, which was published with William Morrow, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers, was a labor of love after she lost 150 pounds by tweaking the ingredients of her favorite foods, which allowed her to eat more, while not taking in more calories.

“I want to have all the food I want and not feel guilty,” Johns said.

After moving to Atascadero from Southern California, she found that in order to get a lot of the ethnic food she loved, and craved, she had to make it herself.

“Basically, I lost 150 pounds just by eating,” Johns said. “I was not able to go to the gym [because I was having surgeries].”

While she said she did want to lose weight, she didn’t think the weight would come off by only changing the way she ate.

She started her blog, www.loseweightbyeating.com, to share her journey, and recipes, with others.

“I was taking [my daughter] to dance class every week at Motions Academy [in Atascadero] and the moms noticed I was losing weight and asked how I did it,” Johns said. “I struggled with weight my whole life so I just wanted to give it away for free.”

And she did. Until now.

It didn’t take long for Johns to get noticed. Her blog went from 10 visitors a day to 10,000 visitors per day overnight. As of early April, she said, the website had between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors on a slow day. In early 2014, she got an email from a casting company that was scouting out potential contestants for reality shows. She got an audition for the reality show, “The Taste,” an ABC show that puts 16 competitors, who range from home cooks to professional chefs and everything in between, in the kitchen.

“I stayed at a friend’s house [the night before the audition] and cooked lamb meatballs and prayed that they stayed hot long enough,” Johns said, adding that once it was her group’s turn in front of the casting crew, she had five minutes to plate meal she had already prepared.

She was cast in Season 2 of “The Taste.” Though she was one of the first ones eliminated from the show, she still stays in contact with her team and contestants from other teams.

“Out of all the teams, I think my team bonded the most,” Johns said.

When it was time for someone from her team to be chosen to go home, she said she volunteered to go home and was actually happy to go home because she was in a lot of pain from the nerve disease she got a few years ago after a car accident. Right after she was eliminated, she went in for a nerve block that alleviates a lot of the pain she suffers.

“When I got kicked off, I was glad to go home, I was in so much pain,” Johns said. “I didn’t tell anyone about it. They just thought I had a bad back.”

Her appearance on “The Taste” led to her getting a literary agent.

“The night of the airing of ‘The Taste’ – that I got kicked off – I got calls from five different literary agents,”

Johns said. Four of the five agents were in Manhattan. She ended up signing with Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., out of New York City. One of the reasons Sterling Lord wanted to represent her, she said, was the way she represented her brand, Lose Weight by Eating. Promoting her brand was the reason she went on The Taste in the first place.

“We started working on a book proposal … [my agent] shopped it around at all of the publishing houses. I had two days to talk to 35 publishing houses,” Johns said.

In the end, she chose to go with William Morrow.

Two years has passed and she has a finished book and has been promoting her book through interviews, book reviews, a sweepstakes and going on TV. Her first television appearance for the book was on the “700 Club” on April 19.

Although it was filmed earlier than the “700 Club,” she appeared on the “Rachael Ray Show” with Bob Harper on April 26. She was on “Hollywood Live” on May 13. She has also appeared on other local and national television and radio shows since her book was released.

Her appearances on the “700 Club” and the “Rachael Ray Show” really boasted the sales of the cookbook, Johns said.

“Rachael Ray was huge for sales, that was the reason we sold out,” Johns said. “The day I was on the show I was the No. 1 book on all of Amazon and the No. 5 book on all of Barnes and Noble. … [The] website was flying when I was on those shows, at one point we had 1,300 people on the page all at once, we were lucky the servers held steady.”

Johns has lived in Atascadero with her husband of 10 years, Chris, and their daughter, Sophie, 7, since 2012 when they moved from Orange County. They found themselves at a crossroads after they both lost their jobs due to the recession. Audrey had been working as a property manager and Chris in the mortgage industry.

“They laid everyone off [at Chris’ work] two months before we had Sophie,” Johns said. “I was the sole bread winner. Then three months after I had Sophie, I went back to work and was laid off. It was a job, not a career.”

Because Johns’ job included free housing, they found themselves needing to move, so they decided to look at San Luis Obispo County after taking weekend trips to the area. They looked for homes in the Paso Robles area and found a place in Atascadero.

“We just love it here, this is our home,” Johns said.

Here is one recipe from Johns’ cookbook:

Protein-Packed Blue Cheese Buffalo Burgers
Makes 4 burgers
Serving size: 1 burger
Per serving: calories 262; fat 5 g; fiber 2 g; protein 31 g; carbohydrates 20 g

Before you skip over this recipe because it contains buffalo meat, give me one minute of your day to convince you to try this delicious, lean form of protein.

Let’s start with the flavor. If buffalo were gross at all, I would just tell you to get lean ground beef. But it tastes exactly like delicious beef, but with more protein, iron, and B12 and less fat and calories. Plus it’s usually available at your local grocery store. Try this lean and delicious meat yourself. You won’t be able to tell the difference, and you’ll be doing your body a favor.

1 teaspoon olive oil, for the grill
1 pound all-natural ground buffalo
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Chunky Blue Cheese Dip (page 108)
4 whole wheat buns
1 cup baby spinach
1/2 red onion, sliced into thin rings
Spicy brown mustard (optional)

1. Heat a grill to high heat and brush the grill grates with olive oil. (Alternatively, heat a grill pan over high heat and spray it with olive oil.)
2. Make four patties from the meat. Push your thumb into the center and create a little dimple on both sides. This will help the burger cook more evenly and keep a flat patty shape. Gently sprinkle the patties with salt and pepper.
3. Grill the burgers for 7 to 10 minutes, flipping once. Transfer the burgers to a large plate and let them rest for 5 minutes.
4. To assemble the burgers, spread some Chunky Blue Cheese Dip on the bottom of each bun, lay on some spinach and onions, and top with a burger patty. Spread some mustard, if using, on the top buns and place them on the burgers.

This story was originally published in Journal Plus in June 2016.

Morro Bay Art in the Park undergoes changes

The Morro Bay Art in the Park festival is 61 years old, the second oldest art show in California. This year, Steve Powers, who has been professionally organizing art and craft shows since 1975, has taken over management and promotion of the annual festival.

The Morro Bay Art in the Park shows are held every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend from Saturday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday.

The festival is owned by the Morro Bay Art Association, whose purpose if to promote the arts in San Luis Obispo County, and the money raised from the shows go toward scholarships for high school students. Most recently, different people from the art association organized the show, after Allan Cook could no longer do it as he got older. He said it’s a lot of work, especially for it to change hands every year or so.

Powers puts the show together one his own: the bookings, budgeting, promotions and production, though he has a group of vendors that help him with set up, put up decorations and more.

“I compensate them with lodging and booths,” Powers said, adding that the local Boy Scouts from Los Osos and Morro Bay also comes out Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. and Monday when the festival ends to help vendors bring in their wares and take it out. Powers gives the troop at $300 donation and exhibitors give tips.

No more than 108 booths are allowed; half of tend to be from within San Luis Obispo County, filling the small park in the middle of Morro Bay. Artists wanting to participate submit an application and photos of what they produce and their display with a $50 per event deposit. The applicants are juried by Powers and then receive confirmation on whether or not their applications were accepted. 

“We don’t take everybody,” Powers said, adding that he looks to make sure that the person applying for the booth is the artist. Additionally, to make it more attractive and lucrative for vendors, vendors of particular mediums are limited. “It’s a small show, we can be real selective.”

As of early April, four booths were open for the May show, 16 for the Fourth of July show and 20 for the September show. A 10-foot by 10-foot booth is $250 and a 10-foot by 20-foot space is $500. No more photography booths are available for all three shows this year and jewelry is full for May and July.

“We keep [the cost] low so we can get more local participation,” Powers said, adding that one battle he has for out of town vendors are the high hotel rates over the holiday weekend.

Powers started promoting and organization art and craft shows in San Diego when he started producing a craft show. In the 1980s, he expanded his work to produce 10 shows a year around the country. He said he got into it because of his background in advertising and marketing. Now, he’s nearing the end of his career and now only puts on two other shows a year, a craft festival in Las Vegas in April and November. The shows take place in Cashman Center, a 100,000-square-foot conventional hall. This year, the Craft Festival will take place Friday, April 15 through Sunday, April 17 and Friday, Nov. 4 through Sunday, Nov. 6.

“I’ve been putting that show on for 31 years,” Powers said.

At the Memorial Day show, the event will debut a food court with Mia Casa restaurant anchoring it.

“I worked hard to find someone who would do it,” Powers said.

Additionally, the layout of the artists will be changed to allow shoppers to easily flow through shows without hitting a dead end.

“We wanted to make everything customer-friendly,” he said. “There are open areas where we’ll have musicians play acoustically.”

Powers was a vendor, showing his photography, at the Morro Bay art festival in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Word got out among the other vendors that he professionally managed art shows and they told him he should promote the show. At first he said no, but then he signed a four-year contract with the art association.

“My goal is to double the attendance,” Power said. “We want to make it more visited.”

He said that in the past the show has averaged 1,000 to 1,500 people per day with a total of 3,000 to 4,500 people. His goal is to have 6,000 to 7,000 people visiting the show over the three-day weekend.

“There’s nothing else at all that compares to the quality of the Morro Bay Art Festival,” Powers said. “There are a lot of people who have moved in over the last couple of years who don’t know about the event. I think they’ll be pretty impressed.”

He adds that in addition to the tourists who come to the area for the holiday weekends, there are people who travel for the Central Valley for a day.

“We’re always looking for more local exhibitors,” Powers said. “A lot of the local artists do the show over the years. … It’s a very viable outlet.”

He’s added $4,000 to the advertising budget and creating an online presence for the festival with its website and Facebook page. Powers designed the website himself and has added paid targeted Facebook ads.

Powers lives in Templeton with his wife of 35 years, Laura, who is also an artist and interior designer. They’ve been in Templeton for four years and in Arroyo Grande for 16 years. Before moving to SLO County in 1996, they lived in northern San Diego County, Powers having grown up in San Diego.

For more information about Morro Bay Art in the Park, go to www.morrobayartinthepark.com. For more about Powers’ Las Vegas craft festival, go to www.stevepowers.com.

This was originally published in Journal Plus in May 2016.

Liz Lee and Mark McConnell give 50 percent of their commissions to charity

Mark McConnell and Liz Lee, the founders and agents before Heart to Heart Real Estate. Photo by Heather Young
Mark McConnell and Liz Lee, the founders and agents before Heart to Heart Real Estate. Photo by Heather Young

Liz Lee and Mark McConnell of Paso Robles have both been real estate agents since 1998, and in August 2013, they started their own company – Heart to Heart Real Estate. It’s just not any real estate company – Lee and McConnell donate half of their commissions to charity.

“It’s people helping people helping people,” McConnell said. “They get to feel good, but we write the check.”

“I think people inherently want to give back,” Liz added. “It’s a win-win. We wanted to creative massive change within the community. We’re just the vehicle.

Not only do they donate half of the commission, but the client gets to choose where the money goes.

“Our clients always choose,” McConnell said. “We had a client who chose a no-kill animal shelter in Texas because that’s where she lived.”

Lee said that the amount they give from a single sale aren’t small, but could be up to $25,000, which is the biggest single donation they’ve given to date. However, they donated a total of $30,000 in December 2015 to nonprofits around the county.

“It’s a consuming business – it takes all of your time,” Lee said.

“The harder we work, the more we give,” McConnell added.

Lee became a real estate agent in her family’s commercial real estate business in Chicago while she earned her law degree from Loyola Law School in Chicago in 2000. She got her bachelor’s degree from Whittier College in Southern California.

“When I moved out here to Atascadero, my family told me ‘you’re good at it, so keep doing it,’” Lee said. She moved to the area with family 11 years ago.

McConnell got into real estate after he bought his first home in Paso Robles.

“It was a very painful process with lots of problems,” McConnell said. “I’m a very hands-on person so I took over the reins.”

At the time he was waiting tables in Paso Robles, so with a little encouragement from the agent handling the sale of the home he bought, he got his real estate license.

While working at ReMax in Paso Robles, Lee and McConnell met and have been together as a couple for the last seven years and are now engaged. They now live in Paso Robles with McConnell’s 15-year-old daughter.

Their joint venture began several years before they actually took the leap and started Heart to Heart.

“One day Mark was reading ‘The Peace Pilgrim’ and turned around said, ‘we’re going to give away 50 percent of our income, and then turned around,” Lee said.

“I want to do something meaningful for the rest of my life,” McConnell added, saying the story of Mildred Lisette Norman, the Peace Pilgrim and a non-denominational spiritual teacher spoke to McConnell. “Late in her life, she gave up all her possessions and spent all of her life spreading a message of peace. That struck a cord in me to have such a conviction in something.”

Lee added that for her, she felt particularly moved to give so much a way after visiting her father in Philippines and seeing how the people there live.

“She’s the one who said we were going to start,” McConnell said.

So they did. And they have no plans of stopping any time soon.

“I really believe this is something that will be duplicated and emulated,” McConnell said, adding that while most businesses have a giving component to the business, he’d like to see this model, where giving is a central part of the business, take off. “Just doing good, being respectful, being kind – that’s how the world is meant to be done.”

“We’d like to see more people doing this,” Lee said. “In America, there really shouldn’t be suffering. Why do we have so many issues? If we don’t work together, we aren’t fixing anything. People want to help other people.”

Some of the nonprofits that Heart to Heart has benefitted include Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation, The Wellness Kitchen, Boys and Girls Club, Camp Natoma, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, Woods Humane Society, Second Chance at Love, Transitional Food and Shelter, Cancer Support Community, Meade Canine Humane Society, the Templeton High School Marching Band Boosters and Jack’s Helping Hands.

Heart to Heart Real Estate is located at 1226 Park St. in downtown Paso Robles. Lee and McConnell can be reached at 805-674-0297 or 805-464-1007 or go to www.hearttoheartrealestate.com.

This story was first published in Journal Plus in April 2016.

Enrique Torres works his way from the cellar to producing his own wine

Enrique Torres with his wine, Diablo Paso. Photo by Stephanie Austin
Enrique Torres with his wine, Diablo Paso. Photo by Stephanie Austin

Enrique Torres has only lived in the United States since 2001, when he got a job working harvest for Martin Family wines in Paso Robles. He came to the area from Mexico with his girlfriend, Nora, who had family in the area. After harvest he got hired as a cellar rat in the winery. This month he will open his first tasting room in downtown Paso Robles for his label, Diablo Paso.

The tasting room at 827 13th St. is a joint venture with Denis Degher of Mojo Cellars. The tasting room, which does not yet have a name, will be a blend of the two wineries, Torres said. Torres and Degher met when the two both worked for Vinoteca in downtown Paso Robles, Torres as a part-time worker behind the bar and Degher as a musician.

“We’re going to make it very comfortable for people to taste wines, but also have a glass of wine or bottle,” Torres said.

Diablo Paso focuses on Spanish-style wines and Mojo Cellars specializes on Bordeaux wines. Torres is a lover of cigars, something that he said pairs well with wine, and would like to offer cigars along with the wine at some point.

“Nothing’s super heavy, cigars are like wine, they have some heavy flavors [and some light],” Torres said. “My favorite are medium [cigars from Connecticut]. I would learn to love to make my own cigars one day.”

While Torres and Degher will often be found behind the wine tasting bar, Torres said with a smile that he won’t be found during harvest. In addition to Diablo Paso, Torres will continue to work fulltime at CaliPaso and Nora at Paso Robles Housing Authority. Nora joins Torres for the big events.

When he first got to Paso Robles, Torres said, he knew very little English, just “hello.” He said he kept asking questions of the winemaker, Alan Kinne.

“He told me to go learn English and he’d teach me,” Torres said. He enrolled at the Cuesta College Paso Robles campus. “I didn’t have an excuse not to go to class, I left work here and then [went to class on the way home].”

He then worked his way to assistant winemaker at Martin and Weyrich winery and when the winery was sold to CaliPaso, he was hired as assistant winemaker. He has continued to work with head winemaker Kinne.

“I started working with them and loved it,” Torres said, adding that he loves the Paso Robles community. “Great people. That’s the nice thing about Paso Robles – everyone knows each other.”

He’s worked at the same winery located on Buena Vista Drive off and on since 2001 – it’s just had different names over the years. For a year and a half he worked as operations manager at SVP Winery in Shandon before he was hired at CaliPaso.

A few years ago his employers allowed him to start making his own wine at the facility. He didn’t yet have his own license; he was able to make the wine under someone else’s license, but just couldn’t sell it until he had his own.

“When we first started Diablo Paso I wasn’t thinking of a tasting room at all,” Torres said. “But it’s difficult to sell when you’re small.”

That is the reason, he said, for opening the tasting room, to grow the wine club.

“Our goal is to grow our brand to maybe 1,500 cases because we want to keep our quality and control,” Torres said.

His first vintage from 2012 was 100 cases from three barrels of tempranillo. He now produces 500 cases of albariño, rosé, garnacha and tempranillo. He does everything for the wine from the grape to the bottle. He added that he has really great friends that help him bottle the wine.

“I still have some of that wine [from the first vintage] left over for [the] library,” Torres said, adding that he will open a three-liter bottle of first vintage tempranillo at the grand opening of the tasting room that is slated to open around the second weekend of March.

Torres and Nora have now been married for 12 years, after meeting when Nora was traveling and studying in Mexico. She visited Torres’ hometown of Ixtapa Zihutanejo, where they met.

“It’s a very small fishing village,” Torres said. “Then later in the year I came to Paso Robles to visit.”

Nora’s had family in Paso Robles since the 1980s, though she grew up on the East Coast, in Brooklyn. Torres moved to the East Coast for three months with Nora, who was then his fiancée. They have two sons, Max, 10, and Nico, 8.

The name of the wine label came to be because it’s a strong Spanish name to go along with Torres’ Spanish-style wines.

“Diablo used to be my nickname when I was a kid,” Torres said. “My mom’s still mad at me because I brought it back.”

He said it was also really important to him to have Paso in the name. He chose to include the Spanish cross on the label, so people realize that he’s not evil, even with the name Diablo on it.

Torres anticipates that the tasting room will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Monday. The tasting room opened in the space at 827 13th St., which was vacated by Baby’s Babble at the beginning of February. For more information about the winery, go to www.diablopasowines.com or call 805-975-6185.

This story was originally published in Journal Plus in March 2016.

Atascadero to discuss allowing limited medical marijuana cultivation

–Atascadero City Council is reconsidering what they say was a rushed decision to ban the cultivation of medical marijuana within the city limits. AB21, a state Assembly bill that would remove a March 1 deadline for local governments to enact marijuana regulations,was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Feb. 3 after successfully passing the State Assembly in a 65-to-zero vote the previous Thursday.

City Manager Rachelle Rickard presented four different options for the council to consider to address concerned raised by both members of the public and council members.

The four options:

  1. Begin a public process immediately and move forward with an analysis irrespective of any potential ballot measures in November.
  2. Adopt an ordinance that allows personal cultivation at a level consistent with what is currently allowed by the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 as a place holder until it is known what might happen as a result of a potential November ballot measures.
  3. Leave the ordinance just adopted in place until after the potential November ballot issue is decided by the voters. At some point after the November election, council would evaluate the policy based on local desires and the legislation in place at the time.
  4. Repeal the cultivation ban and re-adopt the city’s previous medical marijuana ordinance.

The council went with option four with some additional restrictions. The council gave direction to staff to take a draft ordinance that would look at allowing limited production within the city to the planning commission on March 1.

The council directed that the ordinance should include the ban the cultivation of marijuana on vacant land, limit up to eight ounces of dried marijuana, 12 immature and six mature plants per person and not to exceed 15 immature and nine mature plants per dwelling, no cultivation in the yard as as defined by staff and the ordinance would only extend to individuals, not collectives.

Several council members expressed concern going through with Option 1 because of the possibility of ballot measures going through in regards to adult marijuana use.

“I think we’re just fighting an uphill battle until we know the results of November,” Councilman Bob Kelley said. “I’m kind of inclined to Option 3. Let’s wait and see what the outcome is.”

“[Option 1] could be a waste of our time and resources,” Councilman Brian Sturtevant said. “I’d like to see some lifting of the ban. The only reason I voted for the ban because it’s what we needed to comply with state law.”

While both Mayor Tom O’Malley and Mayor Pro Tem Heather Moreno said they preferred Option 4, or a hybrid with Option 2, Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi said she’s not comfortable going back to the old ordinance.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of legal work. Do we need to do that?” Fonzi said. “I just don’t see it. I don’t see why we’d want to go back to something that didn’t work in the first place. I understand, certainly, that there is a need for medical marijuana and I sympathize for those that use it for a legitimate use. However, I have to side with the safety issue. … as elected officials we are here to protect [the community]. There is a very small number that are actually causing problems, but they are causing problems. I’d like to wait until November and see where we are.”

With the majority of the council expressing the desire to lift the strict ban on cultivation, Fonzi suggested a number of restrictions she would like addressed in a proposed ordinance. In the roll call vote, Fonzi said “yes, with reservation.”

For information on the upcoming Atascadero Planning Commission meeting on March 1, go to the city’s website.

This story was originally published on Paso Robles Daily News and A-Town Daily News.