CASS Winery, in Paso Robles, California, is proving to be as extroverted as it’s elegant with events and experiences that have become a beacon of queer joy, right in the heart of a conservative town.
By Eddie Kim Photos courtesy of CASS Winery
When Andy Macdonald joined CASS Winery in April 2022 to oversee their private events, he could’ve never imagined some of the things he would experience—including performing in drag for a crowd of more than 250.
CASS Winery sits on 145 acres in the prime wine territory of Paso Robles, California, accessed by a winding two-lane road that cuts through rolling golden hills. It opened in 2005 with just a handful of vintage wines, and has since grown into one of Paso Robles’ most unique destinations, touting nearly a dozen wine varietals and a diverse range of activities beyond the usual tastings.
That includes events like the drag brunch, held in May to coincide with the popular Paso Wine Fest. Thanks to his acumen at throwing events, Macdonald had made connections to stars from one of his favorite shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” So he courted five queens from across the U.S., including Shuga Cain and Derrick Barry, to glam up CASS in a dance party under the summer sun.
He knew those RuPaul stars would slay in front of the crowd, but wasn’t so sure about his own talents. “I’ve been intrigued by drag for a long time, but I’m a bearded man,” Macdonald says. “I haven’t shaved that beard in over a decade. But I thought, you know what, let me talk to the queens and see if they’ll make me over for this show.”
And just like that, Macdonald emerged as a ravishing blonde with a fitting name: Miss Honey Buttah. Filled with butterflies but looking glam in a black corseted dress, Honey Buttah took the stage at the brunch, dancing and singing to “This Is Me,” from the musical “The Greatest Showman.” Macdonald couldn’t help but notice the cheers and cathartic tears in the crowd.
“I think it said something that six other winery owners attended the drag brunch,” Macdonald says. “And for them to reach out and say that they love what we’re doing with the community at CASS, and want to help and be a part of future events like this. Knowing other people and winery owners in the community are buying into the idea of creating spaces and events for everyone… it was the most heartfelt thing to me.”
It’s a very unpretentious way to go about running a winery. It’s fun, it’s comfortable, it’s for everyone. Like it says on our shirts, it’s French DNA and Paso personality.
Beyond just a winery, CASS has long had a penchant for hosting unique events that draw a crowd. It’s a natural result of co-owner Steve Cass purchasing land in eastern Paso Robles, separated from the critical mass of wineries at the turn of the millennium.
“When we opened, there were only seven or eight wineries around us,” Cass says. “People needed actual maps to find us so we thought we should focus on events to attract people to the area.”
Cass left a two-decade career at the brokerage Charles Schwab in San Francisco and, at the age of 48, wondered how he should pivot. He flirted with a few different ambitions, including a sketchy plan to sail around the world and a brief dalliance with classic cars. More than anything, Cass knew he wanted to move out of the city.
There, while driving past wineries and seeing grapevines lining the Paso Robles countryside, Cass hatched a plan. He didn’t know much about growing grapes, but he could acquire some land, start a vineyard, and pay an expert to tend to the vines.
Cass bought 145 acres in the summer of 1999 and oversaw the planting of 12 varietals of grapes the following year. What he didn’t realize was how bored he would get while waiting for the vines to mature.
While drinking delicious, full-bodied wines for a killer price at Fairview, the winery owned by legendary South African winemaker Charles Back, Cass and Ted Plemons, who had built the farmhouse on the vineyard (as well as Cass’ personal home), paired up to operate a full winery, not just a vineyard in Paso Robles.
The first harvest came in 2003, and CASS Winery debuted in 2005, offering a few vintages in French Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne, as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon.
The future remained uncertain: “It takes quite a while for a winery to turn a profit,” Cass notes. Just opening and tasting the first vintage felt like a victory nonetheless.
Over the next decade, CASS continued to grow, earning critical praise for their wines and earning a reputation as a destination in east Paso Robles.
A major development arrived in spring of 2020, with the completion of the Geneseo Inn, a luxurious eight-room hotel built from interlocking shipping containers. Initially designed to attract overnight stays after events like weddings and tastings, the inn became a crucial asset amid the onset of COVID pandemic, with guests able to eat, drink and recreate in acres of open space.
Like it says on our shirts, it’s French DNA and Paso personality.
In the last two years, the winery has brought on fresh talent to evolve the food and hospitality at CASS. For Taryn Bauer, coming onboard as the head chef of the tasting room cafe has been the highlight of her career. She and her team of five cooks make everything from scratch, from salad dressing to pizza dough.
Cooking at a winery can be chaos, Bauer says with a laugh (“Like when three tour buses pull up and drop 80 people into the dining room.”) But while she enjoys the thrill of performing under pressure, the 33-year-old chef notes that the biggest reward is feeling empowered by Cass to be creative and lead her team with full agency.
“I’ve heard from so many people that coming to CASS is like becoming part of a family. That’s a cliche but in this industry, when it’s busy, you can always see the stress on an employee’s face,” Bauer says. “So it’s special to come to CASS and see people who care about each other, having a good time, sharing laughs. Even in the middle of a rush, I’m still dancing.”
It’s a similar sentiment from Macdonald, who also leads the Camp CASS program, billed as an “adult summer camp” with archery, scavenger hunts and lessons on beekeeping, and wine making, of course.
“It’s just a very unpretentious way to go about running a winery, truly,” Macdonald says. “It’s fun, it’s comfortable, it’s for everyone. Like it says on our shirts, it’s French DNA and Paso personality. That personality is dynamic—it’s eccentric and extroverted as much as it’s elegant. And I love being able to do it all.”