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Come Together

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
October, 2013 Issue

Free food and a good cause make the wine taste better.

 
 
Participants in the North Bay’s numerous weekend wine events and passport-style tasting treks can accumulate a large collection of wristbands, logo glasses and neck lanyards from their travels. They take away something else as well: a new appreciation for our region’s culinary landscape.
 
Marketing and selling wine is the primary goal of these gatherings, and many of the thousands who attend are keenly interested in the grape juice. But adding samples of gourmet food as part of the sensory tasting experience is now de rigueur. When visitors try a fresh oyster, lamb taco or morsel of 10-layer lasagna along with their quaff of fine wine, the experience is heightened by several degrees. Pair that with a wide range of entertainment at scores of scenic locations and the desire to reserve tickets for the following year—or the next must-do event—really heats up.
 

Passport to Dry Creek Valley

Debbie Colgrove handles a database of approximately 12,000 names, a compilation of more than two decades of Passport to Dry Creek Valley’s repeat and new attendees—and those who make serious inquiries about it. She’s overseen the annual food-and-wine tasting experience for the past seven years for the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, managing the association of 63 wineries and 150 growers, as well as managing Passport.
 
“You might say I’m the concierge, the one who answers callers’ questions about Passport,” explains Colgrove, citing it as the oldest continuous event of its kind in Northern California, celebrating 25 years in 2014. The 5,000 two-day tickets ($120 per person) and 1,000 Sunday-only tickets ($70) for the late April event usually sell out quickly, attracting visitors from as far away as Japan, Australia and Italy.
 
“Even though we have many repeat visitors who’ve been coming for years, a good portion of ticket holders are new,” says Colgrove. “Our member wineries are guaranteed up to 6,000 people coming into their tasting rooms in one weekend, so for us, Passport is the association’s one essential event. It’s definitely about selling wine and signing up people up to join the wine clubs as well as educating guests about Dry Creek Valley.”  
 
But Passport is also about food, with the wineries serving cuisine that ties in with their particular theme for the weekend. In 2013, some of the options were Jamaican jerk chicken and rice cakes, Spanish tapas, a full-on Mexican spread at one venue, and hot cinnamon rolls and wood-fired pizza at another. Movies gave some wineries their culinary inspiration this year, such as “Casablanca” for Moroccan food, and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for old-timey barbecue.
 
“Passport is a high-ticket event, and we have standards about food that each winery must meet—an expectation that it be high quality,” explains Colgrove. “We also ask them to pair the food with their wines as much as possible, because it’s meant as a learning experience for consumers. We put a lot of emphasis on that, and on the entertainment. We want it to be a great time for everyone.”
 
Holding out a logo glass at each tasting bar and munching an occasional cracker is not what Passport is about, according to Colgrove. “It’s not a partying event, and we pride ourselves on keeping it a bit more exclusive so it doesn’t turn into an unpleasant atmosphere.”
 
Serious oenophiles appreciate that. Colgrove says many Passport participants use it as their annual wine-buying trip, including a man from Philadelphia who comes every year to buy upward of 20 cases for friends and family back home.
 

Supporting the Food Bank

Wine-and-food pairing is the crux of A Wine & Food Affair, one of three events organized annually by Wine Road Northern Sonoma County, an association of wineries and lodgings in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. Each of the approximately 6,000 ticket holders ($70 for two days, $50 Sunday only) is presented with a cookbook at their first winery stop. A new edition of “Tasting Along the Wine Road” is produced every year, featuring recipes of the various appetizers and soups served at more than 100 participating wineries during the event. The 15th annual Wine & Food Affair takes place this year on November 2 and 3.
 
“To allow time to compile and print the cookbook, each winery submits a recipe in April. They’re required to prepare that recipe for the event and pair it with a particular wine,” explains Lynn Thomas, events manager for Wine Road. “Some of the wineries use caterers, some have their own executive chefs and others have great cooks on staff who prepare family recipes.”
 
Thomas says Wine Road donates $1 from each ticket sold to support the Redwood Empire Food Bank, as well as from the other annual events it produces: Winter WINEland in mid-January and the two-weekend barrel tasting in March. Since 2005, Wine Road has donated more than $200,000 in proceeds to REFB.
 

Small and exclusive

Every March, for the better part of a decade, chef and hotelier Charlie Palmer has hosted the Pigs & Pinot event at his hotel and restaurant, Hotel Healdsburg and Dry Creek Kitchen, respectively. As the name suggests, pork-centric dishes created by Palmer, guest chefs and local restaurateurs are paired with a large assortment of Pinot Noir labels from near and far.
 
All tickets to the individual events and hotel/ticket packages for Pigs & Pinot sell out online in about three minutes, according to Palmer’s hospitality company, the Charlie Palmer Group. The event’s largest gathering, a casual walk-around Pinot tasting, draws about 550 participants ($175 per person). A database tracks the names of more than 30,000 who’ve shown interest in attending all or part of Pigs & Pinot, and many go on a waiting list, hoping for cancellations.
 
“It’s a hard ticket to get these days,” says Palmer of the small-but-prestigious event. “I have people all year long asking me—begging me—for tickets. And I have to tell them I’m sorry that it’s not a bigger event, but bigger would make it different.”
 
Palmer says Pigs & Pinot started as a small fund-raising dinner, with just a couple of Pinot producers involved. “I wanted to raise some money for local and national charities while also bringing people to the restaurant at the sleepy time of year. I thought putting pork and Pinot together was a perfect marriage.”
 
St. John’s School was the beneficiary of funds raised at the first Pigs & Pinot, and after that first year, the event began supporting other local schools through the Healdsburg Education Foundation. By the event’s fourth year, says Palmer, “It had grown to the size I felt it should grow to, to fit in with the size of the property. People like that it’s intimate.” By then, nearly 50 Pinot producers were on board.
 
Today it’s closer to 60 producers of Pinot Noir from California and other locales, with about 30 pork dishes for sampling. Standouts at the 2013 affair included fried pork with warm hominy salad, a pulled pork street taco with charred corn and smoky tomatillo-avocado salsa, and chef Palmer’s succulent garlic-rubbed Kurobuta pork ham with white bean puree.
 
“We always get a rock star group of great chefs and winemakers, because mixing up different personalities makes for an interesting dynamic,” says Palmer. Last year, the event made it possible to distribute more than $120,000 to good causes, such as Share Our Strength, CIA and Sonoma State scholarships, Healdsburg Education Foundation, local children’s sports teams as well as other local charities in need. “And there wouldn’t be things like the Tuesdays in the [Healdsburg] Plaza concerts if it weren’t for these outside funds being raised,” he adds.
 

Pairing Zinfandel and charity

For most busy chefs, one food-and-wine fund-raising event per year would be enough work. But along with Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Family Winery, Palmer also founded and oversees Project Zin, which raises money for the Down Syndrome Association North Bay (the Mauritsons have a son with Down syndrome). With tickets priced at $200 per person, the first three years of the event raised about $150,000 for the association.
 
During one evening in August at Hotel Healdsburg, Project Zin participants taste 21 Zinfandels (to honor the 21st chromosome that most people with Down syndrome have two of) and feast on hearty dishes well paired to the spicy red. The menu for this year’s event—the third—included braised hanger steak, duck meatball bocadillos, cannelloni, beef sliders, alligator boudin from local restaurants, and a sweet finish provided by the Healdsburg Toffee Company.
 
Palmer and his chef de cuisine at Dry Creek Kitchen, Dustin Valette, prepare the menu each year by meeting with local restaurant partners to discuss guidelines for the beef and pork dishes. “But I don’t tell them what to make, because I don’t want to cramp anyone’s style—I want them to be creative,” says Palmer.
 
“And you’re not going to go to any other event and be able to taste these incredible quality Zinfandels,” he adds. “These are the best Zins made, period.” Palmer and Mauritson are good friends who’ve also collaborated on their own wine, Charlie Clay Pinot Noir, through eight vintages.
 

Out on the ranch

For more than 30 years, Taste of Sonoma has been attracting foodies and wine lovers for a concentrated pairing of luscious bites and sips in a single Saturday afternoon ($165 to $195 per person). The event has been held at the MacMurray Ranch on Westside Road for the past few years as part of the larger Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, chockfull of special winemaker lunches, dinners and barbecues and culminating with the live Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction on Sunday.
 
Taste of Sonoma’s scale is expansive but roomy. As many as 200 wineries offer pours and 60 chefs concoct generous food samples. During a stroll of the grounds of the MacMurray Ranch, participants might partake of Mammarella Coppola’s meatballs (from Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Rustic restaurant), lamb and beef gyro bites (Taverna Sofia), a summer squid salad with zucchini blossoms (The Spinster Sisters), a griddled cheese and heirloom tomato sandwich (Rocker Oysterfeller's), sausages (Murphy’s Irish Pub), breads from Costeaux French Bakery, and numerous confectioners offering macarons, cupcakes and cookies.
 
Taste of Sonoma has other distractions as well, such as the Crushpad for a lesson in winegrape harvesting, a Steel Chef competition and cooking demos, a self-guided tour of the ranch’s history and a marketplace with vendors selling artisan products.
 
The annual Labor Day weekend celebration is a collaboration between Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance. The 2013 auction was a record-breaking affair, raising more than $1.4 million, doubling the take from the 2012 auction and producing the highest grossing bid for a single lot to date: $691,250. Proceeds from the auction benefit more than 30 local charities, with almost $13 million raised so far in the event’s 21-year run.
 

“Cabernet season” kick-off

Celebrity chef and long-time Napa Valley resident Michael Chiarello can take credit for setting in motion the creation of Flavor! Napa Valley Celebration of Wine, Food & Fun. The five-day food-and-wine festival revolves in large part around St. Helena’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA). Presenters and instructors are mostly Napa Valley chefs and/or CIA graduates, which is also the beneficiary of the proceeds.
 
“Chiarello inspired it,” says Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “He used to say things like, ‘I travel to South Beach and Aspen and other cities to participate in major food-and-wine festivals, so why can’t we do one here in Napa?’ Besides, it was high time Napa had its own event like this.”
 
Compared to many other local events, Flavor! is still a toddler—the third annual gathering takes place November 20 to 24.
 
November was chosen, says Gregory, because it’s the kickoff of the valley’s “Cabernet season,” a recently minted tagline adopted by Visit Napa Valley to describe the post-harvest time of year, when restaurants create hearty fare to pair with Cabernet and visitors are sitting near fireplaces, not swimming pools.
 
“The weekend before Thanksgiving used to be really slow, but with Flavor! we get 2,500 visitors in Napa Valley that wouldn’t have been here otherwise,” says Gregory. Not counting ticket sales, he estimates the economic impact from the five days of Flavor! at $3 million, taking into account what visitors spend on lodging, dining, wine tasting and shopping.
 
Being Napa Valley, there’s an emphasis at Flavor! on wine education, including the Appellation Trail tasting that draws the event’s largest crowd. But there are also numerous and intimate “Terroir to Table” workshops and culinary demonstrations. Some of this year’s offerings explain how to preserve foraged foods, whip up authentic Neapolitan pizza, and turn olives into oil. Many are kept deliberately small, with fewer than 18 participants, and held in Napa Valley locations other than the CIA. Participants purchase tickets for individual events and demonstrations, which can range from $100 to $350.
 
“Flavor! Napa Valley may not be the biggest festival, but it’s probably the most high-touch,” says Gregory. “The participants can have intimate contact with chefs and winemakers, and get their hands dirty, too. We never want Flavor! to be too big, because that’s not who we are.”
 
Flavor! Napa Valley attracted about 3,000 attendees in 2012, with approximately 45 percent coming from outside California (and 42 of the 50 states represented) and 2 percent from outside the United States.
 
Last year’s Flavor! was memorable for one unscripted twist: An appendicitis attack that prevented Chiarello from helming one of the interactive lunches at the CIA. “We had another chef sub for Chiarello for his cooking demo,” says Gregory. “Then he came by two hours after being discharged from the hospital to apologize to the group that he wasn’t able to be there.”
 

Hot bidding in Napa

On a toasty Friday afternoon, while noshing such fare as rabbit rillettes with pepper mustard and cheddar biscuits with ham, approximately 2,000 people roamed the grounds and barrel room of Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena. It was the annual barrel auction of the Auction Napa Valley weekend, a coming attraction to the live auction that would take place the following day at Meadowood resort.
 
The barrel auction on May 31 ($1,000 per person) featured a spread of finger foods created by about 40 of the valley’s best chefs and restaurants, including brick-oven baked pizzas from Yountville’s Redd Wood. As attendees sampled a cornucopia of cuisine, they also sipped young vino still resting in barrels and watched the bidding rise ever higher on desirable wine lots. The day’s top lot reached $78,000, for 10 cases of Shafer Vineyards wine. The barrel auction alone rang up bids totaling $1.7 million, a new record for that event.
 
Combined with proceeds from the following day’s live auction during a heat wave, and the weeklong E-auction bidding, Auction Napa Valley’s final tally was $16.9 million. It was another new record for the exclusive, 33-year-old gathering that raises money for health, youth and affordable housing nonprofit programs in the valley. Bids for some of the lots at the live auction rose to $450,000 and $500,000—and one topped out at $800,000.
 
“It appears that 100-degree days are an easy slide into the six figures for many of the one-of-a-kind live lots,” auctioneer Fritz Hatton was overheard to remark after the bidding frenzy.
 

Russian River Valley recognition

For 18 years, Grape to Glass has turned a spotlight on the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, which this year celebrated the 30th anniversary of its designation as an American viticultural area. The “Back to Our Roots” event was held August 17 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard off Slusser Road, with approximately 750 guests ($85 per person) feasting on unlimited tastes of fine wine, tri-tip and Willie Bird turkey breasts marinated in Russian River Valley Chardonnay.
 
“It’s a fun gathering that’s really down-home, like a backyard barbecue,” says event planner Judy Groverman Walker. This year, Windsor High School worked with Costeaux French Bakery to whip up a huge Gravenstein apple pie measuring six feet in diameter. The 45 participating wineries poured case after case of Russian River Valley appellation wines, which can be quite expensive, says Walker. “So we feel that people really get their money’s worth at the event.”
 
A live auction of 18 lots focused on lodging and dinner packages aimed at bringing visitors back to Russian River Valley to stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants and visit member wineries’ tasting rooms. “The auction isn’t the main component of the event, but it typically brings in about $50,000,” says Walker.
 
Also in Russian River Valley, the one-day Grill 116 event was founded last year to promote the Taste Route 116 group of wineries along or near Hwy. 116.
 
“Six wineries participated in 2012, and this year we had nine,” says Graton Ridge Cellars co-owner Sue Bonzell about the July 27 event ($45 per person). “Our winery grilled sausages from Occidental’s Panizzera Meat Company, while Martin Ray Winery served beef brisket sliders, Balletto Vineyards had mini burgers from Sonoma Natural Beef, and Dutton Estate Winery offered black bean chili and tri-tip. I think our visitors were full by the time they got around to all the wineries.” Another attraction of Grill 116 were classic cars on display at many of the hosting wineries.
 
Bonzell says the goal behind Grill 116, as with similar events, is to bring more visitors into the tasting rooms, sell a few bottles and cases, and really raise awareness of the wineries in this area—to make it a destination. “We did fairly well with sales here at Graton Ridge during Grill 116, and we definitely saw more people coming through the tasting room than on an average Saturday. Cool old cars also get people interested,” she adds. “But cars are never more of a draw than food. When they find out food is included, they’re in. Who’s going to say ‘no’ to barbecue?”
 
Foodies have been saying “yes” to additional Wine Country events through the years. Some enduring wine-and-food tastings include the annual Taste of Yountville (March), Savor Sonoma Valley Barrel Tasting & Culinary Experience (March), April in Carneros, and Taste of Alexander Valley (May).
 
One newer gathering in Napa Valley, now known as Cochon 550 Heritage Fire, is nirvana for heritage meat lovers who prefer their Wagyu beef, thresher shark, whole pig and goat roasted over outdoor spits and paired with a big selection of local wines and microbrews ($125 to $200 per person). The fifth annual Cochon, showcasing the grilling expertise of 25 chefs and butchers from around the nation, took place August 11 at Charles Krug Winery.
 

Good causes with integrity

As long as our wineries and chefs continue to produce the fine wine and food that draw visitors to the region, events that pair the two will remain popular and spawn even more. But can there be too many such gatherings, with all of them targeting the same demographic of consumers?
 
“I’d like to see better events, not just more events,” says Palmer. “Participants might want to consider where their money is going when they sign up for one. They should know if it’s going for a good cause and also being handled with integrity.”
 
 
 
Jean Saylor Doppenberg is the author of three books: Food Lovers’ Guide to Napa Valley, Food Lovers’ Guide to Sonoma, and Insiders’ Guide to California’s Wine Country.

 

 

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