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The Day Before

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
April, 2014 Issue

Traditional, wedding eve rehearsal dinners are being reinvented to include more guests, more fun and more surprises.

When a bride-to-be asks a wedding coordinator to make her special day appear “as if Liberace [decorated everything],” you know it won’t be a routine event. These days, even the traditional night-before rehearsal dinner has been turned on its head, having less to do with “rehearsal” and “dinner” and more to do with fun.
The sparkly pink, Liberace-inspired wedding took place last year, coordinated by Sarah Drake, who, along with Stephanie Cole, owns and operates Cole Drake Events, a wedding and event planning company in Napa and Sonoma counties. The festivities began the night before the ceremony with a rehearsal dinner at Sullivan Vineyards near Rutherford, where the music of Britney Spears filled the air; Rosso Pizzeria turned out artisan pies from its mobile pizza oven. At other recent events, bridal couples and their families and friends have posed for a caricaturist, sat for tarot card readings and played bocce ball. Creative entertainment, such as flamenco and samba dancers, has also become popular.
“I prefer to call what’s traditionally been known as rehearsal dinners ‘welcome receptions’ instead,” says Drake, “because the conventional rehearsal dinner is going out of style. More than 60 percent of our wedding clients do something that departs from the typical white-tablecloth restaurant setting. They want more accessible, fun and feel-good experiences for their guests.”
Another night-before-the-wedding reception, arranged by Cole last year, was held at Castello di Amorosa, the medieval-themed winery south of Calistoga, where the marriage proposal had occurred months earlier. Red roses were abundant in the castle’s Great Hall and an opera singer serenaded during dinner. The approximately 100 guests were also taken in small groups on private tours of the castle’s many attractions.
Many bridal couples who are choosing Wine Country for their destination weddings are using the rehearsal dinner as a way to bring their two families together––many for the first time––in unique and casual or grand ways. Ignoring the etiquette books, they’re inventing new traditions limited only by their budgets.
In additional to some of these unconventional celebrations, many wedding couples are still interested in booking a restaurant for their rehearsal dinner. “I get requests all the time for restaurant recommendations, but when the guest list gets long, it can be tricky to find a place large enough,” says Suzy Montes, meeting sales and services manager for Sonoma County Tourism. “Some couples feel pressured to include all their guests in the rehearsal dinner if they’re coming from far away.”
Among Sonoma County restaurants that can accommodate larger groups, according to Montes, are Catelli’s in Geyserville, the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma, Bistro 29 in Santa Rosa and the HopMonk Taverns in Sebastopol and Sonoma.

Changing wedding dynamics

Who pays for the rehearsal dinner? Custom dictates that the groom’s family is financially responsible and therefore can choose where the event takes place and what and whom it will include. “But the dynamics are so different these days,” says Montes, “especially if it’s an older couple or a second marriage for one or both spouses.”
Many of Cole Drake Events’ wedding couples have the resources to do what they choose and aren’t relying on parents to pick up the tab. “Our brides and grooms are typically in their 30s, hold executive-level positions and are well traveled,” says Drake. “Some of them are spending no less than $100,000 on the wedding day alone. So if they want a rehearsal dinner at a restaurant, they might choose a casual spot, like Gott’s Roadside drive-in in St. Helena—mostly for the kitsch factor.”
Mary Beth Salmieri, director of events for Jamieson Ranch Vineyards in Napa County, says that, most of the time, parents aren’t involved in planning the rehearsal dinner at her winery, nor are they paying for it. “It’s much more common for me to deal only with the bride and groom about arrangements and payments.”
Modern couples are looking for something quite different from the standard restaurant experience, especially when the entire wedding party is from out of the area, says Salmieri. “They plan a full weekend of activities for their guests and try to include them all in the rehearsal dinner instead of the old style of inviting only the wedding party and immediate family.”
If the post-wedding reception will feature a live band, then the entertainment at the welcome reception might be something smaller and more whimsical—such as a juggler, comedian, magician or a balloon artist—to ensure plenty of laughter and fun.

Wineries and restrictions

Many couples, especially from out of the area, seek a winery as the backdrop for at least part of their wedding experience. But because of permit restrictions, wineries in Sonoma County have more freedom to host rehearsal dinners and weddings than those in Napa County.
“Wineries are still popular venues for these events, but site fees for peak season weekends can be steep,” says Montes, pointing out the $12,500 fee charged by Jacuzzi Family Vineyards south of Sonoma as an example (fees vary depending on date and size of the party).
“And the wineries don’t care if you’re inviting 200 people or only 20,” she continues. “A site fee is in place regardless of the guest count. You’re using the space and [wineries] have to make their money. that said, I’m seeing more venues being a little flexible if the guest count is lower than their max capacity.”
During peak wedding season (May through October), it’s not uncommon for Trentadue Winery north of Healdsburg to host at least one wedding nearly every weekend, according to Montes, and it can also accommodate weddings year-round in a large indoor event space. Other wineries, such as Landmark Vineyards near Kenwood, prefer to book only a handful of nuptial celebrations per year. “Many wineries limit the number of wedding events because it can cause a lot of wear and tear on their properties,” she says.
Jamieson Ranch Vineyards promotes itself as a site for the wedding rehearsal dinner, though due to permitting, it cannot host the wedding itself. “I’m planning to continue advertising Jamieson Ranch on wedding websites, but only for wedding-related celebrations,” explains Salmieri. “That type of exposure gets us into the bride’s mind.”
Jamieson Ranch will arrange indoor, seated dinners for as many as 120 and doesn’t charge a food and beverage minimum. “However, some of our rehearsal ‘dinners’ consist of heavy appetizers and wine tasting,” says Salmieri. Recently one of her wedding couples invited 150 people to their rehearsal dinner, but they didn’t want tables. Instead, they preferred to have their guests standing and chatting in small groups and lounging on the winery’s veranda furniture. “So it was like a giant living room and felt more like coming into someone’s home with people sitting around the fire.”
To add fun and avoid awkward lulls in conversation, couples will hire a DJ for the night or rent a photo booth. “The photo booth is a fun and spontaneous way to get people who don’t know each other to open up more,” says Salmieri. “But the idea is to make the night-before gathering more relaxed, laid back and less regimented.”
On average, says Salmieri, welcome receptions at Jamieson Ranch cost between $150 and $200 per person. “And due to permitting, all events must have a wine education element, which, we find, our guests really enjoy.” At press time, the winery was almost fully booked with rehearsal dinners for the remainder of this year.

Participation mandatory

Oftentimes, couples planning a small and simple wedding ceremony will cook up something more elaborate for their guests the night before that includes good food and wine, says Montes. “They’ll all go to, say, Partake by Kendall-Jackson in Healdsburg, where they can have an affordable immersion in food-and-wine pairing, which has gone far beyond cheese boards, for about $45 per person. It’s a great way to blend their families and break the ice. And because it includes some wine education, their guests might be connoisseurs by the end of the night.”
Another popular option, according to Montes, is the progressive rehearsal dinner, with guests moving between the bridal couple’s favorite restaurants. Appetizers are ordered at the first stop, the main course at another, and dessert is enjoyed at a third location. “It’s like bar hopping, and it works great for smaller groups,” she says.
Drake says that to get the in-laws-to-be better acquainted, she sometimes approaches the welcome reception like a team-building exercise, such as a hands-on, private cooking class at Ramekins culinary center in Sonoma. “Ramekins is a great place for them to experience a class together, preparing a meal side-by-side and then sitting down to share it,” she adds.
For a pre-wedding gathering of foodies, Drake once coordinated a private tour of Green String Farm east of Petaluma. “That group walked through the gardens and learned from a master gardener all about organic gardening, and then helped pick the produce for their luncheon.”
Bicycling is also in vogue as a wedding weekend activity. “A lot of younger people don’t want to come all the way here from far away just to sit around a restaurant table,” says Drake. “For them, it’s all about touring Wine Country on a bike, experiencing the sensory elements up-close and personal, so we help arrange excursions and tours in small groups.”

Rehearsal dinners are big business

At HopMonk Tavern in Sonoma, 90 percent of its event business is wedding rehearsal dinners. “We have one almost every weekend, and sometimes two from April through October,” says Kim Schubert, special events manager for all three HopMonk locations (Sebastopol, Sonoma and Novato). “Nearly all of the bridal couples who book with us at the Sonoma location are from out of the area, and what attracts them to HopMonk is the casualness of our outdoor beer garden.”
Meanwhile, HopMonk’s Sebastopol location is a popular venue for local couples to stage a rehearsal dinner or wedding, and it’s also rentable year-round because of a massive heated tent that encloses the beer garden from mid-October to mid-April.
“If the bride and groom want a smaller dinner for just immediate family and the wedding party, we can arrange a buffet-style or a sit-down affair,” says Schubert. “Then a bit later in the evening, we can bring out a big array of appetizers for their additional guests and host a cocktail party.”
Clients have told Schubert that HopMonk is one of the least expensive alternatives in the area for a rehearsal dinner. “And they get the most out of us, because we don’t charge a site fee and there’s no food-and-beverage minimum at the Sebastopol location,” she explains. “We do have a minimum at the Sonoma location, but it’s far less than most places. Because couples are spending so much on their wedding day alone, I try to work within their budget for their rehearsal dinner. And they can dress up the place or keep it as casual as they like.”

Recreation on the river

Over the past few years, under the ownership of proprietor Michael Clark, Dawn Ranch Lodge in Guerneville has built a successful reputation as a destination-wedding site. “We’re generally sold out every weekend for weddings in the peak season,” he says. Formerly known as Murphy’s Guest Ranch and Fife’s Resort and rebranded in 2005, the resort has 53 cabins and a full-service restaurant called Agriculture Public House. Wedding clients at Dawn Ranch between May and October must buy out all the cabins for two nights.
Couples who still want tradition can hold a private rehearsal dinner inside the resort’s restaurant, but Clark says Friday night barbecues outside are a more popular option, when grass-fed burgers and chicken sausages can be offered in a casual, kid-friendly environment. “As a historic property, we’re also grandfathered in for a few things, such as bonfires,” says Clark. Dawn Ranch also has one of the last of the many bandshells that once were found up and down the Russian River, which is where live music for the rehearsal dinners frequently takes place.
“A lot of our wedding couples come from the East Coast, so we can also provide something like a shrimp boil or a pig roast the night before the ceremony,” says Clark. “Sometimes we arrange a pool party with cocktails and appetizers early in the evening, then the wedding guests go have dinner on their own. Later, when they return from dinner, we can provide a dessert bar along with cognac and port poolside.”
Clark says many of the wedding couples at Dawn Ranch are also seeking recreation on the Russian River while at the resort. One couple checked in on a Thursday with several of their friends, and they all went canoeing and kayaking on the river. That was followed by lunch at the resort and lawn games in its large meadow. “The welcome reception was later that night after the rest of their families and guests had arrived,” he adds. “But what was important to the bride and groom was that they first made a day of it with their friends.”
The average age of Dawn Ranch’s wedding couples is mid-30s. “About half of them are paying for the whole wedding on their own, and the other half are relying on their parents,” Clark says. “More times than not, the rehearsal dinner is paid for by the bride’s family, but we always ask if they would like invoices separated, so that each side of the family can contribute. Sometimes the groom’s family will make a few payments, and the bride’s family will make some, because they’ve come to an agreement ahead of time about dividing the cost.”
The site fee at Dawn Ranch for a wedding weekend during the peak season is $10,500; it will increase to $12,500 in 2015. The profits from weddings go right back into maintenance of Dawn Ranch Lodge, says Clark: “This property requires a lot of upkeep and updating, because we have more than 60 buildings here that are more than 100 years old.”
Dawn Ranch Lodge may host 30 to 40 extravagant weddings each year, drawing hundreds of guests and some with budgets reaching a half-million dollars, but the resort also offers smaller Sunday weddings. “We advertise locally for those and our fee is greatly reduced, because local couples should be able to afford to get married in Wine Country, too,” says Clark.

Picnics and barbecues

Not all rehearsal dinners cost thousands of dollars. Couples on a budget or seeking a more down-to-earth, bling-free gathering can arrange a picnic or barbecue in a North Bay park.
The Warm Springs Recreation Area near the dam at Lake Sonoma is ideal for an inexpensive pre-wedding gathering, says Montes. “For bringing two families together for the first time, an outdoor picnic is a nice way for them all to mingle. At Warm Springs, it’s only $50 to rent a group picnic area for the day, and food trucks can set up there.” The bridal couple can also bring in their own food and even hire a live band for entertainment.
The options for couples arranging rehearsal dinners in Wine Country are limitless, says Montes. “Some brides and grooms are looking for just a simple brunch and ceremony, with an emphasis on our great food and wine. They don’t need all the frills. It all just depends on whether they want a fairy tale or not.”
Jean Saylor Doppenberg is the author of three books: Food Lovers’ Guide to Napa Valley, Food Lovers’ Guide to Sonoma, andInsiders’ Guide to California’s Wine Country.






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