Men on stilts taking daring steps near auction tables and generous pours, the fabulous set sipping under tents on the MacMurray Ranch, flappers raising money for children — just a few of the lively scenes from the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend attended by The Daily Meal in 2015. Every year, this wine charity fundraiser gathers more than 200 of Sonoma’s top winemakers and the area’s celebrated chefs to fundraise on behalf of farm workers, students, and other folks in need in Sonoma County. This year’s Sonoma Wine Country Weekend over Labor Day (Sept. 2–4) is on the horizon, and with its indulgent tastings in scenic vistas, winemaker lunches, Marrakesh-themed wine auction, and the 40th anniversary celebration of the Judgment of Paris (at which several California wines bested their famous French counterparts, bringing the state's vintages true international attention for the first time), it’s looking to be a great time for a good cause once again.
Ranked as one of the top three charitable wine auctions in America by Wine Spectator, — and jointly produced by the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Foundation — the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend is an opportunity for food and wine enthusiasts to enjoy themselves, but with a serious goal.
“For three unforgettable days, guests get up close and personal with Sonoma County’s full bounty of flavors celebrating with local winemakers, winegrowers, and chefs,” explained the event’s co-executive director Jean Arnold Sessions. “But more importantly, the event raises critical funds to help us continue our community leadership in Sonoma County and support our 95 local beneficiary partners.”
Indeed, in 2015, the event set a new record by raising $4.5 million. Since its inception, Sonoma Wine Country Weekend has raised more than $20 million for charities. This year, organizers are hoping to do even more. Their goal is to raise $5 million, more than $2 million of that earmarked to support reading programs across Sonoma County to help close the literacy gap of third graders.
The event caters to some 2,500 guests and features three signature events — the kick-off at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, the Taste of Sonoma at MacMurray Estate Vineyards, and the weekend’s finale, The Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean — with a wealth of winemaker lunches, dinners, and barbecues happening in between.
Things kick off poolside Friday, with the Sonoma Starlight party at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Alexander Valley, which features live music, seasonal cuisine, and wines from more than 25 Sonoma County wineries (visitors can take a break inside to see the famed Godfather desk). Saturday’s Taste of Sonoma (in its 37th year) will once again be held at the beautiful MacMurray Estate Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the onetime home of Fred MacMurray, the prolific actor and father figure from the famous 60s sitcom My Three Sons. (His daughter, Kate MacMurray, said he planted the two towering redwoods on either side of the barn.) It’s an impressive event, one where more than 200 wineries pour thousands of wines (no, really), with 60 local chefs preparing savory bites for in between sips. Be on the lookout for Seghesio Winery’s barbecued ribs (one of last year’s best bites), and, of course, veteran Taste chef and Hana Japanese Restaurant owner Ken Tominaga’s spicy tuna rolls.
“I can’t believe this is our twelfth year hosting this wonderful event!” said Kate MacMurray, spokesperson for MacMurray Estate Vineyard. “Once a year, we throw open the doors and welcome guests to enjoy the serene beauty of MacMurray Ranch and experience the flavors and bounty of our lovely Sonoma County. I hope to see you!”
While “reserve section” tickets for Sonoma Starlight and Taste of Sonoma are sold out, general admission tickets are available on SonomaWineWeekend.com. You may want to jump on them because this is the last year MacMurray will host the event.
Another finale: This will be the last year the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction will be at Chateau St. Jean. Its Marrakesh theme should follow previous years’ similarly vibrant scenes (last year’s was the World’s Fair, 2014 was the Serengeti, and 2013 was a Pan-Latin celebration. Some standout auction items include two nights of glamour at the Golden Globes with the president of the Boisset Collection, Jean-Charles Boisset; a multi-course dinner paired with library vintages of 100-point Vérité wines; and an exclusive trip for two to Cuba.
A few other things of note:
It’s worth remembering that with this many wines being poured, this much good food, and the thousands of people attending, even the most seasoned swirl-and-sippers and gourmands should be ready with a plan to tackle these great events. Here are a few general reminders:
Do stop for ribs being pulled out of a smoker. Don’t stop for fried chicken if there’s no fryer in sight. Stop for a burger if it’s being removed from a hot grill, but go ahead and skip any dishes made with brands to highlight those brands if they’re not high-end ingredients. Always stop for oysters, lobster, or caviar. Aside from that, stop for anything seasonal and anything that truly seems like an interesting flavor combination.
One last tip for veteran festival-goers and first-timers alike: You’re going to need to start your days off strong. That means building a base, and there are few better spots in the surrounding area for Mexican food than El Molino Central. Before 11 a.m. they make a mean chilaquiles Mérida with soft-scrambled eggs, and late-risers can’t go wrong with pumpkin and white Cheddar tamales, beer-battered fish tacos, or chicken enchiladas suizas.