Heirloom Tomato Fest at Kendall-Jackson Winery

Wine and tomatoes aren't usually considered complementary, but Kendall-Jackson proves how well they can go together

Heirloom Tomato Fest at Kendall-Jackson Winery

Tomatoes are not known for their affinity to wine — too much acidity and sweetness combined — but that hasn’t kept the Jackson family that owns Kendall-Jackson and several other wineries from having a long-term affair with the "love apple.”

Tomato Capital for a Day

Kendall-Jackson first became famous for its slightly sweet but palate-friendly Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. Today, 24 years later, parent company Jackson Family Wines owns wineries around the world, and Vintner’s Reserve is still America’s top-selling chardonnay.

Rosé and Tomato Garden

Randy Ullom has been winemaker at Kendall-Jackson for about as long as they’ve been growing tomatoes, and his mustachioed countenance is a welcoming presence. On the first evening, he pours me a glass of rosé and takes me on a garden tour of plants that match the flavors of specific wine varieties.

The Table Is Set

About 175 guests are expected to attend the opening reception and dinner and will be seated at a single long table in the winery garden. Williams-Sonoma is co-host for the evening, with proceeds going to No Kid Hungry. A dozen chefs will prepare an eight-course feast.

News from the Food Front

At the walk-around reception, Rick Tigner, CEO of Jackson Family Wines, introduces guest chefs and the two Kendall-Jackson artisans most responsible for preparing the dinner — master culinary gardener Tucker Taylor (in sunglasses) and executive chef Justin Wangler (in baseball cap).

Every Way You Slice Them

The first course features — what else? — sliced tomatoes with green goddess dressing. Other courses include a veggie medley, Galician-style octopus, filet of beef with tomato kimchi, basil mousse with tomato jam, mignardises, cheeses, and a damn fine cup of Taylor Maid coffee.

Trojan Tomatoes

An off-the-menu dessert awaits its turn to be served. Heirloom tomatoes don’t look this good, and these are in fact faux tomatoes with a delicious chocolate skin stuffed with sweet nothings. A glass of Kendall-Jackson Late Harvest Orange Muscat would go well right now.

Life Is Like a Box of Tomatoes

Saturday morning shines bright — another great day to drink wine and eat tomatoes. A decorative display of assorted heirloom tomatoes looks good enough to eat, but I keep my salt shaker in my pocket for the moment. Still, that purple beauty sitting on top looks mighty sweet.

Tomato Catch Up

Hundreds of paying guests are visiting the festival, which today benefits the Redwood Empire Food Bank, and the early arrivers don’t want to miss anything. Each one grabs a glass and goes charging through the food tables, operated by local vendors, that ring the lawn. 

Family Reunion

You didn’t really believe me about those 150 different varieties, did you? Several tables located under protective tents give each variety its own display, featuring a whole fruit as well as a couple dozen cut pieces for the marauding nibblers.

Golden Globes

Of course, not all tomatoes are created red. There are golden ones, yellows ones, purple ones, even green ones that are ripe. Serious tomatophiles are given a chart to read about and check off each one they taste. There are toothpicks and salt (though I use my private shaker).

No Rotten Tomatoes

An audience gathers for the cooking competition, but there will be no flinging of rotten tomatoes if a visiting chef over-promises and under-delivers. Sometimes, if you sit in the front row, folks, you get a nibble of something hot off the grill.

A Call to Tomatoes

Chef Josh Silvers, owner of Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa, warms up the crowd as the guest chefs crank up their grills and ovens.  Silvers also gives instructions to a panel of judges, all food professionals, who will decide who is Top Chef of the Tomato Kingdom.

Celebrity Chef

Chef Brooke Williamson won’t say if her hair coloring pays homage to the purple Cherokee tomato, but she did wow last evening’s dinner audience with her tomato-topped summer corn spoon bread. Can the LA-based chef/owner repeat today?

The Last Drop

Meanwhile, winemaker Ullom is everywhere.  Now working as Kendall-Jackson brand ambassador and spokesperson, Ullom is grilled by local media, and he crushes that tomato, getting the last drop of publicity as festival No. 20 slowly simmers to a close.