"Like human beings, a wine’s taste is going to depend a great deal on its origins and its upbringing"
Thousands of happy human beings were intent on getting to know the origins and upbringing of world class wines from Sonoma County's 16 Appellations (divided into distinctive regional tents) during the 9th Annual Sonoma Wine Weekend festivities and tastings at MacMurray Ranch in the heart of the Russian River.
I really can't think of a more stunning place to be for a tasting of this scale and magnitude. Even with the crowds, this beautiful heritage estate never fails to charm and evoke a sense of an afternoon's escape from the rest of the world.
South-County-based (air conditioned) Pure Luxury Transportation shuttle wine and food lovers around the county in style. Driving deep into the redwoods with thousands of other event-goers would be a logistical nightmare without these swish shuttle buses traversing makeshift parking lots tucked in amongst groves of giant trees.
Though I do love to people watch and fashion spot at Taste of Sonoma, the scene is increasingly more wine country casual each year. As many attendees are return fans, those in the know are not to be found stumbling around this rustic setting in heels and haute couture. Foodie-slogan t-shirts are popular, hats, too.
You might be tempted to try to taste everything coming your way, but take it from me, it's a lot more enjoyable if you pick and choose from hundreds of pours and bite-size food samples from the county's long established and emerging winemakers and chefs. If you love Pinot Noir, narrow your range and compare. Chardonnay float your boat? Stick with one or two favorite varietals and hydrate with plenty of chilled water available in abundance throughout.
The Paella Guy from Castaneda's Marketplace drew long lines for return tastes of this crowd pleaser.
Sonoma Stars on Stage — Chef Mark Stark of Stark Reality Restaurants (Willi's Wine Bar, Monti's, Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar, Starks Steak and Seafood, Bravas and coming soon — Bird & The Bottle) was last SoCo superstar chef of the day to take the stage, demonstrating how to whip up a batch of Pickled Fresh Gulf Prawns with Kimchee 1000 Island & Buttered Saltines. Pourers paired MacMurray Estate Vineyards Chardonnay with those of us lucky enough to have grabbed a pew for this one.
James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur semi-finalists Mark and his wife and business partner Terri Stark were Honorary Culinary Chairs for Taste of Sonoma 2105. Mark's a blast on stage and its no surprise that his restaurants are so fantastic. Passionate, fun and super down to earth, he and Terri's partnership's enjoying unmatched success on the Sonoma County food scene. From opening their first venture, Willi’s Wine Bar in 2002, to their most recent, Bravas in 2012, this dynamic duo's restaurants consistently earn top accolades and praise including San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Bay Area Restaurant status (Willi’s Wine Bar and Bravas), Michelin Bib Gourmand (Monti’s, Willi’s Wine Bar) and Travel + Leisure Top 20 US Tapas Restaurants (Bravas).
"Aim high and fall far rather than ever being mediocre when it comes to cooking," Mark told a captivated crowd. About to train 36 new cooks, his method, he shared, is: "to make sure every part of the food prep and cooking process is sexy. Good cooking doesn't have to be hard, it needs to be right".
Top tip from Mark, when poaching shrimp or other seafood, "It comes from salt water, so put it back in salt water where it will feel at home". All the seasoning needed in a pot of boiling water is a pinch of Old Bay, a Baltimore-made classic. "If you're cooking with really good ingredients, you don't need too many flavorings or sauces," he said. "Sauces were developed to cover bad meat". Shock the seafood to keep color and texture, cooking "to the point" and no more.
Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer says, “What sets Mark and Terri Stark apart from many restaurateurs who have multiple locations is that each location is different. If their names weren't written on the menu, in fact, you probably wouldn't know it was one of their properties" Willi's is one of the lauded critic's favorite casual stops in Sonoma County.
Mark is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He honed his professional cooking skills in Washington, DC and Seattle. Terri majored in hospitality at the University of Oregon and had a successful catering and restaurant management career in the Bay Area. Mark and Terri met while working for the California Café Restaurant Group in Palo Alto: he as a regional chef and she as manager of the catering department. They married in 1999, heading for Sonoma County, where Terri has four generations of family.
Chefs Serve, the winemakers Pour and the proceeds matter! Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, presented by Visa Signature®, is Sonoma County’s leading fundraising event, and host to one of the nation’s top three charitable wine auctions, as named by Wine Spectator magazine. 2015 marks the 9th annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend and includes three flagship events: Sonoma Starlight — poolside at the iconic Francis Ford Coppola Winery, an opening evening of world-class wines, delicious cuisine, live music, and dancing, Taste of Sonoma at MacMurray Ranch and last, certainly not least, The 2015 Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean, which raised a new record of $4.5 million for local students, children, farm workers and people in need. Intimate winery lunches, winemaker dinners and barbecues were also on the Labor Day Weekend agenda for wine lovers who travel into Sonoma County from around the world for this special annual event.
Fund the Future, one of the most important auction lots, supporting children’s literacy, raised over $1.9 million this year. The leadership and work of Honorary Co-Chairs Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane of Benovia Winery, and Jean-Charles-Boisset of Buena Vista Winery/DeLoach Vineyards, inspired the community and the crowd under the tent to contribute generously to this vital initiative.
For a more detailed peek into this most popular of annual tasting events in Sonoma County, click here.
Take my advice and make a note to self for 2016's 10th Anniversary event. Show that you're a Sonoma County resident for limited local tickets.
Lots of familiar faces and this one, my friend Dave of Sonoma Brinery, was still smiling after being on his feet in the Alexander Valley tent for eight hours! Dave and crew's thousands of little sandwiches with fresh, handmade pickles and sauerkraut were snapped up by appreciative attendees.
Great to see fellow Southern SoCo pal, Sommelier to the Stars, Christopher Sawyer (left) — about to conduct a class on pairing wine varietals with the right Stolzle wine glass.
Tom Kavanaugh (below left) and (Petaluman) Tyler Young (below right) of The Idea Cooperative make the branding of this great big event look so good!
Fall is in the air and with it comes a renewed energy that peps up life in sleepy Petaluma! I love to hear about new cultural enterprises and Petaluma Shakespeare Festival sounds very promising indeed.
Brainchild of a clever coupling between Petaluma Readers Theatre and Bay Area Readers Drama Society (B.A.R.D.S.), in collaboration with Aqus Community, Petaluma Shakespeare Company's inaugural production kicks off on Friday, September 18th, 2015 and runs weekends through October 3rd.
Outdoor Shakespeare productions are popular in California and Oregon and Petaluma Shakespeare Company's first rendition of "Taming of the Shrew" is no exception, staged by a most enthusiastic team of seasoned theatricals who have managed to fundraise enough money to get this ambitious first show off the ground.
Do make provisions to bring along a super-low fold-out chair (high backed chairs block the vision of other attendees and are prohibited), pack layers and lots of warm blankets (remember, this is Petaluma and after the sun goes down, it does get rather chilly, especially on foggy evenings).
There are several afternoon productions during the run if you prefer your Shakespeare in the daylight. Food and other refreshments will be available.
Tickets range in price to $30 for the gala opening night on Friday, September 18th. Click here for tix.
For more info on this increasingly popular pure food fair click here: http://theheirloomexpo.com/
If you could stop history in its tracks, would you?
The folks at Downton Abbey are marching on into a modern age of the mid 1920s in the upcoming 6th and final season. Theirs is an age of enlightenment, independence and a radical streamlining of the grand old homes of the landed gentry. We know what's next for them in the history books, but they don't and that's the beauty of life, after all.
Our favorite characters reconvene for one last season, airing from September 20th, 2015 in the UK, January 3rd, 2016 here in the States. I'm not sure I will be able to resist checking in for teasers from avid watching family members over the pond, but I promise not to share!Masterpiece Theater fans — look out for a promising new series airing Sunday, September 6th, 2015. "Arthur and George" stars Doc Martin favorite Martin Clunes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Edith of Downton's departed Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) as his secretary Woodie. I caught the first episode of "Indian Summers" with one of my all-time top stars, Julie Walters on my recent flight back from the UK. I'm looking forward to the series premiering on Masterpiece on September 27th, 2015.
Greet the approach of fall with Sondra Bernstein, founder of Sonoma's acclaimed the girl & the fig restaurant, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10th, 2015, at Fresh Starts Chef Events in Novato.
Along with Executive Chef and Managing Partner John Toulze, Chef Sondra will demonstrate a menu to showcase the Provençal style that defines the restaurant. The menu:
Heirloom Tomato & Watermelon Salad with Feta Cheese & Champagne Vinaigrette
Sauteed Padrón Peppers with Herbed Bread Crumbs
Provençale Petrale Sole with Red Pepper, Fennel & Olives
Black Mission Fig Clafouti
Chef Sondra opened the girl & the fig in 1997 in Glen Ellen, drawing praise from The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Wine Spectator magazines, the Michelin Guide and more. She and her partner also operate the fig cafe & winebar in Glen Ellen.
Other projects include two cookbooks, the FIGfood line of gourmet products and Suite D, a pop-up dining and event space.
Tickets cost $60, including dinner; wine will be offered by glass or bottle. For more information or registration, please see Fresh Starts Chef Events online or call 415-382-3363 x243.
The event takes place in the showcase kitchen at The Key Room, 1385 N. Hamilton Parkway, in Novato. All proceeds benefit shelter and job-training programs at Homeward Bound of Marin.
How many times have you driven through the tiny, unincorporated, landlocked town of Bodega, located six miles inland from the bay of the same name ? Chances are you've passed by its thoroughly unadorned Casino Bar and Grill without so much as a second glance?
On my radar a while now, I'd heard nothing but appetizing reports of this unpretentious watering hole's small menu farm and ocean fresh, local food offerings.
The glamper girlfriends have been and continue to be all over the map this summer. A birthday on a rare weeknight when we were all home in Sonoma County motivated a mini road-trip for a simple supper, way out west to Alfred Hitchcock's infamous bird land.
Photo — Lesley McCullaugh
Photo — Lesley McCullaugh
First thing I wanted to know is why this scruffy (from the outside) little drinking hall down the hill from Saint Theresa of Avila Church has long-time deemed itself "The Casino"? Gambling mecca of a Northern California town of 200, or really, more of a community gathering place?
It all started to make sense when I learned the 1939 pool hall and tavern's early owner, one Nebo Casini was simply having a little optimistic play on words.
The tavern was, in fact, built as Goodman's General Mercantile in 1874. Taxidermy galore adorns its redwood interior.
We ordered Padron peppers, flatbread and salads from chefs Holly and Tali's hand written daily menu and purchased a bottle of wine at the bar. The Casino's dining area is through double doors from the main tavern and leads out to a side patio for summer weekend overflow, barbecues and likely lots of oyster shucking.
Vases of fresh flowers picked from someone's backyard adorned scrubbed, wooden tables and an old piano. No one batted an eyelid at our figuring out the lay of the land in ordering and we were duly impressed with the freshness and tastiness of our pepper starter and big, white bowls of delicious seafood salads.
Different local chefs take on various days of the week to cook in the Casino's kitchen. It's all very casual, home-cooked dinner style, but much better than you'd expect to find at the few other remote bars around the county. I gather that there's become a west country cool cache for cooking on the roster in this unique little spot.
According to the Casino's website: "As history has it, he (Nebo) actually put some slot machines in the back room. In 1949, he sold the Casino to his brother Art Casini and his wife, Evelyn. For more than 70 years now, the bar has remained in the Casini family".
The Casino is currently operated by Greg and Elizabeth Schimpf, but Evelyn Casini herself still tends the bar on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as she has for more than six decades....Over the years, the Casino has been the site of weddings, birthday parties, memorial celebrations, informal town meetings, and provided a warm haven during winter power outages".
Weekends and holidays are busiest times at the Casino, in part due to a free shuttle service from Bodega Bay ( 707-876-3185), seasonal menu and live music.
Our generous Seafood Cobb salads, topped with healthy portions of fresh, grilled salmon and jumbo shrimp, avo, sungolds and egg with housemade green goddess dressing were super tasty and great value at $15 a dish. Also on the menu was cauliflower with sausage, capers & manchego, zucchini with sungolds, basil, manchego, thin cut pork chop Milanese with arugula, sungolds and lemon and a chocolate pudding pie.
Thumbs up for the Casino. If you're going for the gambling, though, you're out of luck, except for a small electronic card machine I spotted on the far corner of the bar. A little, old lady had the monopoly on it by the looks of it — she looked very much at home.
The Casino is located at 17000 Bodega Highway.