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Foodies love a chef on deadline, especially one with a grocery bag full of unknown ingredients and a ticking stopwatch.

At the sold-out Taste of Sonoma on Saturday, 2,500 people — the same as last year — gathered at Healdsburg's MacMurray Ranch to sip and graze with organizers intent on showcasing the county as a hotbed of artisan food and wine. The breezy weather made even heavier fare such as lamb sliders and cabernet a hit with tasters who elbowed their way in line.

In the final countdown round of the Sonoma Steel Chef competition, the mirrors above the demonstration kitchen showed the chefs chopping, sauteing and grilling, with smoke rising.

The face-off was between Tom Schmidt of John Ash & Co.'s Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa and Christopher Greenwald of Bay Laurel Culinary in Petaluma. They had 20 minutes to cook tasty dishes to pair with the MacMurray Ranch 2011 Russian River Sonoma County Pinot Noir. Their grocery bag had these ingredients: beef tri-tip, Pacific king salmon, kale, baby leeks, fingerling potatoes and lettuce.

Greenwald was the champ, and he said it was challenging to "think on your feet under pressure," but his job calls for it so he has plenty of practice. "When I'm at the farmers market, I'm always writing menus in my head."

Tom Siragusa of Petaluma said he was intrigued by round three. "I'm a competitive person and I like to see people under pressure," he said. "It's like a sports competition."

Competitive cooking was just one of the day's offerings. Others included blind tastings, wine talks, and, for casual enthusiasts, conventional tasting. There was a meandering spread of tents filled with wines organized by appellation, and many of the wines were paired with food. For example, in the Russian River Valley tent, the Benovia 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir was paired with salmon tartare from Nick's Cove in Marshall. The chef, Austin Perkins, was on hand to point out why the fatty salmon played off the pinot's bright acid.

As for the wine talks, Ruma Paskins of Louisville, Ky., was looking forward to "Classic Chardonnays of Sonoma Valley."

"I'm not a big red drinker," Paskins said. "I like chardonnays and I want to hear what the winemakers have to say about their wines."

Not far away, a group of 12 sat at a picnic table learning how to decode wine in a blind tasting with the help of sommelier Christopher Bates. Bates doubles as executive chef of Hotel Fauchere in Milford, Pa.

"Blind tastings can help you learn how to describe wines better so you'll have an easier time ordering what you like at a restaurant," he said.

Bates had the group taste wine from four bagged bottles, analyzing aspects from color to fruit to oak.

The Taste of Sonoma drew food and wine lovers from all over the country. Mike and Laurie Pastrick from Charlotte, N.C., were among visitors who paid between $115 and $165 for tickets.

The Pastricks were sipping the Kendall Jackson 2009 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that was paired with lamb sliders and tomato jam.

"We're big fans of Alexander Valley and particularly Alexander Valley cabernet," Mike Pastrick said. "For us, the important thing is price point. We're willing to pay premium for the right taste, but dollar for dollar, we like Sonoma in general."

The Pastricks plan to spend a few more days in Sonoma County, with their eye on Alexander Valley.

"You usually don't need appointments in Sonoma County to taste wine," Mike Pastrick said. "This is a big draw ... here you can literally go up Highway 101 and let your adventure begin, which is really appealing to those of us out of the area."

For tourists and locals alike, the three-day, sixth annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend concludes today. Bidders will gather this afternoon at Chateau St. Jean for the final event, the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction.

(Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.)