Attendance dropped precipitously at the annual Sonoma County Harvest Fair this weekend following controversial changes intended to save the money-losing event, but organizers vowed to continue the festival again next year.
Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi said the decline in attendance was the natural result of organizers' decision to create a new format for the three-day event, which ended Sunday.
"I think it's really just growing pains," Tesconi said Monday. "It's going to take people time to get used to the experience."
Overall, about 7,400 people attended the fair over the weekend, she said, down from about 20,000 last year.
About 3,200 this year purchased the $50-per-person ticket to the unlimited tasting pavilion, offering wine, food, beer and cider. That was about 1,500 fewer paid attendees than Tesconi and her staff had projected.
Last year, 13,000 paid the $10-per-ticket general admission price. Despite the higher attendance, last year's fair lost about $30,000.
"If we wanted to continue with the old format we had in the past, we would have to find a way to finance that," Tesconi said.
It's too early to tell how this year's fair fared financially, but the tasting pavilion tickets generated about $156,000 and Tesconi is hoping the event at least broke even.
Gone this year were many of the traditional elements of the four-decade-old Harvest Fair, including exhibits of livestock and antique farm machinery. Most child-oriented attractions were removed, and the judging for produce and homemade products such as jams and jellies was folded into the Sonoma County Fair over the summer.
Tesconi said people in the tasting pavilion expressed pleasure at the event, but she acknowledged the howls of protest that accompanied the other changes at the fair. The fair simply had to bow to financial reality.
"To bring back the attractions that everybody traditionally enjoyed at Harvest Fair would probably drive the ticket price to a point where people couldn't afford to attend," she said.
Longtime fairgoers expressed shock at the changes in content and atmosphere.
"The whole community of people who got involved was wiped out; it's gone," said Terri Lynn French, who has been competing in the annual grape stomping competition for six years and has been a frequent contestant in the garden and home cooking competitions for a decade. "Now it's all just about the winemakers and chefs of Sonoma County. I think it sucks."
She vowed never to attend the event again. She was particularly bitter about sharp demarcation between attractions for the general public and those able to afford the tasting pavilion tickets.
"It made you feel like an outsider if you didn't have the $50 to go in this building," she said. "It was like being in prison."
Chris Clifton of Santa Rosa was less strident, but he too expressed disappointment, saying he had fond memories of the antique farm equipment exhibits of bygone fairs. He and about 10 friends and relatives attended the fair this year and found little to draw them back.
"It just didn't feel like a harvest fair," he said. "It felt like a wine expo."
Indeed, the name itself might be a problem, Tesconi said. The annual professional wine competition and awards dinner is a popular part of Harvest Fair and it will continue next year, she said, but it may become necessary to change the name to avoid disappointing people who are expecting a traditional harvest fair.