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Upcoming events, auction proceeds

This year’s honorary chairwoman of the accompanying Sonoma Wine Country Weekend is Barbara Banke, the chairwoman of the board of Jackson Family Wines, which owns La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in Richard’s Grove. Banke will attend at the Sonoma County Wine Auction on Sept. 16, which was moved this year from Chateau St. Jean Winery in Kenwood to La Crema Estate in Windsor as part of a major revamp.

Auction lots will include a trip to the Kentucky Derby for two couples, a trip to the Telluride Film Festival for two couples and a six-bottle collection of large format Kosta Browne pinot noir.

Last year, the organizers of the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend gave away $3.1 million to charities from a gross of $5.7 million from the weekend.

This year the amount of money raised from both events will be totaled and released by the Sonoma County Vintners after the auction is over.

The Taste of Sonoma charity event made its debut Saturday at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center amid searing afternoon heat, sapping some luster from the star-powered food and wine gathering, where summer outfits and appetites gamely put up with triple-digit temperatures.

About 2,000 guests in shorts and flowing sundresses, cold neck towels and hats endured a day that topped out at 114 degrees by turning to iced coffee, tea and craft beers, along with world-class white and red wines poured by some 165 wineries on the terraced lawn.

The mood remained upbeat, as first-timers and veterans alike relished the opportunity to explore a new venue for the venerable event.

“What I like is that everything seems easy,” said Sharon Morris of San Diego. “And I love that they gave me a (neck) holder for the wine.”

While the venue was fresh this year after the move from the event’s longtime home at MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg, most of the furniture was familiar, from the welcoming Bubble Room featuring Marin Miyagi oysters and sparklers from Gloria Ferrer to wine talks and blind tastings inside the air-conditioned performing arts center.

“We’ve been coming for years,” said Bridget Cunningham of Oakland. “The entry has been seamless, and they’re taking care of us with misters and water stations. New is always fun.”

Skip Gumble of Dallas, returning to the event for the fifth time, said he appreciated the layout and the fact that it still allows visitors to try all the food and wine of Sonoma County in one, central location.

The heat was still a bit shocking. Many guests took advantage of the multiple misting stations provided at the last minute by Sonoma County Vintners, which produces the annual charity event.

For staff and guests out on the lawn, however, there were only blue shade cloths overhead that seemed to create a sauna effect, intensifying the moist, rising heat. Ice packs and wet towels proliferated around the necks of the wine pourers as well as wine bottles.

“We brought ice packs from home, and my dad (Medlock Ames President Jim Connell) brought hats to pass out to guests,” said Alyssa Connell, while manning the Medlock Ames booth. “And we have buckets of ice.”

Over in the Chef’s Pavilion, some of the cooling dishes served included an Heirloom Tomato Salad with Miso Dressing from Ramen Gaijin of Sebastopol and a Ceviche Verde with Mexican Tilapia and Plantain Chips from Sazon Peruvian Cuisine of Santa Rosa.

“I love this event, and I’m cool as a cucumber in here,” said Rosie Wiggins of The Drawing Board of Petaluma, who was serving the new restaurant’s signature smoked carrot lox on crostini.

“This is beautifully orchestrated, and people are loving it,” said head chef Guadalupe Gonzalez of Werowocomoco in Geyserville, while serving up a roasted tomatillo soup. “Honestly, the wind is blowing the mist, and we have this shaded tent, so we’re being pampered.”

The event’s culinary host, Thomas Schmidt, executive chef of John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa, kicked off the hourly cooking demos with a cooling trio of Red Beet Cured Salmon, Watercress and Pickled Beets. With only umbrellas for shade, however, attendance was sparse for the demos set up on a stage in front of Weill Hall.

Meanwhile, inside the lobby of the hall, about 150 guests enjoyed three sets of sold-out wine and food-pairing sessions presented by Kendall-Jackson Executive Chef Justin Wangler, his crew and various winemakers.

“We lucked out big-time,” said Tracy Cenami Shepos, chef of La Crema Estate. “It’s gorgeous in here.”

Susan and Frank Rockwood of Orinda scored a seat at the K-J pairing as part of a Signature Visa package deal that included a Friday reception, two nights at a hotel with breakfast, shuttle service, entry to the Taste of Sonoma and a winemaker dinner on Saturday.

“We’re actually hoping to come again and bring our family,” Susan Rockwood said. “The food is amazing.”

Some attendees lamented the fact that chefs and vintners are no longer found together under appellation tents. But Clay Mauritson, owner and winemaker at Mauritson Family Winery, thought the separation was better for the vintners.

“Two years in a row at MacMurray we had major problems with smoke from a chef cooking next to us,” he said. “Having food in a different area made for cleaner pouring, and this is more equitable without the appellation tents ... pinot noir is having its day in the sun.”

With the heat wave accelerating the pace of the grape harvest, few winemakers were able to tear away from the crush pad to pour their wines at the Club Reserve in Prelude Restaurant, but that didn’t stop VIP ticket holders from enjoying the limited- production wines.

Brian Shapiro, business development manager for Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, was pouring a big bottle of the 2015 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir, made from one of the most famous vineyards in Sonoma County.

“We started harvest on Aug. 21 for chardonnay and pinot,” he said. “We pick pinot on the earlier side, between 22 and 23 brix, to make it more elegant.”

While the vintners didn’t have to worry about cooking smells, there was still some funky odors to contend with: the familiar smell of livestock manure, affectionately known to locals as “Sonoma Aroma,” greeted guests at the gate.

“Everyone has a smile on their face ... and everybody loves a real bathroom,” said volunteer greeter Hope Knauss of Santa Rosa.

A large contingent of SSU officials attended the event and expressed enthusiasm about being able to give the Rohnert Park campus added exposure.

“I’m so excited that we can bring this here to this beautiful venue,” said SSU President Judy Sakaki. “Many people are experiencing it for the first time.”

“The vintners love the venue,” added Bill Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics, who helped spearhead the move to the campus. “It’s roomy and easy to get in and out.”

If the Taste of Sonoma returns to the Green Music Center in future years, organizers hope to showcase the world-class concert hall by presenting a show afterwards. And some suggested that the hall be open during the event itself, with warm-up acts leading up to the headliner.

“It’s so beautiful,” said Wangler, of Kendall-Jackson. “They should show it off.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@dianepete56.

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