Taste of Sonoma returns to Sonoma State University with more music, beer and pizza

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Many of the 1,750 wine and food lovers who attended this year’s Taste of Sonoma Saturday afternoon at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park arrived with a strategy for tasting through the county’s premier wine, beer and culinary festival.

Then there were those who decided they would just wing it, opting to go big or go home.

“I don’t know how I’m going to make it through 132 tastings, but I’m going to try,” said Tricia Gantt of Austin, Texas, after sipping the 2016 Schug Rouge de Noirs Sparkling Pinot Noir Brut. “This is my favorite pour so far.”

While cooling off inside the music center’s lobby, Laura Sixkiller of Phoenix said she and four girlfriends had come with a game plan, but that went out the window as soon as they stepped foot in the sprawling venue, which included a Grand Tasting area and five wine lounges plus a beer garden pouring some of Sonoma County’s best brews.

“We had a list of key wineries, but then you see all these great wines,” she said. “We decided to start with rosé, sparkling and whites, and now we’re going to head into the reds.”

Although the crowd was up from last year’s 1,500 attendees, it was down from the 2,000 who came in 2017. That was the first year it was held at Sonoma State University, when a scorching heat wave topped 114 degrees.

This year, there was more live music — a total of five bands — and more lounges where folks could sit and chill while drinking and eating in the shade. The temperature only hit a high of 90 degrees.

A family who flew in from Texas decided to start the day in the popular Bubble Lounge, where three Gloria Ferrer sparklers were served with cheese and other small bites.

“We’re here for Sonoma,” said mom Carmen Delgado. “We arrived on Wednesday, and we did wineries right away. ... Sonoma County is so Italian, with the rolling hills and the casual feeling.”

Although some attendees said they missed the “vibe” of the former venue — the rustic MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg — others were impressed by the efficiency of the new venue with its ample parking, upscale bathrooms and air-conditioned lobby.

“I love it here at the campus,” said Mayella Heacock of San Diego, who took an Uber to the event from her Calistoga bed-and-breakfast. “It’s warm, but there seems to be a breeze now and then. There are tents and umbrellas and — hello — ice cream.”

For those who wanted to cool off, there were plenty of icy treats, including Three Twins Ice Cream at the entrance and Fiorello sorbet and popsicles served by Cafe Apae in the Visa Signature Lounge.

One of the most sought-after bites of the day was the pork chicharron with hamachi tartare created by Brendalee Vialpando of Drakes Sonoma Coast restaurant in Bodega Bay.

“We want to get our name out there for people who don’t get out to the coast often,” said Vialpando, who was hired three months ago.

A few winemakers attended the event hosted by the Sonoma County Vintners as part of a relaxing Labor Day weekend before harvest begins in earnest this week.

Dan Barwick, winemaker for Paradise Ridge, Trecini Winery and others, said he expects to bring in the estate pinot noir for Paradise Ridge on Thursday. The pinot will be custom crushed in Santa Rosa because the Byck family lost their winery in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

On Saturday, Barwick was pouring the Paradise Ridge 2013 Blanc de Blanc Sparkling, the same bubbly he plans to pour when the winery celebrates its rebirth in late November.

The beer garden, featuring ice-cold beers poured by some of Sonoma County’s best breweries — Russian River, Lagunitas, Seismic and Henhouse — lured attendees in with pizza, reggae music and a cool breeze.

Since Seismic Brewing Co. is owned by Christopher Jackson — the youngest child of Barbara Banke and Jackson Family Wines founder Jess Jackson — it provided a bridge between Sonoma’s celebrated wine culture and its budding beer industry.

In a nod to its Wine Country roots, Seismic Brewing served up four pairings with cheeses sourced from Wm. Cofield Cheesemakers, a neighbor of their new tasting room at The Barlow in Sebastopol.

Kendall-Jackson Winemaster Randy Ullom, who tasted through some Seismic brews, said he hoped to start harvest with the Russian River pinot noir on Tuesday.

“Once we start, we’re going to keep going,” he said. “It’s been a nice year because the weather has been calm, with plenty of water, so the vines are happy.”

Still, winemakers such as Ullom are holding their breath, hoping to avoid the smoky air that has hung over the last two harvest seasons.

Joe Label, guest relations supervisor at Arrowood Winery, said he attended the “Thicker Than Smoke” benefit concert at SSU last August where his original song, “Everything,” was performed.

“It’s kind of neat to be back here for a celebration rather than healing,” he said. “It’s always exciting to be at the start of harvest.”

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

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