Sonoma County Wine Auction kicks off with party at Paradise Ridge Winery

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Three walls and a rocky foundation is the skeleton that remains of Paradise Ridge Winery’s Tasting Room and Events Center. The devastating firestorm of 2017 that raged through Sonoma County did not spare this mecca of food, wine and art. But the Sonoma County winery, this beloved hub of culture, is resilient in its revelry.

The winery is hosting the Sept. 20 kickoff of the Sonoma County Wine Auction with the “Best Party Ever,” showcasing Paradise Ridge as the poster child for the county’s rebirth.

“We’re a survivor and Sonoma County is a survivor, but we’re coming back bigger and better,” said winery co-owner Sonia Byck-Barwick. “We’re not just healing, but we’re coming back a stronger community.”

The theme of renewal will pervade all the weekend’s events, with the highpoint of the rollout Saturday’s live auction at La Crema at Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. The ticket price, $2,500 per person, covers the entire package of events, including Friday night’s vintner dinners.

At the Best Party Ever, guests will get a glimpse of the live lots to be auctioned off on Saturday. They’ll also witness the whimsy of the revival theme when they hear a Baptist choir singing gospel music, but Motown will quickly take center stage. The band — Big Swing & the Ball Room Blasters — is expected to keep the dance floor busy.

“We want to be a factor in the revival of Sonoma County post fire,” said Honorary Chair George Hamel Jr., the co-vintner of Sonoma’s Hamel Family Wines. “The idea was to kick off the weekend in this emotional place, but to make it lively, the best party ever.”

Organizers expect to draw 200 to 300 people to the party, inviting some who lost their homes in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park, as well as some first responders. The party will be at the amphitheater on the 155-acre property, about a half a mile from the events center.

While the wildfires sidestepped most of the wineries in Sonoma County, Paradise Ridge took a direct hit. In addition to the tasting room and events center, a wine-making building, three homes and several outbuildings burnt to the ground. But the winery is beginning to rebuild this month, with plans to open its tasting room and events center in October of 2019. The goal is to precede that opening by relaunching the “Wine & Sunsets” event on Wednesday nights next summer in the amphitheater. There will be bevy of food trucks and Paradise Ridge wine available for tasting.

The winery is best known as a gathering place for everything under the sun — weddings, poetry readings and art exhibits as well as tours and tastings.

“Being active in the community means even more to us today, after the fires, than it has in the past,” Byck-Barwick said.

The co-vintner said the new events center will look similar to the former one in order to inspire a homecoming of sorts.

“The idea is to pay tribute to the building that was and also give people the sense of coming home,” she said. “So many people got married there, and they have wonderful memories.”

Right now, the Marijke’s Grove 3-acre sculpture garden as well as the two-story tall LOVE sculpture and the Temple of Remembrance, is open to the public on weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 28.

“Sonoma County only lost one winery in all the devastation,” Hamel Jr. said, “And we’re letting the world know it’s open for business.”

The pervasive goal of this year’s auction, Hamel Jr. said, is to help the county recover from last year’s firestorm.

“In order to do that,” he said, “we need to raise more money than we ever have.”

With the goal of surpassing last year’s fundraising take of $5.2 million, the vintners have made fire relief the focus of the vintners’ Fund-the-Future efforts.

Last year the auction raised $1.8 million for Fund-the-Future, which targeted literacy programs in Sonoma County. The literacy campaign began in 2013 with a five-year commitment, now extended through 2020.

Hamel Jr. said the Sonoma County Vintners will continue to honor its commitment to the literacy campaign with money raised through the auction’s general fund and from funds raised in prior years. But, he said, they can’t leave those who continue to struggle with housing stranded.

Sonoma County lost 5,283 homes during last year’s wildfires, and this year the vintners have a specific focus on affordable housing. The money raised during the auction’s Fund-the-Future offering will be distributed through the Emergency Relief Fund of the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation.

“The next headlines will direct people’s attention elsewhere,” Hamel Jr. said. “People who were moved to give money when the fires were blazing have since gone back to their lives.

“But now is the time for us to show that as a community, we’re going to recover and thrive.”

The auction, Hamel Jr. said, had humble beginnings as a harvest party for vintners to break bread. The first incarnation — the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction — dates back to 1993. But during the past four or five years, he added, the auction has transformed into something more far reaching.

“I want to honor those who have really changed the trajectory of the auction to be world class,” he said. “It’s now mentioned in the same breath as Auction Napa Valley and Naples Winter Wine Fest.”

In 2020, Napa will hit its 40-year milestone while Naples will celebrate its 20th auction.

“Napa and Naples are well ahead of us, but the format is the same,” Hamel Jr. said. “We have a small team running our auction like a smart startup, putting in place some things we’ve never done.”

One idea, borrowed from the Naples auction, is to name “trustees” — generous individuals — and ask them to make a three-year commitment to host vintner dinners in order to give smaller wineries more opportunity to showcase their wines.

“I have a universe of people to ask,” Hamel Jr. said. “Barbara Banke has a universe and Dan Kosta does too … We may catch Napa or Naples. We’re like a hot IPO or growth company, and we don’t know what our top level will be.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or

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