North Coast Wine and Food Festival celebrates 7th year

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Taking refuge under the shade of a tree at Rohnert Park’s SOMO Village Event Center Saturday, Santa Rosa resident Tina Sheldon, took a bite of her tuna bhel salad, an Indian street snack, and smiled in contentment.

The green vegetable mixture topped with pieces of albacore tuna and crispy chickpeas, prepared by chef Niven Patel of Santa Rosa’s Bollywood Bar & Clay Oven, seemed to hit the spot.

“It’s bright and cool on such a hot day,” Sheldon, 41, said. “It’s a really interesting mix of flavors.”

The small bite was one of the dozens prepared by 28 of the region’s best chefs for the seventh annual North Coast Wine & Food Festival, an event sponsored by The Press Democrat.

Close to 90 gold-medal winning wines, selected at the newspaper’s North Coast Wine Challenge, a blind tasting competition, were also poured at the event, attended by 1,600 people, many equipped with glasses and hats to deflect the heat.

“We have all these amazing places in our backyard but it’s kind of nice to have them all at one place,” Sheldon said.

Festival visitors moved from one booth to the next, speaking to chefs as they chopped and grilled food, or to winemakers as they poured libations. Plates ranged from griddle-grilled gulf shrimp with cocktail sauce and salsa verde prepared by Healdsburg’s Chalkboard restaurant, to maple syrup or chocolate-glazed donuts by City Garden Doughnuts & Coffee.

Wine selections included a Navarro Vineyards Riesling that earned North Coast Wine Challenge’s Best of Mendocino County, and a 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa County’s Black Stallion Estate Winery, also named best in its area.

Wine tasters lined up at the booth for St. Francis Winery to try a sip of its 2016 Old Vines Zinfandel, Tres Viejos wine, a blended zin from three heritage vineyards.

The wine, which is only sold on-site at the winery’s Kenwood location, took home the Best of the Best award at the North Coast Wine Challenge this year after earning a near-perfect score — 99 out of 100 points. It’s the first zinfandel to claim the title.

“When I was making it, I knew these vineyards were tasting well together but I never knew it would take the top spot,” said St. Francis winemaker Katie Madigan. “It will hopefully give us a little bit more visibility for people to visit the winery and see the special wines we are showing.”

Petaluma couple Bill Lage and Kathy Spaletta said they both agreed the wine was “smooth,” and paired nicely with a braised rabbit dish by chef Krisztian Karkus of Windsor’s Tisza Bistro. The braised rabbit came with a spinach and gruyère spätzle, a traditional pasta found in Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. Saturday was the restaurant’s debut at the festival, and they were in good company.

“There’s a lot of culinary talent here,” Karkus said. “We feel uplifted. We feel recognized by the community.”

Patrons were encouraged to showcase their own culinary flare during a hands-on portion of the event led by author and chef John Ash. Attendees were invited to take their shot at making handmade corn tortillas, with ingredients donated by Santa Rosa’s La Tortilla Factory. They later used the tortillas to assemble their own exotic mushroom street tacos, adding their choice of toppings.

Nearby, attendees learned about Sonoma Family Meal, a nonprofit founded by Press Democrat food writer Heather Irwin that serves chef-made meals for families who lost homes in the 2017 wildfires. A portion of the festival’s profits will go toward the nonprofit.

Saturday’s North Coast Wine & Food Festival was the fourth for Bob Byrd, a 73-year-old resident from Sonoma who said he comes to diversify his wine palate. He subscribes to multiple wine clubs in the area, but the yearly event allows him to try something new.

“I’m trying wines I’m already familiar with, but I want to move up a level,” he said. “Here, we get to see what other people think are award-winning.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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