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Sonoma Wine Country Weekend launches its weekend of events this Friday with a trio of honorees in the spotlight: Phil Coturri, owner of Sonoma's Enterprise Vineyards, is the honorary winegrower chair; the Gallo family with its E & J Gallo Winery arm in Healdsburg is the honorary vintner chair; and Sondra Bernstein, owner of Sonoma's Girl & the Fig, is the honorary culinary chair.

The honorees are chosen because of their commitment to their craft and their community leadership.

<strong>SONDRA BERNSTEIN, The Girl & The Fig</strong>

Get ready to fly down to Rio, as the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend breaks out the samba drums and feathers for a vibrant, Brazil-themed benefit auction dinner this Sunday.

Heading up the team of chefs at this year's event is Sonoma Valley restaurateur Sondra Bernstein, a visionary chosen as the weekend's Honorary Culinary Chair due to her innovation and long-time commitment to the region.

"Sondra has been a leader when it comes to using local ingredients and partnering with local wineries to use produce from the garden," said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, which hosts the benefit event in partnership with the Sonoma County Vintners.

Over the past two decades or so, Bernstein has nurtured a thriving food business anchored by her flagship Sonoma restaurant, The Girl & The Fig, known for its French-inspired country cuisine and wine list of mostly Rhone varietals.

With help from her executive chef John Toulze, Bernstein's expanding "Fig" empire now includes two restaurants and a catering company plus a sharecropped farm at Imagery Estate Winery that produces vegetables for all three.

Along the way, the entrepreneur launched a line of gourmet condiments and wrote two cookbooks: "The Girl & The Fig Cookbook" in 2004 and, in 2011, "Plats du Jour," which honors the region's food purveyors.

Plus, Toulze and Bernstein have put in many years with the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, touted as "the region's largest and most fun charity event."

In other words, she has done it all.

"She's one of the icons of our food industry, and she's well connected and well respected by the rest of our culinary community," said Honore Comfort, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners. "When she stepped up, all of the other chefs wanted to be part of it."

Bernstein is in charge of planning the elaborate menu for Sunday's gala auction dinner at Chateau St. Jean Winery. For the event, she has recruited a veritable who's who of Sonoma County chefs.

"I think it's a really nice group," she said. "It's a little different from years past."

Among the new chefs this year are John Franchetti of Rosso, Mateo Granados of Mateo's Cocina Latina, Armando Garcia Navarro of El Dorado Kitchen, Ryan Fancher of Barndiva, Dustin Valette of the Dry Creek Kitchen, Jeffrey Lloyd of Cafe La Haye and Ari Weiswasser of the Glen Ellen Star.

The auction dinner will bounce around the "beautiful game" of Brazil's multicultural cuisine, with main courses ranging from Annatto Crusted Alaska Halibut to Beef Gaucho Steak.

Bernstein is especially excited about the Brazilian street food reception on the lawn, where chefs will serve small bites like Olive Oil Guacamole Tacones and Spicy Dungeness Crab Salad with Hearts of Palm.

"All the chefs I talked to really embraced the theme," she said. "We asked them to represent themselves but play off the Brazilian theme."

Toulze will prepare snacks for the tables and serve a palate-cleansing course of papaya, pineapple and cucumber with spicy lime after the dinner.

A dessert reception back on the lawn will provide a sweet finale, including ice cream scooped up by the Glen Ellen Star and La Michoacana ice cream shop.

At the Taste of Sonoma at MacMurray Ranch on Saturday, Bernstein will be signing cookbooks while a raft of local chefs offer some of the best bites in the county to pair with the wines.

Among these are the four chef contestants turning up the heat in the Sonoma Steel Chef Competition: Steve Rose of the Vineyards Inn in Kenwood, Thomas Schmidt of John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa, Chris Greenwald of Bay Laurel Culinary in Petaluma and Tim Bodell of Rustic — Francis' Favorites in Geyserville.

On Friday night, Toulze and Bernstein will provide the spread for the weekend's welcome dinner, "Sonoma Starlight" at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville.

The outdoor dinner, now in its second year, will kick off with a gala wine tasting accompanied by antipasti and charcuterie stations. The rustic feast will continue with three, seasonal salads and a choice of wood-fired pizzas and polentas.

"There will be creamy polenta and polenta cakes, with a Truffle Pesto and Boar Ragu and Grilled Farm Vegetables and Ratatouille," Bernstein said. "A huge amount of vegetables for that weekend will come out of the farm."

As entrees, Toulze will roast up some Wood Fired Chicken over Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Pork Tenderloins over Wilted Greens.

As the stars come out, guests will graze through signature "Fig" bites such as Lemon and Fig Crisps, Brownies and Banana Nutella pizzas.

"I love what we do, and that we're here in Sonoma," Bernstein said. "I think we're really lucky that we get to do all this."

— Diane Peterson

<strong>PHIL COTURRI, Enterprise Vineyards</strong>

Phil Coturri has defiant hair, a pony tail in back and a thick beard with a trace of gray in it.

The 60-year old organic grape grower is a stocky, rugged man, so it's surprising to see him tear up.

Coturri was talking about "watershed politics" at the time, the philosophy that man is responsible for his watershed, for the twists and turns of rainfall, how it is used and where it winds up.

"I look out on the San Francisco Bay from most of my properties and everything I do will affect a lot of people," Coturri said. "I took responsibility upon myself that I wanted to farm benevolently."

The owner of Sonoma's Enterprise Vineyards will be the grower honoree at the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, beginning Friday.

The grower, in a Grateful Dead t-shirt, khaki shorts and Red Wing brown boots that he's worn for two decades, said he's a bit surprised by the honor.

"I've always sort of been on the outside, being an organic farmer for the last 40 years," he said.

But organic is no longer left of center, and Coturri said his business is busier than ever with 25 clients who own a total of 700 acres.

Sam, Coturri's 30-year-old son, said his father has "coyote magic" in selling organic farming to people, alluding to native American legend.

Phil Coturri said he didn't want to fall prey to producers of Roundup weed killer, so he searched for ways to combat weeds in the vineyard, often resorting to traditional methods of farming like using a hoe.

He sid he grew up on frozen food in the 1950s, but happily jumped ship, joining the foodies, the makers of artisan cheeses and the growers of heirloom tomatoes.

"It was a natural evolution to grow grapes organically," he said. "Winemakers are glorified chefs who cook once a year."

The organic groer said they have a better shot at making good wine with pure ingredients.

As Coturri puts it, "If an organic tomato is going to taste better than a hot-house tomato, an organic grape is going to taste better than a conventionally-grown grape."

— Peg Melnik

<strong>GALLO FAMILY, E & J Gallo Winery</strong>

Ernest and Julio Gallo began buying grapes in Sonoma County in the 1930s because they had a "gut feeling" it had the makings of a world-class wine region.

That's how Matt Gallo sums up the wine giant's intrigue with Sonoma.

The Gallo family will be the vintner honoree at this year's Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, which begins on Friday.

"In the early days of the winery, my grandfather Julio and my great uncle Ernest saw the enormous potential of Sonoma County," said Gallo, who now works at E & J Gallo Winery, the Healdsburg arm of the parent company. "Eighty years later, it is quite an honor for our family to be recognized."

Ernest and Julio Gallo began purchasing grapes from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County in 1934. The family's second generation, led by Joe and Bob Gallo, put down stakes in Sonoma County, purchasing several properties throughout the Russian River Valley, the Dry Creek Valley and the Alexander Valley.

The third generation has even deeper roots in the region, producing wines entirely from Sonoma County grapes. This began in the early 1990s with the inaugural vintage of Gallo Estate Wines, marking the family's entr? into the premium wine business.

Matt Gallo is vice president of Coastal Operations while his sister Gina Gallo is the third-generation winemaker, and she produces the Gallo Signature Series.

Gina Gallo said, "Growing up I used to walk through the vineyards with my grandfather Julio and he really instilled in me a lifelong passion for Sonoma County. Our founders established our family's ties to this region, and all of us who have followed in their footsteps remain deeply connected to Sonoma."

Keeping that connection for future generations is a priority, Matt Gallo said.

"Our family is deeply committed to sustainable farming, so a big focus in the vineyard is making sure we preserve the land ... " he said. "Driving through our vineyards with my kids, I get a poignant reminder of how important it is to respect and care for the land — not only for today but for all the generations to come."

—Peg Melnik

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