This past Saturday, over 250 Sonomans and out of towners attended the annual VinOlivo Grand Tasting at the Lodge. The event showcased over 60 Sonoma Valley wineries and food purveyors all under one tent (and another room with just sparkling wine). I had never attended the event before. Like many locals who move here for the food and drink, I’ve visited many of the wineries and restaurants showcased at the event. I also like a more laid back, less bangin’ party-like atmosphere at my old age of 34. But, this year I did it – with the encouragement of attending friends and something a wine geek on a budget can’t resist: a chance to try wines you usually only come by if you can afford a fancy appointment only tasting fee.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Sonoma Councilwoman Laurie Gallian, who was welcoming guests. She is truly the councilwoman around town! We entered the bubbly lounge and were given engraved wine glasses (yes, another one of those “when guests I don’t trust with my crystal come over they get one of these” glasses to take home) and off we went, tasting sparkling wines from a variety of local wineries. The highlight in this room was the legendary Gloria Ferrer – the staff serving at the party were on top of it – friendly, energetic and happy to give me an extra topping off of the always delicious Royal Cuvee. We paired it with a delicious ossobuco small plate prepared by Carneros Bistro. I could have eaten one giant bowl of the polenta with the au jus just by itself. The bubbly lounge can’t top the bubble lounge at Buena Vista, but, had some comfortable couches in the middle for lounging. I also heard rumors of a french fry bar making an appearance, which did not come to fruition. But damn, that polenta was delicious.
We made our way into the “big tent,” where the majority of wine and food was located. Upon entering the tent, it hit us: steamy heat. Ok, so that day had been one of the warmest of the year so far, with temperatures in the high 70s and the evenings warm enough where you can sit outside without a winter coat. Which means, the usually expected chilly evenings screwed up the gameplan for party planners and we were faced with no air conditioning, a lot of hot sweaty people, and LOTS OF RED WINE. One restauranteur, described the temperature in the room to me as “menopausal”. It was one big hot flash.
Our group instantly claimed a high top table in one corner of the room. Wineries appeared to be alphabetically placed around the room with food dispersed randomly. We came up with a game plan: we’d primarily drink white wine, maybe taste a few reds (but it’s so damn hot, ugh) and try as much food as possible. Here are my highlights for wine, aside from Gloria Ferrer’s Royal Cuvee:
Auteur Wines poured a Chardonny and a Pinot Noir that were absolutely divine. They have a small tasting room just off the Square that is appointment only. I had never had their wine, but, the previous day Brian Kulich, wine director at Oso, had mentioned them to me, so I was excited to see them at VinOlivo. The folks were really friendly and they poured the best “pours” (aka the most wine) out of any of the other tables. We went back for seconds. I saw sommelier Christopher Sawyer after the event and he confirmed it – Auteur was also the big highlight for him, too. auteurwines.com
Corner 103 did their first big public tasting of three reds: a Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and (I think) a Merlot. Their Pinot was easy to drink with just the right amount of fruitiness, and was made even more enjoyable by the good vibes emanated by owner Lloyd Davis and his staff. Corner 103 should open up later this spring. corner103.com
The two additional food highlights, aside from Carneros Bistro’s ossobuco, were both vegetarian:
Wild Thyme Garden and Events prepared a salad with shredded carrots, radishes, greens and a vinaigrette. The veggies were plucked from Wild Thyme’s organic garden that day. It was refreshing and was one of the freshest tasting things I had eaten in long time. wildthymeevents.com
The Red Grape served a simple gnocchi with tomato sauce and mozzarella. It was great tomato sauce, with the right amount of acidity and flavor. Our group described the gnocchi as “perfect fluffy potato pasta pillows”. Once more, the Red Grape is full of surprises. theredgrape.com
VinOlivo did succeed at key party components: good energy, good people watching, and lots of things to eat/drink. There weren’t as many people at the event as I expected, or perhaps the two rooms provided ample space for mingling without always bumping into someone. One thing Sonoma is always good at: keeping a positive vibe even amongst an unexpected hot “summer” night and slightly grumpy event attendees due to the heat – the majority of winemakers and chefs were serving their products with smiles and VinOlivo catering staff were on top of their game – cleaning up messes made, distributing water, and always friendly. Overall, the event is well worth the $75 price to try some interesting and unique wines that are off the beaten path than the usual wine-tasting tour. You can mix and mingle with winemakers, owners and chefs and not fight too much for their attention. Just wear something light and airy, stay hydrated and most importantly, have fun.
The Grand Tasting was one component of an annual series of weekend events produced by Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance that included winery tours, barrel tastings, and an online auction, the latter which runs until March 31 and all proceeds benefit the Alliance.