In The Big Heart Of Big Sur 5 min read

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. -Dalai Lama


The first weekend of every November, the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival serves up an extraordinary hedonistic experience against the jaw-dropping backdrop of California’s most stunning coastline. The event is a three-day affair that offers a mosaic of wine seminars, walk-around tastings, luncheons, dinners and late-night parties.


I have been coming to the event for the last six years. The venues change and the participating wineries and chefs vary. However, what never changes, is the generosity that permeates every aspect of this wine and culinary affaire de coeur.


The Big Sur Food & Wine Festival was founded in 2009 by Toby-Rowland Jones. Toby’s background in wine management consulting and ongoing contributions to a number of high-profile wine and food events, supplied the perfect level of expertise to create an event that celebrates his community. A core group of team members, along with countless volunteers, produce this culinary and wine extravaganza.


Candy Cap Mushroom Crème Brulee

The primary mission of the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival is to raise funds for local nonprofit organizations. Focusing on education, arts, health and safety, this year’s beneficiaries included Big Sur Charter School, Big Sur Health Center, and Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade.


The Big Sur Food and Wine Festival always kicks off with the coveted “Gateway to Big Sur” event at the Hyatt – Carmel Highlands. It features over fifty wineries and two dozen local celebrity chefs, cooking their behinds off to please the most discerning palates. My highlights included a candy cap mushroom crème brulee and a foie gras hot dog.


magical mystery tour

A stunning view from the Magical Mystery Tour

One of the most unique experiences offered was the “Magical Mystery Tour.” Guests tour some of the most beautiful and fascinating homes in Big Sur. At each home, a chef and a winemaker dazzle visitors with gourmet bites and delicious wine. This perennially popular event is often the first to sell out. This year the stops included a gorgeous house adjacent to the majestic Ventana resort, and a whimsical home that is constructed entirely out of wine barrels. Another favorite stop was an exquisite residence with sweeping views of Big Sur’s coastline, where Paul Draper, legendary Ridge Winery founder, was pouring his gorgeous, ultra sophisticated Chardonnay along with his famous reds.


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Attendees take in Big Sur’s breathtaking landscape.

Many guests opted for “Hiking with Stemware” in breathtaking Rancho Rico, a 200 acre private ranch that features panoramic views stretching from the majestic Ventana Mountains, down the Big Sur coastline, all the way to Morro Rock. Attendees enjoyed a leisurely hike paired with various wines and delicious bites. The event culminated in a sit down dinner prepared by Les Dames de Escoffier, a philanthropic society of professional women leaders in the fields of food, fine beverage and hospitality.


One of my favorites was “Wine and Swine,” held at Henry Miller Library. Local and guest chefs launch a full-on swine soirée featuring an abundance of great wine.


Wine lovers flocked to the “Dinner with Friends” event. It’s a Paulée-style gathering, where guests are encouraged to bring a bottle or two to share. I’m constantly amazed by the generosity shown by wine lovers who often seem pleased to share their favorites with complete strangers!


This year, the Grand Tasting took place at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The event featured over fifty wineries and twenty chefs. The intimate park setting served to accentuate this bacchanalia.


Chef highlights:


  • Brandon Miller – Mundaka
  • Cal Stamenov & Ben Spungin – Bernardus
  • Domingo Santamaria – Deetjen’s
  • Jason Balestrieri – Cantinetta Luca
  • John Cox – Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn
  • Justin Cogley – Auberge du Carmel
  • Phillip Burrus – Esalen Institute


Wine standouts:


  • August West
  • Brewer Clifton
  • Copain
  • Fink Family Vineyards
  • Foxen
  • Lioco
  • Liquid Farm
  • Paul Lato
  • Paso Cab Collective
  • Pisoni
  • ROAR
  • Shared Notes
  • Sillix
  • Talley Vineyards
  • Wedell Cellars


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Paul Lato

Several Big Sur venues traditionally host winemaker dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings. This year, my winemaking obsession, Paul Lato, hosted a winemaker dinner at Esalen Institute, a retreat which focuses upon humanistic alternative education. It is a place known for its holistic and meditative practices. I have been Big Sur Wine Food 2014 2450enamored with Paul Lato and his wines for a decade. Part winemaker andpart philosopher, Paul’s wines are symphonies in a bottle. It was a truly memorable evening. The dinner featured wines from Paul Lato portfolio, including a brand new dessert wine.


Our dinner started with Paul’s Manga Girl Rose and continued with East of Eden Chardonnay that blew my socks off. The perennially sublime and cerebral Duende Pinot Noir was a highlight.  Then came Grenache and Syrah, great accompaniment to Phillip Burrus’ garden inspired menu. The debut of Last Kiss Late Harvest Syrah was a beautifully written Ode to the Grape.


What better way to spend a weekend away than in a company of world-class chefs and vintners in the middle of coastal paradise? Many guests make the annual pilgrimage, having fallen in love with Big Sur and Toby’s fantastic event. There is a valid reason for that. An event that ignites the heart, engages the mind and provides a party for the senses!


My calendar for that weekend is permanently blocked. For as long as Toby Rowland-Jones orchestrates this extraordinary event, I will happily show up. I suggest you do too.

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

  • Jeffrey Saragoza

    Sounds like an Exstravganza? Such a beautiful event and I see former buyers also?! Thank you for the tweet and I look forward to see this Event next year?!!

    December 15, 2014 at 5:41 pm

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